What makes a great two-player game?

Two-Player Games - 7 Wonders Duel

I'm one of many gamers around the world who primarily play board games with just one other person. While my wife and I do play with larger groups of friends, the majority of our games are played head to head. Many other gamers are in exactly the same position.

Being in this situation, we've found that we can't just buy any game and assume it'll get played. Our handful of games for 3+ players do hit the table from time to time, but we use them far less than games which start from two players. This means that whenever we look at a new game, the question of whether or not it plays well two-player is bound to come up, and a few of our games only play at two.

But if you're in our position, how do you decide which games to buy? Should you lean towards the two-player only games? How can you tell if a game that says 2-4 players on the box really plays well at two? Those are the kinds of questions we're going to attempt to answer here.

I should also just drop a quick note to say that none of what I'm going to say necessarily applies to co-op games. My wife and I don't really enjoy co-op games, so we don't play them! There's a whole world of two-player co-ops out there, but I'll have to let other people explore it.

Player count

Let's start with the obvious: a good two-player game should say that it accommodates two players on the box. I've tried playing Catan (a 3-4 player game) at two players and it's not fun. Don't do it.

There are a lot of games out there that are exclusively for two players. If you see one of these, you know that the gameplay will have been designed for head to head play and tested extensively, so you can be pretty confident that it's going to play well. If, on the other hand, the game has a player count including, but not limited to, two players, you might want to dig a little deeper.

To illustrate what to look for, I'll give a few examples, starting with sister games 7 Wonders and 7 Wonders: Duel, both designed by Antoine Bauza and published by Repos Production. 7 Wonders says that it plays with 2-7 players, whereas Duel is exclusively two-player.

Both games use similar card drafting mechanics, but play very differently at two players. Duel, being designed for this player count, is smooth, fast and exciting, tweaking the larger game's mechanics to improve the experience. 7 Wonders, on the other hand, basically makes you play a three-player game, with each player taking it in turns to control a third player board. It feels clunky and unintuitive, and very different from the polished experience you get at higher player counts.

7 Wonders is a classic example of a game where the number two has been stuck on the box to make it appeal to a wider audience. This is the kind of game you want to avoid if you want a good head to head game, but not every 2+ game falls into the same trap. My wife and I recently bought the 2-4 player game Takenoko (another Antoine Bauza game, published by Bombyx) and 2-5 player game Century: Spice Road (designed by Emerson Matsuuchi and published by Plan B Games). We thoroughly enjoyed both of them as head to head games.

Games like Takenoko and Century: Spice Road succeed where 7 Wonders fails partly because they don't rely on interaction between multiple players to be at their best. 7 Wonders is balanced to take into account interactions with at least two other players, whereas these other two games have very little direct interaction, so are unaffected at the lower player count.

There are some specific mechanics to watch out for, as well. Unless they've been specifically designed and tested at the two-player count, games with mechanics like negotiation, trading, bidding and alliances are unlikely to work well. Remember how I said Catan is awful at two-players? That's because there's no point trading with each other. Its two-player variant, Rivals for Catan, is much better, as there's more resource manipulation built into the game to remove the need for player-to-player trades.

If in doubt, watch some 'how to play' or play-through videos and see if you can imagine the game at two-players. You should be able to get a sense pretty quickly if it'll suffer from a lower count, or play just as well.

Interaction

Now let's dig a little deeper into the core ingredients of good two-player games, bearing in mind that what is considered 'good' varies from gamer to gamer.

In a two-player game, interaction can only happen head to head. If you do something to hurt another player, you can only hurt your opponent, and vice versa. For this reason, games with combat or aggressive mechanics will often feel more intense at two-players than they might at higher counts (though it does remove the political aspect of choosing who you hurt), whereas games where the interaction is more passive, based on mechanics like choosing cards from a markets or building on a board, will often feel more relaxed with fewer players.

Neither end of the spectrum is objectively better. There are some excellent two-player games that are basically head-to-head duels, while there are also some fantastic games with minimal interaction. If you're playing with a regular gaming partner, the key is to know what you like. I tend towards more aggressive, high interaction games, while my wife prefers lower interaction, so we end up playing a mix, but the combination of our tastes still affects what we consider buying.

It's also worth saying that some games at various points on the spectrum really smash it out of the park when it comes to the interplay between two opponents. 7 Wonders: Duel is such a strong game because it reinvents card-drafting to work head to head, creating a system where you pick cards from a pattern on the table, and the card you pick could reveal new options, or free up previously locked down cards for your opponent to pick.

I haven't played it yet, but a game I previewed recentlyCrystal Clans, incorporates a fascinating push-and-pull style action point system that is designed specifically to encourage interesting head-to-head choices. Both these games are designed specifically to be played head to head, which definitely gives them an edge over broader games, though they're obviously less flexible.

Balance

However interactive a game is at two-players, it needs to be balanced for it to be fun. The questions I would ask include:

  • Can one player run away with the game if things go well in the first few turns?
  • Is there a good catch-up mechanism that feels natural to the game?

To answer that first question, I would look for mechanics or other elements of the game that let one player build up an unassailable advantage. For example, in a deck-building game like Star Realms, if there were a couple of cheap cards that were vastly more powerful than others, they could decide the game in a turn or two if one player gets them early. Thankfully, most deck-builders are designed to scale throughout the game to avoid this possibility. If one player can often build up a very early lead and maintain it every time, the game won't be especially fun.

 

If a game does lend itself to big advantages, a good catch-up mechanism can keep it exciting. This is where something in the game slows the leading player down, or speeds the losing player up, keeping things close. Another deck-building game, Dominion, has a very well crafted catch-up mechanism. To win, players get victory points from cards they buy that otherwise have no effect. Therefore, the more points a player has, the more useless cards are in their deck. If one player gets two or three point-scoring cards early, they'll likely have a few turns of nothing that will give the other player a chance to catch up. The mechanic works because it's an integral part of how you score points in the game, and skilled players can take it into account as they play.

Less balanced catch-up mechanics could include a big bonus of points or resources going to the player who's last at the end of the round. While something like this could help to keep the game close, it's more likely to lead to frustration, as players improve or lose ground through no choices of their own. It could, if anything, reward bad play.

Ultimately, as with any game, a well-balanced two-player game should end with a winner who feels like they deserved to win, and a loser who feels like, if things had gone slightly differently, they could have won. This result keeps things exciting and makes both players more likely to play again. All the games I've mentioned as good two-player examples in this article fall into this category, in my opinion, but there are many others out there.

Closing Thoughts on Two-Player Games

To finish, here are the three things that I would look for in a good two-player game:

  • Do its mechanics fit with two-players?
  • Will my wife and I enjoy the style of interaction the game encourages?
  • Is it balanced enough to be exciting and make us want to play again?

If you want to find out more, I recommend this podcast.