Two can play at that game

So today just so happens to be Valentine’s day, and this evening The Treehouse bookings diary is crammed full of tables for two. This, along with planning for our first speed friending event tomorrow, has got us thinking a lot this week about two-player games.

When asked to think of a two-player game, our guess is that most people would picture something abstract and serious like Chess or Go, complete with all the chin-stroking and competition for intellectual superiority that these veterans of the genre invoke. It’s certainly true that there are a LOT of abstract games for two players out there, many of which offer huge strategic depth with very few rules, BUT… this is only one small facet of what’s available. We’ve put together the list below to make our case that there’s a two-player game* out there (or even, we hope, in The Treehouse library) for pretty much every mood and occasion.

*When we say ‘two-player game’, we mean ‘a game that works well for two players’, as opposed to ‘a game that’s exclusively for two players’. There are some of the latter in the list below, but also some games that will happily play larger groups as well.

Icebreakers

Maybe you’re on a first date and you want to play something super-simple to get the evening started. Or perhaps the two of you are just waiting for the rest of the group to arrive and are after ten minutes’ entertainment. Presenting… our top ice-breaker games for two players!

Timeline - This is without doubt one of the most frequently-recommended games in our library. The rules are so simple that you can explain them in pretty much the time it takes to hand someone the box (you’ll have some cards in front of you each featuring a historical event, which you’re trying to get rid of by adding them to a timeline in the middle of the table. Pick a card, slot it into the timeline then flip the card to check the date and find out if you placed it correctly. If you did, well done - you’re a card down! If not, draw a new card. That’s it!). The gentlest but also one of the most interesting trivia game on our shelves, this game is the perfect conversation starter, and some groups end up playing it all evening. We have several different versions to choose from but our favourite is ‘Inventions’ because no one knows the actual answers, which encourages a little extra strategy and ensures that no one feels stupid.

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Animal Upon Animal - If you want to ease your brain in gently or you’re simply in the mood for some good, old-fashioned fun, this is the game for you. Yes, it’s technically designed for small children and the components consist almost entirely of painted wooden animals, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most delightful games on our shelves. Basically reverse Jenga, Animal Upon Animal has a similar tension curve as the game progresses but is somehow much more forgiving, perhaps because with each successful move you’re left with a bigger and more awesome-looking animal tower! All the neighbouring tables will be jealous, take our word for it.

Quarto/ Pentago - These both fall firmly into the ‘abstract strategy’ category we touched on earlier, but are straightforward enough to feel like a gentle brain teaser (or gentle-ish, depending on how seriously you’re taking it and how clever your opponent is) rather than a full-blown strategic showdown. Quarto is the more sophisticated cousin of Connect-4, whilst Pentago is noughts and crosses with a (literal) twist. The two games have approximately six rules between them, but both have enough depth to get your brain ticking over and ready for whatever comes next...

Keeping things friendly

So now you’re all warmed up and ready for something with a bit more weight behind it, but you’re here to have a nice time together and want to leave on speaking terms. Here are our top choices for whiling away a companionable hour or so if you’d prefer to keep things friendly...

Patchwork - “A game of competitive quilting”. We usually open with this when we recommend Patchwork and watch the reaction, because those five words are often enough to either win someone over or put them off completely. If the description appeals, then you’re in for a treat, because as well as being about as endearing as it’s possible to be, Patchwork has enough depth to make for some really interesting decisions. On top of that, regardless of whether or not you win, you get the satisfaction of Tetrissing (yes, new word, we made it ourselves) together pieces to make your very own quilt and seeing it grow as the game goes on. Although it is a competitive game, it’s nigh-on impossible to play Patchwork aggressively, and the theme is just so soothing, so we’re pretty sure you’ll still be talking at the end. If you’re short on time, we’ve just got our hands on a copy of the newly-released Patchwork Express, which basically offers the same great game in under 20 minutes.

Jaipur - This one is a slightly harder sell for the uninitiated: players are traders in an Arabian market place, trying to win the approval of the Sultan by accumulating more goods and (mysteriously all-important) camels than the other player in each of three rounds. It looks and sounds very dry, but Jaipur consistently appears on top 10 lists of two-player games, and hopefully once you’ve played it you’ll understand why. Again, this is very much a Euro-style game in that there’s no direct conflict (although you might spot some opportunities to scupper your opponent’s plans if you keep a careful eye out). If you give it a go, keep an eye out for the special panda camel. We have no idea why it’s there, but we’re always pleased to see it!

Pandemic - If you’d prefer to remove the competitive aspect completely and work together against the game, there’s a whole world of cooperative games out there and pretty much all of them are great for two players. Pandemic helped to kickstart the whole genre when it appeared in 2008, and it has really stood the test of time. Players take on the role of a team of specialists trying to save humanity from four deadly viruses, racing against time to find the cures whilst travelling the world treating patients and trying to prevent outbreaks. The theme is so powerful that it’s impossible not to get drawn in, and it’s tricky enough to beat the game that you get to feel like heroes if you manage it, but will always have a memorable experience either way.

Head to head

Right. The gloves are off. You’re not here to mess around - there’s a score to settle. Here are our top games for times when taking part just won’t cut it.

Cobra Paw - Any game based around grabbing is guaranteed to get the competitive juices flowing, and Cobra Paw is simple enough to let you get stuck straight in. Take turns to roll a pair of dice, then look for the domino that features the two symbols they show amongst all of those on the table and try to get to it first. If you succeed, put the domino in front of you. If you can collect six of them you’ve won, but be warned: dominoes in front of other players are still fair game. Maybe move your drinks before you start playing!

Odin’s Ravens - This one doesn’t require physical speed to win, but involves a race nonetheless. Odin’s two ravens Hugin and Munin must fly around Midgard every day gathering information, and whoever gets back first to pass on their news first will be his good books. This is predominantly a card-based game with some beautiful artwork and component quality. Players discard cards to move their raven forward on a the track in the centre of the table, but can also invoke Loki to play tricks to speed their passage or slow down their opponent. A thoroughly thematic experience which always results in a nail-biting finale.

Raptor - Ever watched Jurassic Park and found yourself rooting for team Raptor? Well, you will if you see it after playing this! In Raptor, one player controls the mother raptor trying to defend her brood of babies and get them to safety, while the other player controls the team of scientists trying to sedate her and steal them away. The game is played out on a modular board creating a slightly different environment every game, and the characters are represented by super-detailed plastic miniatures (the baby raptors are almost outrageously cute, which makes it so much much upsetting when they’re stolen away. *Sob*). The core mechanics are based around two asymmetric decks of cards giving each player differing powers (the scientists can shoot from a distance, the mother raptor can move quickly and eat scientists, etc), and on each turn players choose cards simultaneously creating tension every time. Clever game.

Breaking out the big guns

Twilight Struggle - If you’re not afraid of heavy rule books and you’re happy to settle in for the long haul (we’re probably talking 3 hours+ here), why not play out the ENTIRE COLD WAR in a game of Twilight Struggle? While definitely not for the fainthearted, this is a stone cold classic which has been in Board Game Geek’s top 10 games for time immemorial. Will Russia or the US be victorious this time? It’s down to you to find out.

Fog of Love - If you’re looking for a thematic experience of a totally different kind, why not create a persona and begin a relationship with your… opponent? ...beloved? It almost immediately becomes hard to tell. Fog of Love has kept critics busy since it appeared in 2017 offering something totally different to any other game. Players begin by crafting two characters to play as throughout the game. Each player gets some control over their own character’s attributes, including some personality traits which are kept secret, but the other player gets to add some extra flavour by picking the attributes that their character finds attractive about yours. Then, the two characters begin a relationship, constructed of a number of scenario cards which they must navigate together. Each player begins with the same set of win condition cards, some of which encourage collaboration (e.g. ‘true love’, requiring both characters to reach a certain level of happiness), as well as others which require players to be self-serving (e.g. ‘dominance’, requiring your character to be happier at the end than the other). Throughout the game, both players must secretly discard objective cards at regular intervals, meaning that you never quite know what’s still in play and what the other character is aiming for. There’s an argument to say that this game is more fun when played by people who aren’t in a real-life relationship with each other, but we have no doubt this one will be in demand tonight regardless!

- Ruth Haigh

Andy Haigh