Competitive Two-Player Board Games
Swing yourself back into history and you’ll find the earliest games pitted two minds against one another in puzzly contest, like a board game. That trend continues across the centuries all the way till today, where many of board gaming’s most innovative and enjoyable titles have you and your partner crashing against one another in struggles of wit, skill, and sheer luck. For some, going up against an ideal opponent is board gaming’s zenith, while for others, sitting down for a one-on-one duel poses a terrifying prospect: will a skill gap mean a bad experience or will the game go sour on its target of one, either leaving you with a lump of cardboard coal?
In this piece, we’ll look at the types of two-player competitive games, helping you narrow down your options so you can find the best fit for you and your gaming buddy, whether that’s a roommate, spouse, sibling, or curious cat.
Light, Quick, and Dangerous Games
Playing with two offers options across times, the most valuable being those scattered twenty and thirty-minute chunks found in the narrow crannies of our days. Instead of, say, putting on another retread and doom scrolling to a laugh track, or resorting to idle chit chat about your days and the weather, why not use those precious minutes to partake in a devious duel?
Lightweight options like Jaipur and Lost Cities offer small boxes with big gameplay, easy enough to sneak into an airport carry-on to keep you entertained on a long layover (or the flight itself). Both games give you and your counterpart a hand to work with, playing cards to score points in breezy fashion before revealing their vicious endgames. When your partner snags all the rubies or reveals they’ve been sitting on the yellow four you’ve been hunting, you’ll find yourself drawn in. That every play goes by in fifteen or twenty minutes is all the more appealing: who needs best two out of three, when you can go five of seven, or nine of seventeen?
Patchwork and 7 Wonders Duel bring even more confrontation through buttons and battalions, their little cubes giving you a swift setup and an easy teach for a lifetime of snappy sparring. What matters here is making the most of your limited time: you won’t be surfing the rulebooks or reaching for another side table to hold a sprawling board. If the kids are finally down or there’s enough wine in the bottle for one more round, these are the games to have handy to make a perfect nightcap.
Not too simple, too short to be truly mean, and the bedrock of any competitive two-player collection, games like these deserve a look for any pair looking to play against one another.
The Grow Together Games
Okay, I get it. You didn’t come to an article like this looking for Chess and Go. I’m still going to recommend them, though, if you have a partner willing to go on the journey those games deliver. I’m not talking about reading chess books or studying AlphaGo’s killer strats, I’m talking about sitting across from the same person, discovering more about each other through the move of a pawn, the choice to castle, or personal ‘divine’ plays on the Go board. This works less well when someone’s already skilled in a game, so I’d encourage picking a title you’re both interested in and haven’t mastered (or even played).
Take Hive – a little abstract about bugs and their special abilities. It’s familiar enough to Chess and Go to appeal to classics lovers, but brings in enough new wrinkles to make the experience its own. That you play without a board, making the game portable enough to go just about anywhere, only makes it easier to learn to love the spiders and bemoan the beetles attacking your Queen Bee. Simple to pick up, with depth everywhere, Hive marks a skittering substitute for the classics.
Yet, abstracts aren’t your only option. Pairing up with someone works equally well in more hobby-forward games. Take Warhammer, Star Wars: Legion, or Infinity: each of you can pick a faction, build and paint together, then punch and blast back and forth week in and week out. As you find your faction favorites, your buddy will do the same, writing a unique story as you create your personal collections.
A Tactical Board Game Trio
If conflict appeals, but all the miniatures work doesn’t, look to the tight, tasty tactics found in games like Radlands, Summoner Wars, and Level 99’s Exceed fighting system (Battlecon’s great too!). These games toss off the fluff and get right to matching wits and dealing damage.
Radlands, available in a tiny, tiny edition that’s so perfectly portable as to demand always being on your person, throws a neon surfeit at you, mixing brilliant colors with taut card play. You’ll try to destroy your opponent’s three camps while protecting your own, paying precious water to pop out post-apocalyptic pillagers while drawing from a shared deck. Good play sees you crafting synergies on the fly, snatching your partner’s plans and crushing them before they crush you.
Summoner Wars, now well into its second edition release, lets you build a faction deck if you like, but plays just fine with pre-constructed forces. You’ll have your titular summoner on the board—they go down, you lose—and a deck flush with champions, magic, and grunts. What makes Summoner Wars so fun is the combos and strategies all those cards create, coupled with a dice combat system that introduces just enough luck to keep things engaging without torching a well-laid plan with poor rolls. Fantasy tactics fans need look no farther.
Exceed, meanwhile, takes those tactics, and melds them with niche, nifty IPs, and lets you get to battling with your single starring slugger. If you took Street Fighter or Tekken and turned it into a board game, Exceed is probably close to the mark. Each player picks a move simultaneously, the reveal driving who goes first, whether special abilities get blocked or go off to devastating effect, and who gets the bragging rights (till the next match starts – Exceed rounds go quick, just like their inspiration). When your thumbs get too sore to mash out the combos on the controller, Exceed is there to fill the void.
The Biggest Two-player Board Games
There remains a two player sector that’s almost hard to talk about, so hallowed is its domain: the big experience. We’re talking games that’ll eat up your Saturday, or maybe your weekend, or (for some war games), your year. These games are bold designs, ones that either embrace epic stories, like War of the Ring, or that task you with overcoming history’s greatest challenges, like with 1914 Nach Paris.
These are heavy games, with rules aplenty, but with decision space, with narrative arcs, with historical accuracy to match. Tricking your opponent into a Twilight Struggle DEFCON defeat is a capstone moment started with your first Chutes n’ Ladders roll. When that same opponent destroys your Death Star in Star Wars: Rebellion, you’ll see flavors of Risk, refined into a grander, more strategic experience.
Another oft-avoided reason heavy games are great at two? Less downtime. As turns get larger and more involved, waiting for three, four, or even five people to make their plays can get excruciating. Head to head games make every action relevant, maximizing your time actually playing the game.
Sitting down for a day with a war game, whether one with classic hexes and counters or newfangled miniatures, marks an epitome of two player board gaming. If you’ve never tried such a thing before, start slow. Rebellion, War of the Ring, and Iron, Blood Snow & Mud make solid choices to ‘level up’ from more familiar fare. Theme, though, counts for more when you’re asking a friend for hours, so gauge their interests, and pick appropriately.
Let the Duel Begin
Competitive two-player board gaming is an almost limitless opportunity at all levels of complexity. Taking ten or twenty minutes during a layover to duel over camels in silk in Jaipur makes travel sweeter, as does gobbling up an afternoon with Combat Commander. The most important thing is pairing the game with the player. Use the list above as a starting point and refine to the complexity, time, and theme you’re looking for.
Then set it up, shake your opponent’s hand, and win.