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:
(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)
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.
(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.