When you’re stuck inside with the same person for long periods — during a relaxing vacation, or maybe a long holiday break, or maybe a global self-quarantine undertaken in the name of preserving public health — it can be tough to find things to do together that are fun for both of you, without fighting.
Enter the board game specifically designed for two players. A small but growing subset of the board gaming hobby, board games (or card games) for two are among my very favorite games to play, especially because most of my board gaming adventures are undertaken with only my wife as my gaming partner. And we play a lot of two-player games.
An important caveat: Due to the coronavirus pandemic you may have heard about, it could be difficult or inadvisable to visit your local game store, or even to have games shipped to your home in a timely fashion. Many board games are also at least somewhat expensive. If you’re not in a position to buy any new games, for whatever reason, you quite likely have a deck of cards, which is one of the most foolproof ways imaginable to pass the time. Check out this website for a long list of great card games, many of which are meant for two players. (I’m partial to gin rummy.)
But if you would like to look beyond the pleasures of a deck of cards, below is a list of nine games designed specifically for two players. They don’t include two-player role-playing games (though there are some fun options out there), nor do they include games that are designed to accommodate more players but are still fun for two. All of these are designed specifically with two players in mind, and they’re all fairly easy to learn, requiring only 10 minutes or so of rule reading. Many of them are available in digital versions as well.
The game Agricola, in which you play a medieval subsistence farmer, is famously complex and rewarding to master. That’s why it’s so surprising that this spinoff designed specifically for two players is simple to grasp quickly. The goal is to have the most animals on your farm, but to have animals, you have to give them enclosures to live in and food to eat and so on. Some versions of the game come with adorable wood cutouts of cows and pigs and other beasts, and it would even be suitable for bright 8- or 9-year-olds. Unfortunately, it has gone out of print, though I’ve had good luck finding it in most game stores, and used copies are readily available online.
This romantic comedy simulator is one of my favorites, but it’s quite involved and requires both players to be willing to role-play just a little bit. Fog of Love involves playing out the arc of a relationship between two people and determining whether they break up, if they end up in eternal bliss, or if one of them compromises so much to keep the relationship alive that it becomes an unequal partnership. (Grim!) That role-playing aspect means the game is not to everybody’s taste, but if you can get on its wavelength, it’s a terrific way to examine what you value in relationships. Teens might have fun with this one. (For a similar experience with more direct role-playing, try the two-player RPG Star Crossed.)
This is my go-to two-player game for pretty much any situation. Because it’s explicitly a card game, it fits easily in my purse to carry with me, and it can be played in 30 minutes or less, making it an ideal fit for any situation where my wife and I are waiting for something to happen. The Fox in the Forest is a trick-taking game — meaning both players play a card and the high card wins — with a lovely fairy tale theme (and beautiful art). The idea is that you want to take the most tricks, but you don’t want to take all of the tricks. Get greedy and take too many, and you won’t win any points. It’s a fun puzzle to work out exactly how best to manipulate your hand to take just enough tricks, while also making sure your opponent takes too few or too many. This is another game that would be fun for elementary schoolers. (I haven’t spent as much time playing it, but I’ve also had good fun with The Fox in the Forest’s sequel, The Fox in the Forest Duet, which is a cooperative two-player game rather than a competitive one.)
“Chess but with bugs” perhaps does not seem like a winning description for an addictive board game, but here’s Hive — the oldest game on this list (hailing from all the way back in 2000) and another game that’s convenient to tuck away in a purse or backpack for long moments waiting somewhere. (If you want something especially portable, pick up Hive Pocket, which is the same game but built for travel.) The unique thing about Hive is that it doesn’t have a board. Instead, the board is created anew each and every game as players take turns placing hexagons featuring different bugs adjacent to each other. The goal is to surround the other player’s queen bee, but your bugs all have specific moves designed to defend her. It’s a neat balance of offense and defense, and no two games are ever the same. (Many 9- or 10-year-olds would have great fun with this one.)
One nice thing about many two-player games is how soothing they are, even when they’re technically competitive. So it goes with Morels, which simulates a walk through the woods in search of delicious mushrooms to cook up with butter and cider. Morels is a rummy game — meaning you are trying to collect cards of a certain set — but the gameplay allows you to always see which cards are just out of reach, which have most recently fallen into the discard pile, and which are right in front of you, meaning there’s a fair amount of strategizing. It also might be a suitable proxy for going outdoors if you’re trapped indoors, and a smart 8-year-old should be able to grasp the game’s mechanics. (The expansion set, Morels Foray, is also fun, though you need the main game to use it.)
Combining the strategizing of Tetris with the relaxation of quilting, Patchwork is competitive, but in a unique way. You focus on the quilt you’re making, trying to fill in every square to minimize the loss of points incurred by empty squares. But the little scraps of cloth on the table might also be taken by your competitor, and eventually, you’ll run out of time to complete your quilt. There’s a jigsaw puzzle quality to Patchwork that will likely be fun to folks from a variety of demographics, and this one might even be fun for a 5- or 6-year-old if you don’t actually ask them to play the game but, instead, to design patterns from the pieces included with the game. (To actually play, they’ll probably have to be slightly older.)
Trace the arc of civilization with this compelling and addictive game where you and your opponent are each steering an early civilization that’s hoping to gain just enough advancements and resources to move forward in history; you might build two of the titular Seven Wonders and gain a distinct advantage when it comes time to score points at the end of the game. Part of the challenge is that 7 Wonders: Duel (a specifically two-player spinoff of the similar 7 Wonders) offers a surprisingly robust number of ways to win, including simply grinding your opponent down via brute military strength or gaining scientific advancements that allow for victory via the wonders of knowledge. It would be a great game for 11- or 12-year-olds.
Most of the games listed above are competitive, but Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (which can technically be played with as many players as you want, including just you) is a wholly cooperative experience. You play a genius detective — gee, I wonder which one — tasked with solving impossible cases in Victorian London. There are three Consulting Detective games (with a fourth on the way), all of which offer multiple mysteries to solve, and the process of deducing a mystery using the clues scattered throughout the materials in the box is tremendous fun. (You can read a bit about the cases in each box at the manufacturer’s website.) Yes, you could play this game by yourself, but it’s so much more fun with someone you love or just someone you live with. It would also be great for teens.