Two Player Games

The first “holy grail” of board gaming seems to be a good, deep civilization style game that can be played in an evening. Second holy grail? Quality two player games, especially those that will appeal to significant others usually of the female persuasion. These are just five that I enjoy; there are many more great two player games of all sorts. If you’d like more information, these GeekLists at BoardGameGeek are good starting points:

Favorite Two-Player Games
Good two-player games
Multi-player games that are better with two

Lost Cities
(image courtesy Urtur @ BGG)

This is almost always the first game that comes to most gamers minds when you say two player. Lost Cities, by the Good Doctor Reiner Knizia, has players attempting to have the most successful archaeological digs by the end of the game. There are five expeditions (each a different color) and cards of each color numbered one through ten and three handshake cards. On your turn you must first play a card then draw a card. Playing a card means either putting it on an expedition in front of you or discarding it in the middle; drawing a card means drawing from the draw pile or taking the top discarded card from any expedition.

Cards must be played from low to high although you may skip numbers and handshakes must be played before any number cards. So your sequence on the blue expedition could be handshake, 1, 2, 4, 6, 7. In this case you’ll never have a way to play the blue 3 or blue 5 as you’ve skipped past them. At the end of the game you add up the face value of your cards, subtract 20 and multiply by the number of handshakes plus one. Most points wins.

I think Lost Cities is a fantastic two player game. It’s simple, the art is bright and colorful and you’ll be making lots of tough decisions throughout. As you must always play a card before drawing you’ll often end up having to make a sub-optimal play, either skipping a number in sequence or discarding a card your opponent could use. While many consider this the ultimate couples games, I’ve had mixed results in the past. Still, I think it’s worth taking a chance with the game. My only complaint is that it gets a bit mathy when scoring at the end.

Knights of Charlemagne
(photo courtesy Jasonofindy @ BGG)

Another Knizia special, Knights of Charlemagne is sort of a simplified Lost Cities (or more closely a simplified Battle Line). On the table are ten tokens players are fighting over: five numbered 1 to 5 and five in one of five colors. Players are dealt cards that have both a color and a number on it. On your turn you draw a card from the draw pile and play a card in your area on either the matching number or matching color on the board. Play until all cards are used up; at the end the player with the most number of physical cards on a given token earns it. Total up the points on your tokens at the end to see who wins.

There are a couple great things about Knights of Charlemagne. First, it’s incredibly simple, even more so than Lost Cities. Second, it plays 2-4 and I think works well with any number of players so it’s a good option if you have friends over. It doesn’t have quite the depth of other games but it’s fast, easy to teach and still requires a bit of thought. Your first few rounds of play aren’t very important but towards the end you’ll find yourself counting cards and trying to play them where they count.

(photo courtesy Nodens77 @ BGG)

Here’s a surprise: an area control game that is specifically designed for two players and works!

Players duke it out for control over provinces in an attempt to reunite ancient China. Each player has a hand of cards representing army strength and a bunch of wooden cubes for their armies. In secret players put a card down on each area, reveal and resolve. Generally the higher card wins and gets to adjust the number of armies in that territory by the difference of the two cards played. If black played a 3 and white played a 5 in Tibet, for example, white would get to adjust the number of armies in Tibet by 2 in their favor. If there was a single black army there already it would be removed and white would add one army, or if while already had an army there they’d simply add two more. The game takes place over nine rounds and you score the territories every three rounds, earning points for the areas you control.

What really makes the game work is that the players have the same basic set of cards. Some cards are returned to your hand after they are played, others are discarded and some of the more powerful ones can only be played once per territory. This system means that while there is some luck in your card draw you and your opponent are pretty evenly matched so it’s more about how well you play and how well you can out-think and bluff your opponent.

San Juan
(image courtesy Geosmores @ BGG)

Trading goods and putting up buildings in the city of San Juan might not sounds like much of a theme but this is a fantastic card game. Players compete to have the most victory points by the end of the game. Buildings placed in front of them are worth points and some buildings work in conjunction with others. The game is over when someone builds their twelfth building, then you tally up points and see who won.

San Juan has a few things going for it. First, there is a little bit of player interaction with the role selection. There are six roles available for use each turn. These roles determine what actions everyone will be taking but whoever actually picks the role gets a bonus. For example, if I take the builder everyone will have the opportunity to put up a building but I’ll pay one less for it. Also, nobody else will be able to take the builder role this round so only I will get that extra discount. Of course you’ll be able to place buildings that might work in conjunction with the builder role, giving you extra bonuses even when you don’t specifically take that role.

Next is the fantastic card management aspect of the game. Cards serve three proposes: as buildings you can build in front of you, as money to pay for your buildings and as goods that are traded. Players are dealt a hand of building cards and buildings have a cost listed. When you decide to build a building you must pay its costs with cards from your hand. If you have six cards in your hand and play building with a cost of four, you’ll need to play your building in front of you and discard four cards from your hand as payment, leaving you with a single card left. Some buildings generate goods which are represented as face-down cards that can be traded in for new cards.

This simple mechanism really makes the game fun. You have to make interesting decisions as to what cards you want to keep around and which you are willing to part with. As you play more you’ll find certain building combos seem to work better than others so you’ll start to push your luck a little bit and try to go a certain route in hopes of getting the cards you need. At the same time you may need to adjust your strategy if you see your opponent is pulling away from you.

I love this game. It’s more complex than the other games I’ve listed so far but still simple enough that everyone I’ve taught it to has been able to grasp the concept and have fun. San Juan also supports up to four players so it’s another game that has some good flexibility as well. Easily my most highly recommended game on my list.

(image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

Last on the list is BattleLore. It’s strictly a two player game (technically there are rules for up to four but I’d stick with two) with a sea of plastic miniatures placed on a hex-based board. The look of it could very well scare off many non-gamers so I would recommend easing your significant other into this by getting them to enjoy some of the other games on this list first.

BattleLore is a fantasy war game. Each player controls an army of humans, orcs, dwarves and a variety of monsters. Generally you earn points for defeating enemy units and the games typically end after someone has killed a certain number of units.

BattleLore is based on Richard Borg‘s Command and Colors battle system which has appeared in several games. This is the first game with a fantasy setting which I think will appeal to many more so than a historical war period like the other games that use it. It may look a little daunting at first but the command system is very simple and makes the game far more approachable than it may appear.

Based on a scenario out of the manual, players will set up their armies and move them around on the board. Each player has a hand of action cards that determine what actions they may perform on their turn. The board is divided into three flanks: left, center and right. A card typically specifies a flank a number of units. For example, the card might say “Order three units” and have an arrow on the right flank. This means you may move and attack with any three units you may have in the right flank. You may have a lot of units on the board but these cards limit how many decisions you have at any point in time. I think this system helps ease people into war games as you aren’t overwhelmed with having to plan moves for every single unit on your turn. Just look at your cards and see if you can find a decent move from them.

Combat is a pretty simple dice-based affair. Some units have special abilities but the game’s manual gives lots of great examples and it comes with little summary cards you can have out to help you remember the details. BattleLore is far more involved than anything on this list, and while it may look extremely cool to you I wouldn’t advise making this the first board game with your significant other. Once you start playing you’ll find the game is more simple that it looks and it plays in roughly an hour; you’ll be hard-pressed to find this much depth in that same amount of time.

If the fantasy theme and plastic bits aren’t necessarily going to help your cause, check out the more simplified Memoir ’44 (World War II) or Commands and Colors: Ancients (Romans) which use the same basic command and combat system. I think Commands and Colors is the best in the series but BattleLore is certainly the most fun.

Getting the Games

There you go! Hopefully this list gives you a good starting point. You won’t find these games at any big retail store. See if there are any gaming specialty stores in your area or hop online and check out ThoughtHammer or Fair Play Games; both are online board game shops that I often rely on for my board game purchases.

Wings of War-athon

Last night we fit in our “Wings of War-athon” at Jim’s house. He recently picked up a bunch of the Wings of War minis and we were all itching to check them out. Afterwards we managed to fit in a couple of quick fillers as well.

Wings of War
(image courtesy gnomus @ BGG)

First up last night was Wings of War. I’ve been interested in Wings of War for quite some time so I was really looking forward to giving it a go. We were playing with the miniatures and the minis rules although we didn’t get into altitude at all.

The game’s elegance is immediately apparent. Each plane has a maneuver deck, damage deck and hitpoints. We didn’t play with the damage deck – we rolled d6s and looked up a hit chart – so I can’t comment on that, but the maneuver deck is excellent. The deck you use varies based on the type of plane so decks reflect the capabilities of the various aircraft. On your turn you pick three maneuver cards and place them face down in the order you wish to perform them. Everyone reveals their first, resolves movement and checks for fire. Cards are easy to read, generally having a path for the plane and an arrow showing where you line up your plane on the card. Some planes are slower but more maneuverable so their straight cards aren’t as long but they have tighter turns; rotary engine planes only have hard right turns, for example, showing off the distinct properties of that style of plane.

A measuring stick combined with the firing angle on the front of your plane determines if someone is in your sights. If so, the person taking fire rolls the dice (in our case, or draw a damage card in the base rules) and consults a damage chart. Generally you’ll just take damage but there’s a chance you’ll catch on fire, start smoking, have a rudder jam or your opponent’s guns jam. It handles the subtleties of air combat really well and in such a simple manner that you can teach it in a matter of minutes.

Overall I was really impressed with the game. Turns go by quickly and you really get excited when you see planes circle each other to try and get position. I’m not sure I liked the hit table we used, though, as too many shots would result in zero damage which made for a long game. Also, the models – while looking extremely cool – also made the game more fiddly. If planes were too close you’d have models sitting on top of each other and we were constantly moving our models to make room for others to play their movement cards. I think I’d only want to use the models again if we used elevation rules (which then add in mid-air collisions), otherwise I think the card to represent your plane would help things move along a bit more smoothly.

Fun game overall. Certainly a bit light and you could almost pick your movement cards randomly if you wanted but it’s still fun to try and outguess your opponents. If you want to check out the game I’d pick up one of the card-based decks and later dive into the models if you like the game.

(image courtesy EndersGame @ BGG)

Next on the list was Democrazy. It’s a really light filler game by Bruno Faidutti, maker of the fine game Citadels. If there’s one thing Democrazy isn’t, it’s not a fine game.

The concept is simple enough. Everyone gets a Yes and No vote card along with one special vote card, five random colored discs drawn from a sack and a handful of bill cards. Each turn you draw a new law and then place one down to be voted on. Some bills take effect instantly while others last for the rest of the game. Everyone secretly votes yes or no and the bill either passes or doesn’t. Play goes around until the “End Game” card is drawn.

It’s a shame the end game card is built into the last few cards of the deck because it needed to come up far sooner. Each bill changes the rules of the game, generally impacting how much your colored discs are worth at the end of the game. This has the potential to change with every new bill put into play so there’s no real strategy, just tossing bills down, voting yes or no and laughing when you see the results. If you win it certainly had very little to do with intelligent play on your part.

I can see some value in this style of game where you want a quick, mindless filler. It plays up to ten I believe so as a party style game to introduce people to a different sort of game it might work but for your serious game night don’t even bother. There are many better fillers.

Tag 6!
(image courtesy EndersGame @ BGG)

Like Tag 6! for example. This is one of the best filler games I’ve come across. Fast, easy to teach and there’s just enough thought you can put into it if you want to make it enjoyable for gamers and non-gamers alike.

Everyone (up to 10 players) is dealt 10 cards from a deck numbered from 1 to 104. Four cards are put in the middle and serve as the four rows of the playing field. On a turn everyone simultaneously picks a card and reveals. Cards are resolved from low to high. A card is placed on the row of the card it is numerically greater than and closest to. If the card is the sixth in the row you take the row and your card becomes the new base; likewise, if the card is lower than the top card in the four rows the player gets to choose one row to take and replace with their card. Cards have pips at the top which represent points. Points are bad; you don’t want points.

Tag 6! (also known as 6 Nimmt and Category 5) is fast, simple and seriously fun. Do you play the safe card (one that is extremely close to another on the field) or try and get rid of something else? What do you think everyone else will play this hand?

I know there’s more than pure luck to the game as I always seem to do extremely bad while other players in my group tend to do well. It’s that subtle level of strategy that gives the game its legs. Seek out a copy if you can.

Weekend of Gaming

This past weekend ended up to be quite good for gaming. Here’s a rundown on what hit the table:

Descent: Journeys in the Dark
(Image courtesy Capitaine Grappin @ BGG)

Saturday night I got to overlord Descent with a few friends. We ran a scenario I had designed awhile back. I like the scenario quite a bit although I’ve only ever run it with four heroes. That night we decided to try it with three and I think I’m going to make a few minor tweaks to help the balance with fewer players.

I’ll probably write more on Descent one of these days, but it is a personal favorite. It’s not a perfect game by any means – I have a long list of things I already house rule or would love to see revised sometime down the line – but overall the game really nails the dungeon crawler theme. You just need to make sure that everyone is aware that one side will win and one side will lose. It can be frustrating when you’re not doing well but I find the game is more about the experience and less about always coming out ahead.

(Image courtesy filwi @ BGG)

Finally got my first full game of Britannia in. I’ve played several rounds by myself to get a feel for the game and we got through roughly half a game once with my game group but someone had to leave early.

I estimated roughly six hours to get through the game and that’s pretty much exactly what it took. I knew the rules really well, one of us had played that half game before and two were new to the game. The rules are quite simple overall but the exceptions (Romans, submissions, king and bretwalda, other oddities) take a little while to cover. It’s important everyone has at least some concept of these up front so they can plan for them later in the game.

This is a game I need to play more. Every turn something interesting happens: new nations perform raids, leaders come and go, major invasions occur and control of the map changes drastically over the course of a couple turns. Britannia has a great ebb and flow to it. Each player seems to be strong at a certain point in the game so you spend a lot of time trying to set up your nations to spin as many points as they can and then cash in big with your primary nation. You have to make a lot of tough decisions and decide exactly how much to push your luck in an attempt to grab more land.

It’s certainly on the longish side although familiarity with the nations, knowing upcoming raids and key territories for each nation would reduce play time quite a bit. I’ve seen stats on BGG where the median score for the four players are within four points of each other which is extremely impressive; likewise, the win percentages for each player color are within a couple of percentage points. For the amount of stuff happening in the game it is unbelievably balanced and for being quite grounded in history there’s a lot of room for variety from game to game.

I know Britannia’s length will keep it from hitting the table too often, especially since you really need to play the game from start to finish for it to be fair to all players. Which is too bad since right now it stands as one of my favorite games.

(Image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

And now for something completely different. Britannia and China are pretty much polar opposites. First you have an epic highly historical game with amazing checks and balances and it nails the theme perfectly. Then you have China with mechanics that make no sense and a map that doesn’t even really accurately portray China at the point in time the game is trying to tack on as a theme.

Players take turns placing houses and emissaries in various regions of China. You score points for having houses in regions, generally the more houses the better. Emissaries are similar although they only matter if you have the majority of emissaries in adjacent regions at the end of the game. Finally, you’ll get points if you have four or more houses in a row.

Something tells me that people in ancient China didn’t make efforts to build their houses together in rows.

I’ve played China twice now and it hasn’t impressed me much. The game feels quite random and the mechanics penalize you for placing in new areas; a region with no pieces can only have one piece placed in a turn while regions with an existing piece can have up to two pieces placed. Nobody wants to start new regions because you’re just opening it up for the other players. There is a bit of strategy to placing your house, setting up your emissaries and staking your territory but it just doesn’t come together for me.

The game does play quickly and the rules are easy to explain so I could see breaking it out with folks who are newer to gaming. Maybe there’s some hidden depth or something that hasn’t clicked with me yet, but for now I think China will likely be finding a new home.

Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition
(Image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

Finally the granddaddy of them all. I just got my copy of Twilight Imperium (TI3) on Saturday although I had picked up the expansion earlier in the week and cracked that open. After Britannia and China a couple friends stuck around and we decided to tear into TI3.

Myself and one of my friends had played the game before, so as we punched the pieces and started to set up the game we explained it to our other buddy and tried to get him up to speed. It’s another epic – potentially far longer than Britannia – but man is the game ever sweet. The sheer amount of “stuff” alone makes it worthwhile but the gameplay underneath all that plastic is equally good.

I’ll probably dive into TI3 more at a later date once I get a few more games under my belt. Like Descent I think it needs just a touch of tweaking but overall it really nails the theme. In a nutshell players control various alien races duking it out for control over the galaxy. There are various objectives that earn you victory points. Some will require military means while others might be better earned through trades and politics. It seems like warfare is pretty much unavoidable at some point though, so you’ll spend time building your armada and laying waste to your opponents.

Twilight Imperium seems to be exactly what I want a game of its type to be. It’s a long one but unlike Britannia I think it can be rewarding in smaller doses even if you don’t get to finish the game.

So that was my weekend! I seem to do enough gaming these days that I’m probably going to try and update the blog a couple of times a week. I’ll also be mixing it up a bit between board and video games as both see plenty of action.

Die, Macher

(Image courtesy gamephotos @ BGG)

I don’t care much for politics. I’ve always avoided it in real life and I think from now on I’ll be avoiding it in board games whenever I can.

BoardGameGeek seems hold Die Macher on a pedestal. It’s the first game in the database and the recent reprint by Valley Games was considered to be some sort of immaculate conception. A four hours game about the German political system? I found it hard to believe it could be that good.

That’s because it turns out the game isn’t very good.

Let me rephrase that: I don’t think the game is very good. You may enjoy it.

Die Macher is a strange beast. It has a lot going on. There are local elections, national opinions, party platforms, public opinion polls… and don’t forget that a game turn is broken down into 18 easy steps. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for complex games. Twilight Imperium is my new love and I find much enjoyment from Descent, Tide of Iron, Caylus and others. The complexity itself isn’t what I dislike about the game but the way the mechanics contradict each other.

The game takes place over seven rounds. Each round players are vying for majority control of the state so their agendas will get passed. You can see upcoming agendas in the next three rounds but the amount of information visible is less the further away the round is. On top of that players will have the ability (through various means) to swap out the current visible agendas in all visible rounds. You need to match agendas and really avoid conflicting ones or else you’ll fall behind in points. The problem is that you need to match current agendas, plan for upcoming agendas all while players keep changing these agendas and you only get a few random agenda card pulls at the start of a round to try and change your own.

Then there are the opinion polls, one per visible state. Usually this means there will be four opinion polls at any given time (fewer in later rounds). Players blind bid to win each poll which allows you to either use two of the four abilities on the card or roll dice to randomly increase your national standings. Let me run that past you again: you are blind bidding four times per round for unknown cards.

In case you couldn’t tell, Die Macher is complex. There’s a lot going on; you need to plan ahead if you want to do well and the game encourages you to plan ahead by allowing you to play on future states, see upcoming agendas, etc. I find it nearly impossible to actually plan, though, as there are far too many random elements. It wants you to do one thing but the mechanics make that nearly impossible.

I can see why people may enjoy it. There is some interesting player interaction with coalitions that may be formed, jockeying for spaces on the board, bidding on public opinion polls, using card abilities to knock your opponents down and the ability to plan ahead for future rounds. It’s also an older game (first appeared in 1986) so a lot of the concepts were quite innovative at the time.

I hesitate to call Die Macher a bad game. Nearly everyone else in my gaming group has enjoyed it… some more than others but they’ve all found something to like in the game; I’m alone in having a very strong negative feeling for it. It’s ranked #13 at BoardGameGeek and has a user rating of 8.0 over 1600+ ratings so clearly people enjoy it. I’m just not convinced I’ll ever be able to see what others find so appealing.