For the purposes of this list I wanted to stick to games that are strictly for two players. I did end up including a few that say they are for 2-4 (or more) but only because in my opinion they are really two player games and the ability to play with more is a bit of an afterthought and definitely not the way the games are at their best.
This was a tough one to narrow down as there are a lot of great two player games out there!
So, without further ado, here’s my list:
Patchwork is a nice, light polyomino game, where players are trying to make a patchwork quilt using different pieces of cloth in a variety of shapes and patterns. It has a neat time track mechanism where time is one of the two resources in the game, and when you ‘spend’ time buying patches you advance on the track. Whichever player is furthest back is the next to play, so you can sometimes have multiple turns in a row.
It’s a fun, easy to teach game, and always feels quite relaxing to play.
9) Memoir ’44
Richard Borg has made a few games using a similar system, but for me the sweet spot in complexity and fun is Memoir ’44. The World War II theme is fairly accessible and it comes with little miniatures rather than the blocks used in some of his other games. The system itself is fairly simple, and it’s played using scenarios from the rulebook, so it introduces new rules and concepts as it goes.
Overall, it’s a nice fun, simple ‘wargame’ that takes about 30 minutes, with players usually playing two games, one per side, for each scenario.
This game borrows the idea of hidden units from the classic Stratego, but puts it on a smaller board, and gives every piece a unique ability. As well as asymmetric abilities, the winning conditions for each side are different, with the Light side winning by getting Frodo to Mordor and the Dark side winning by killing Frodo or getting any 3 units into the Shire.
It plays in around 30 minutes and is easy to teach, but offers some great tactical decisions throughout.
I could probably have chosen pretty much any of the GIPF series games here, but I’d say my two favourites are YINSH and DVONN. In YINSH each player starts with five rings in their colour. On your turn you move a ring in a straight line and leave a disc of your colour behind. If you jump over any discs then you flip them to the other colour. The objective is to get 5 discs of your colour in a row, and if you do that you remove one of your rings. The first player to remove three rings wins, but as you remove rings you reduce your options each turn, so it is somewhat self-balancing.
The GIPF Series are definitely quite thinky abstract games, but unlike some of the classic abstract games like Chess or Go I find them to be more accessible and generally more enjoyable.
7 Wonders Duel is a spin off from the highly popular 7 Wonders, that takes the main concepts of that game and turns it into a great 2-Player version. Players take turns drafting cards from a selection that have been laid out in a pattern so that some cards overlap and only cards that are fully revealed are available to be taken. Cards do a variety of things such as providing resources (needed to take other cards), giving money or discounts, scoring points, giving military strength or science icons. The game can end if one player wins a military tug-of-war style contest, collects six of seven possible science icons, or, if neither of the previous conditions are met, has the most points after three eras.
It’s a great adaptation of the original 7 Wonders game, offering interesting decisions, a neat two player drafting mechanism, and maintaining the 30 minute play time of the original.
5) Battle Line
Battle Line, like Lost Cities below, has simple gameplay of Play a Card and then Draw a Card, but with difficult decisions throughout. This game has six suits, number 1-10 and cards are played to one of 9 slots on the table. Each slot can hold up to three cards and players are trying to make the best three-card poker hand they can. If both players have played three cards to a slot the best hand wins, or if it can be proven that one player cannot possibly win a slot with cards that are still left, the winner takes the pawn for that slot. If a player wins three adjacent pawns or 5 of the 9 in total they win the game.
There are some special cards with powers on them that can help swing the game, but play of them must be balanced (no player may play more than one more special card than the other player). It’s a great, thinky little game with interesting decisions to make.
4) Lost Cities
Lost Cities is considered a bit of a classic when it comes to two player games. The gameplay is so simple (Play or discard one card and then draw one card) but it offers some great difficult decisions. Cards are of one of five possible suits, numbered 2-10 (as well as some multipliers), and when played go into your own column of cards of that colour. However, any card played must be higher than the previous number you played into that column. At the end of the game players sum the values of the cards in each column with any cards in it, subtract 20 and that is their score for that suit. So you don’t want to start all five suits as you almost certainly will score negative points for some of them. Discarded cards become available to your opponent though, so you don’t just want to ditch all cards of a colour as you could just be handing them big points.
The decisions of what to play or discard, and the timing for doing so are deliciously agonising, and can definitely cause some cursing!
Santorini looks nice and cutesy with the artwork and player pieces, but it’s deceptive as it’s actually quite thinky and intense. The game works very well as a straight abstract with no God Powers, but once you add those in it spices things up nicely and gives a lot of variation. Players typically win by moving one of their two builders up to the third level of a building. On a turn the player moves one builder one space (down any number of levels, flat, or up one level) and then builds one level of a building on any adjacent space. Building onto a third level puts a capping dome on top that players cannot move onto. God Powers adjust those basic rules in a variety of ways, including sometimes offering alternate win conditions.
This game looks fantastic on the table with the 3D buildings and all the great artwork and it also gives your brain a workout as you ponder all the possible moves on a turn, and then fail to spot an obvious route to victory that you just presented your opponent!
As a former Magic: The Gathering junkie I’ve always had a penchant for head-to-head combat card games of summoning creatures and casting spells. The only problem I had with Magic was the time and money investment required in keeping up to date with all the latest cards and getting a chance to play them.
Of all the non-collectible head-to-head combat card games I’ve played since, Allegiance is by far the best. Everything is self-contained in the game, and players use common decks to draw new units and spells from. There’s still a wide enough variety in there to not get bored or see the same cards every game though. On top of that, players choose one of numerous characters to play, and each has unique powers that use a cool-down mechanism similar to those used in video games, as well as new abilities that need to be unlocked. It also has a great system for elimination the problem of ‘Mana Screw’ or ‘Mana Flood’ in MtG, where the resource, Gold, is automatically generated each turn (and the amount increases every turn) and can be saved from turn to turn.
It’s a really great game, and the artwork is spectacular, so it looks fantastic on the table.
1) Dice Throne
Dice Throne is another amazing head-to-head combat game, which also uses cards, but is primarily a dice game. It’s often described as Magic: The gathering meets King of Tokyo. Players choose a character to play, with all characters having different abilities. Cards can be played to improve abilities, change dice rolls, etc. with the main focus being the attack roll, where the player rolls king of Tokyo/Yahtzee style, trying to roll one of several combinations in order to trigger a specific attack. The defender gets a chance to roll a defence roll and then damage is dealt. The first player to reduce their opponent to zero health wins.
It’s a great, fun back and forth game, where it can seem like one person is too far ahead, but then an Ultimate Attack from their opponent can swing things right around. Some characters are more complicated than others, but the overall gameplay is straightforward and easy to teach. The card deck and the different characters available give the game a lot of variety and replayability, and did I mention that it’s fun?!
So, that’s my top 10 list. Lots of great games didn’t quite make it, so please let me know what you agree or disagree with and what your favourite 2-player-only game is.