I love duelling games. I entered the tabletop gaming world via the collectable card games Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: the Gathering and have been thrilled to discover so many excellent games that make use of a similar style of play. This article gives me the chance to talk about some of my favourites.
But first, what is a duelling game? It’s not just any game played with two players. For the purpose of this article, I’m defining it as a two-player game where there are no grades of victory. When one player meets the win condition, the other loses. Any two-player game with a health or life point system is an example of this, whereas I’m not counting a game like Prowler’s Passage, which, although it is a fantastic two-player game, involves two rounds of point scoring and adding.
Yes, the definition is somewhat arbitrary, but I find that duelling games give a particular kind of tense, highly interactive experience that I love. I don’t want to muddy the water with other games, even if they're also good for two players.
Dice Throne is a fantastic blend of dice-rolling and card play that epitomises the duelling experience. Two players face each other down with unique characters and roll attacks and defences to see who will be the last one standing.
A Yahtzee-style dice-rolling system allows the attacker to choose a move from their character board, while the defender will roll to mitigate the damage or deal some in return. Cards played with a simple combat point cost system allow players to add damage, change their dice, upgrade their moves and more.
Dice Throne is a great entry-point if you’re looking for your first duelling game. The characters are all very well balanced and close games are virtually guaranteed. Plus, the excellent Season 2 is nearing its full retail release after a successful Kickstarter, bringing eight great new fighters to the series.
Shards of Infinity
There are several deck-building games that could have been mentioned, but Shards of Infinity is my pick of the bunch. The gameplay will be familiar to players of Star Realms or Hero Realms, with subtle improvements that make Shards of Infinity my favourite.
Both players start with a basic deck that contains resources to buy better cards from a central market and to start dealing damage to your opponent. As you go through the game your deck will improve, allowing you to deal increasing amounts of damage as you aim to get your opponent’s life points down from 50 to zero.
Shards of Infinity adds a level-up mechanic that makes it stand out from similar games. Players can gain Mastery throughout the game, which unlocks more powerful abilities on a range of cards. When they reach 30 mastery they also have the potential to unleash an infinite damage ability, winning them the game on the spot.
The game is fast and tense with many viable strategies. It was my bargain buy of 2018 and I will always be happy to play it.
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn
Combat-based duelling games might seem overly simplistic to some. After all, how interesting can dealing damage to life points be? Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn answers emphatically: it can be fascinating. Of all the games on this list, Ashes has the most elegant, intricate gameplay.
This gameplay is achieved through very quick, limited turns that link together to form enthralling interchanges across multiple rounds. Players pay for cards and effects using 10 dice that they roll at the start of the round. Planning out what you want to do over the course of the round is essential.
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is the only game on this list that allows external deck-building. I’ve always played with the pre-built character decks, but there are rules for building your own if you want to dive deeper into the game. Deck-building is not necessary to enjoy the game casually, but many players will enjoy this aspect.
Undoubtedly one of the sensations of 2018, KeyForge is different to every other card game I’ve mentioned. Players use their completely unique, unalterable decks to race each other for Aember. They use this Aember to forge keys; the first player to three keys is the winner.
There is so much to admire about KeyForge. Even setting aside the fascinating unique deck generation, the gameplay is intricate, layered with tough decisions at every turn. While some decks will be harder to play well than others, even the simplest decks reward good play.
Despite the lack of life points interaction is still very much a part of KeyForge. Controlling your opponent’s board is crucial if you want to get ahead of them. Knowing when to use your creatures to fight and when to collect Aember is a key skill. With almost 450,000 decks registered KeyForge is going from strength to strength. Long may it continue!
Honourable Mention: 7 Wonders Duel
I want to end this article with the honourable mention of a superb game that doesn’t meet my criteria for duelling games, but does have ‘duel’ in the title. 7 Wonders Duel is a point-scoring card game with no combat and very little direct interaction, but it’s a truly excellent option if games with more direct combat don’t appeal to you.
Players draft cards from a central structure, adding them to their own city and gaining various benefits. In my opinion, Duel is even better than it’s parent game, 7 Wonders, but the experience is similar enough that fans of one will easily grasp the other.
The card drafting system allows you to plan a turn or two ahead but no further and there is always the possibility that your opponent will disrupt your plans. Still, once you’ve added a card to the city there are few ways to lose it, which means you don’t need to worry about your opponent knocking down what you have built.
If you want a close two-player game without the combat, try 7 Wonders Duel.