10 Great 2-Player Games (Article by Chris Wray)

Two-player games have a special place in our hobby.  Not only are they historically significant — many of the classics like Chess to Go are for pairs of players — but they are also especially relevant for those of us that play a lot of games at home.  Though these head-to-head games might be often overlooked by publishers (because they reportedly don’t sell well), many of the hobby’s most revered games are for two. The International Gamers Awards even have a special 2-player category.  

Today’s article is part of our “10 Great” series that features 10 great games in a given subcategory.  I pick a mechanic, theme, publisher, etc. In this case, I picked a set number of players.  We here at the Opinionated Gamers then all vote behind the scenes to create a list of 10 great games that meet the criteria.  We’re aiming for an article a month, and I’d love your suggestions about future lists. 

The Methodology

For purposes of this project, I simply asked everybody to vote for 10 games that represented great 2-player games.  I asked everybody to focus on the IGA’s definition of two player games, which means that the games here are primarily for two players.

Anybody could add to the list assuming they were going to vote for it.  Each member of the OG was offered the chance to vote for up to 10 games, and they could give one game 15 points, one game 14 points, all the way down to giving one 6 points.  We all put our votes into a spreadsheet. We then added up the points for each game and picked the top 10.  

We had 23 OG-ers vote, and 75 different games received votes.  

To get on the list took a minimum of six writers rating the game decently well.  That wasn’t a rule, but rather how the breakdown naturally worked out. There’s actually great consensus towards the top of our list.

Below you’ll see designations for gold, silver, and bronze.  Those represent the number of voters that put a given game in the #1, #2, and #3 spot, respectively.  

Without further ado, here are 10 Great 2-player games!

Honorable Mention (Games That Barely Missed the List): 

15.  Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (1 Gold, 1 Bronze)

14.  Hanamikoji (1 Silver)

13.  Combat Commander Series (2 Bronze)

12.  The Fox in the Forest (1 Silver)

#10 (Tie) – Mr. Jack

64 Points

Designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, Released 2006

Won the 2-player IGA in 2007

#10 (Tie) – Caverna Cave vs. Cave

64 Points, 1 Bronze

Designed by Uwe Rosenberg, Released 2017

#8 (Tie) – Schotten Totten (a.k.a. Battle Line)

65 Points, 1 Silver, 2 Bronze

Designed by Reiner Knizia, Released 1999

#8 (Tie) – Patchwork

65 Points, 2 Silver

Designed by Uwe Rosenberg, Released 2014

#7 – War of the Ring

66 Points, 1 Gold, 3 Bronze

Designed by Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello, Released 2004

Won the 2-player IGA in 2005

#6 – Jambo

77 Points, 1 Gold, 1 Silver

Designed by Rüdiger Dorn, Released 2004

#5 – Memoir 44

95 Points, 4 Gold, 1 Bronze

Designed by Richard Borg, Released 2004

Won the 2-player IGA in 2004

#4 – Twilight Struggle

110 Points, 1 Silver, 1 Bronze

Designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, Released 2005

Won the 2-player IGA in 2006

#3 – 7 Wonders Duel

122 Points, 1 Gold, 2 Silver, 2 Bronze

Designed by Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala, Released 2015

Won the 2-player IGA in 2016

#2 – Codenames Duet

132 Points, 3 Silver, 2 Bronze

Designed by Vlaada Chvátil and Scot Eaton, Released 2017

Won the 2-player IGA in 2018

#1 – Lost Cities

149 Points, 5 Gold, 1 Silver

Designed by Rener Knizia, Released 1999

Won the 2-player IGA in 2000

—-

Thoughts from Opinionated Gamers:

Chris Wray:  7 of my 10 votes made the list above in some form.  The ones that didn’t are Jaipur (a great 2-player card game), TZAAR (a great 2-player abstract, and my favorite abstract of all time), and Claim (an innovative 2-player trick taking series).  

All of the games above are great, though, and they show just how varied the types of games are that can be played 2-player!

Brandon Kempf: Wow, I have been fairly aligned with most of the previous 10 Great Series, but this two player one has made me scratch my head a bit. My number one, Targi, didn’t even make the Honorable Mentions, and I believe only three of the ones I voted for ended up being in the top ten. I also mentioned Claim!, Agricola All Creatures Big and Small, Summoner Wars, Odin’s Ravens, 1960 (the better version of that CDG group) & Kahuna. Looking back, I probably should have voted for Mr. Jack as that has long been a family favorite, it’s probably just a game that I take for granted always being there. Codenames Duet, Lost Cities and Patchwork were the ones I did vote for. The love for 7 Wonders Duel will never cease to boggle my mind, but to each their own.

Larry:  This list didn’t align particularly well with my tastes, but I suspect much of that is due to the bulk of my 2-player gaming occurring many years ago and a lot of those great older games just aren’t played much these days.  Codenames Duet and Jambo were the only top 10 designs that got one of my top 5 votes; Schotten Totten and Caverna: Cave vs. Cave also made my list. Other top votes of mine went to Medici vs. Strozzi (a brilliant and hugely intense Knizia game of valuation judgment), Babel (a wonderful Rosenberg title, produced when all Uwe did was create card games), and Baseball Highlights 2045 (which manages to feel like baseball, despite rules which vary considerably from the National Pastime).  I also voted for 1960, Jaipur, and A Few Acres of Snow. Of the games the group selected, I’m definitely a fan of 7 Wonders Duel and Patchwork, but continue to be mystified (and have been for 20 years) at the popularity of Lost Cities.  I’ve played it scores of times and there just doesn’t seem to be much there; I can play my cards just about as fast as I draw them and still win most of my games. Oh well, either there’s something I’m just not getting or I’m some kind of Lost Cities savant!  :-)

Fraser:  Interesting how some games work for some people and not for others, e.g. Larry is mystified by the popularity of Lost Cities, whereas I am mystified by 7 Wonders Duel and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation.  With the former Melissa and I played it half a dozen games, and whoever got more resources in the first stage won, no matter what else they concentrated on during the game. With Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation I played it over a dozen times with the same opponent and it basically came down to a coin toss at the end each and every time. I don’t see the appeal in either, but others do and good for them.  I still enjoy the angst of Lost Cities fifteen years after first playing it. I was reminded last year that I should definitely play Jambo more often and of others on the list I can get behind Patchwork, Schotten Totten, Caverna Cave vs. Cave, A Fox in the Forest, and Combat Commander. I am surprised at least one GIPF game didn’t make it on the list

Matt C:  All of the games in the list sound solid to me.  While I ranked Memoir ‘44 highly, I was surprised at how many titles had strong “wargame” elements….  Memoir, War of the Ring, and one could argue Twilight Struggle. Just off the list are Combat Commander and Lord of the Rings: Confrontation.  This is a surprise to me as I would have expected more “eurogame” style titles from this group. I, too, am surprised at the lack of more abstract titles, although I am not a fan and did not vote for any.  My #2 game was Magic: the Gathering. While the game has several things going against it (complexity and the hideous idea of a CCG in general) I find the depth of game play and the wealth of interactions to explore simply fascinating.  In addition, there is considerable skill in executing the game. It isn’t simply enough for someone to hand you a powerful, well-constructed deck. One must also know how to use it properly. Do I enjoy playing the game? Yes. Do I recommend the game to other players?  No, primarily due to the (typical) price of entry and its complexity. There are ways to play that level the “money playing field”, like sealed decks or drafting from a common pool and are the only ways I could be coaxed into playing it at this point. The closest non-money-grubbing substitute for the game I’ve found is the digital card game Eternal, by Dire Wolf.  Playable with little or no cash investment, it has much of the depth of Magic: the Gathering (I’m looking at your watered-down options, Hearthstone) and adds in some mechanics that would be simply impossible to implement in a physical card game.

Mitchell T:  I didn’t participate in the voting, but my favorite two player game is not on the list. Innovation is absolutely remarkable and my wife and I have played it over five hundred (!!!) times. We take it with us whenever we travel and we find it incredibly addictive. Why? Once you get to the know cards really well (there are one hundred of them), you begin to understand the patterns of play, the very interesting strategic considerations, and the necessity of creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Yes, there is strategy. You can play a long game (banking on splays and icons over time), or go for quick scores. And the tactical nuances are fascinating. I am amazed at how after so many plays we still discover unprecedented situations, contexts, and solutions. However, you really have to put the time in to understand how well everything works and how neatly interrelated all of the cards are. You can play the game casually and still enjoy it, but then you might complain about the game seeming to be out of your control. Once you know what you’re doing it’s rare (but possible) that you’ll be overwhelmed by poor card draws. The expansions are interesting and very clever, and in some cases, offer even deeper challenges, but they also complicate the game and aren’t at all necessary. I love improvisational thinking and Innovation demands that.

Tery: Like Mitch, my favorite 2 player game didn’t make the list, either.  Field of Arle tops my list; it takes everything I like about Uwe games with similar mechanics and puts it into a beautiful 2 player that continues to keep my interest.  

In fact, several of the games I voted for didn’t make the final  list. Fox in the Forest is a great 2 player trick taking game; I was skeptical that it was possible to make one, but I was wrong, and now I’m enjoying Fox in the Forest Duet, a cooperative version of the game.  I also still enjoy Peter’s Two Sheep Dogs, an odd little mancala/ trick taking game that uses numbered animals as your cards. Thinking about this article and our voting has made me take a look at my neglected shelf of Kosmos 2-player games; I think it’s time to revisit some of those that have been collecting dust, like Perry Rhodan, Hera and Zeus and Flowerpower.

Joe Huber: As the resident contrarian, I was not at all surprised to discover that only one game I chose (Jambo) made the top 15.  Or, for that matter, that only four others received any support – Battle Cry (which effectively lost out to Memoir ‘44), Breitseite (which everyone who indicated that they had played the game did vote for – it’s just not well enough known), Floriado, and Tally Ho.  Of the other five – I was the only one to name Spinball, but it at least had been played by a number of folks. Mr. President remains a classic and fun two player game, which there’s no reason to ever consider playing with four. Morgan’s A’Comin’! – the only game I own with three apostrophes – is a really clever and fun postcard wargame.  Scoozie is the best American Football-themed game I’ve played, winning that title by focusing on a single play – and by disguising itself as an abstract. And Don Q. und der Dreh mit den Windmühlen is another very clever themed abstract, part of a great Don Quixote series from Edition Perlhuhn.

Jonathan F.:  I get why this list is the way it is, but missing Targi and Fields of Arle feels wrong.  At the same time, why should I care if a 2-4 player game is excellent for 2p v a 2p game is excellent for 2p?  This list matters less to me because it is not my favorite two player games, but my favorite two player games that play 2 and only 2 (and Fields of Arle now has an expansion that lets it play three, so maybe it should be booted anyway).  Anyway, a great starting point.

James Nathan: It was with this list that I learned I was the resident war game correspondent, having given my top votes to Labyrinth (The War on Terror: 2001-?); Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan; Combat Commander, and (after a vote for Peter’s Two Sheep Dogs) Twilight Struggle.  

There was a brief period where I had 3 standing game groups.  Monday nights were two player war games with a friend. Tuesday nights were new things with my usual group.  Wednesday nights were nothing-new with co-workers. I enjoyed all of those nights for their specialities, but I miss those war game nights. There have been plenty I didn’t like, but those I voted for above I find especially compelling.

Of course, I also voted for my fair share of my typical nonsense, including Manalath, Affentennis, and Fortran.

Mark Jackson: My top 2 games (Memoir ‘44 and 7 Wonders Duel) both made the list… along with Lost Cities & Patchwork.  I’m sad to see that some of my nominees landed just outside the line of recognition: Baseball Highlights 2045 and StreetSoccer are both excellent games that capture the “feel” of their respective sports without being sports sims. Unmatched: Battle of Legends probably suffered from being new-ish while Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit suffered from being incredibly difficult to find (and seriously OOP).

All in all, though, it’s a really good list.

—–

Past Articles in the 10 Great Series:

10 Great Worker Placement Games

10 Great Games by Reiner Knizia

10 Great Roll ‘n Writes

10 Great Ticket to Ride Maps

10 Great Games of the 2010s

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11 Responses to 10 Great 2-Player Games (Article by Chris Wray)

  1. Pingback: 10 Great 2-Player Games (Article by Chris Wray) - Rollandtroll.com

  2. Elliott says:

    Mandala and Paris la citè de la lumiere are my favorite 2 player game

    • Brandon Kempf says:

      Mandala probably should have gotten a vote from me as well, but I suspect that both of those are too new for most folks here to have played them.

  3. toucanas says:

    The list is great, and I agree with most of the selections, but increasingly I suspect that these lists betray the “veteran” status.

    Then again, games evolve and so do the people that play them.

  4. Pingback: 10 Great 2-Player Games (Article by Chris Wray) – Herman Watts

  5. Bob Kamp says:

    Heul Doch Mau Mau works great as a 2-player. Each player has 2 piles. Simple. Fast. Agonizingly fun.

  6. Pete says:

    Also try out Watergate, Res Arcana, and Paladins of the West Kingdom. Especially, Watergate is a fantastic game for 2.

  7. Boyd says:

    Not even a mention of Hive, that’s my biggest surprise. Also I might have thought that Balloon Cup would make the top 15.

  8. Pingback: 10 Great Card Games (Article by Chris Wray) | The Opinionated Gamers

  9. Pingback: 10 Great Deduction Games (Article by Chris Wray) | The Opinionated Gamers

  10. Pingback: 10 Great Animal Games (Article by Chris Wray) | The Opinionated Gamers

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