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The best board games for 2 players

board games for 2 players
(Image credit: Fantasy Flight, Banagrams, Z-Man Games, Steve Jackson, Gamewright, Space Cowboy)

You don't need to miss out on the best board games if you're short on manpower, and that's because the industry's crammed to the rafters with great board games for 2 players. And before you assume they're a consolation prize you'll only use when there aren't enough people to join in with something better, hold on. They're every bit as good as the rest (no, really), can often scale up for bigger groups when needed, and are frequently portable enough to travel with. As a result, 2-player board games are some of our favorites. No matter whether you want a night in with your significant other or are simply lacking in willing victims, the following recommendations should do the trick. We've included word games, tried-and-tested classics, and a few examples pulled from our best cooperative board games list.

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(Image credit: Cephalofair Games, Leder Games, Plan B Games)

Board games for adults
We’ve rounded up the greatest board games for adults in 2019.

What makes a good board game for 2 players, though? If you ask us, it's all about adaptability. Board games can be expensive regardless of whether they're for a pair or a larger gathering of people, so you won't get max value for money if you settle on something that can only do one or the other. What's more, portability is handy. Some of the best ones can be taken with you on everything from a lazy Sunday afternoon at the pub to your overseas vacation. That's particularly useful if you want board games for kids. Finally, we'd say the cream of the crop are easy to understand and start playing right away. The joy of many 2-player board games is their speed. With all that in mind, you'll find our suggestions below (along with a few bargains to get you the best deal possible, too).

Want a more immersive experience? Check out the best tabletop RPGs.

board games for 2 players

©Z-Man Games

Pandemic

The best co-op board game for 2 players

Players: 2-4 | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 25 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 10+

Endlessly replayable
Great for strategy
Can scale to 4 players
Tricky on first play

Pandemic is one of the greatest modern board games in 2019, and it's easy to see why. The premise is that there are four deadly viruses sweeping over the world, and your job is to cure them and to prevent the infection from spreading. The game is different every time, and there are enough roles and rules to keep things fresh but without overcomplicating things. Success in Pandemic comes from cooperation and strategy, rather than blind luck or 'knowing how to win', so it's something you can play time and time again without it getting stale.

What's more, it's great with two players. Sure, you can have up to four players (and the strategy does change here, as it becomes more about card management), but this works so well with just a couple. What's more, it's pretty quick to play, so you can get through a couple of world-saving sessions in an evening if you don't manage to win first time out. The only downside is that it's tricky to set-up the first time you play, as there are a few different parts to consider, but once you're familiar with how the game works it gets way, way easier. We can't recommend this highly enough.

Best for... Players looking to cooperate towards a noble goal, and to challenge their smarts for an evening.

board games for 2 players

©Kosmos

Exit: The Abandoned Cabin

A fantastic budget game, especially in co-op

Players: 2-4 | Time to set up: 10 minutes | Time to play: 60 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 12+

Great co-op experience
Easy to understand
Cheap
Limited replay value

If you don’t think a co-operative experience can send you into a competitive frenzy, you’ve never experienced an escape room. Exit: The Game is a series that mimics the flow of an escape room, from the gradually unravelling puzzles to the clear conversations required to keep track of multiple unfolding puzzles at once. While it can’t necessarily replicate the atmosphere of being locked in a room with a huge countdown timer looming overhead, Exit does an admirable job at testing your puzzle-solving and memory skills. 

Starting with only a handful of clues including a guestbook, puzzle dial and riddle cards, the real competition is against time as you try to solve all the conundrums as quickly as humanly possible. While the Cabin variation of the game is designed for up to four people, it shines with a single partner. The joy of solving a sequence of puzzles together is one thing, but the satisfaction of solving a sequence while your partner is still banging their head against their own is something else entirely.

Best for: People looking for a co-operative experience that has some built-in friendly competition.

board games for 2 players

©Bananagrams

Bananagrams

A clever word game that's suitable for everyone

Players: 1-8 | Time to set up: Under 2 minutes | Time to play: 10-20 minutes | Complexity: Hard | Age: 7+

Tense and frantic
Makes you think
Very portable
A bad starting hand can scupper your chances

Hold your scepticism for a moment; word game or not, Bananagrams is a stroke of brilliance. The idea is simple. Each player gets 24 single-letter tiles to make a crossword (with real words, obviously. No abbreviations or contractions allowed). When they’ve used all their tiles - which is harder than it sounds, especially if you get a handful of ‘q’ - they take another one that must also be added to their crossword. The rub is, their opponent has to do so as well… regardless of whether they’ve finished their own pile yet. This leads to mounting pressure as your unused tiles grow in number. The overall goal? Be the first to use all the spare tiles in the game. And, you know, have a crossword that makes sense at the end of it. 

Frantic, cerebral, and tense, Bananagrams is a compact board game you can carry with you anywhere. Due to the nature of it, the game always plays out in different ways too. As such, this is a pastime with lots of mileage.

Best for: Lazy Sundays at the pub or out and about.

board games for 2 players

©Space Cowboy

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

Best for armchair sleuths

Players: 2 | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 45-60 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+

Brilliant strategy
Beautiful art work
Really deep tactical play
Tricky to master on first play

Games of strategy are all well and good, but the context for competition within them is rigid and unchanging. You only have a certain number of moves, and intuitive leaps come rarely. You might feel like a victor at the end, but they’re too restrictive for you to feel like a hero. By contrast, mystery solving games likes Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective require players to make sense of a tangle of clues that would put the best fictional detectives to the test. The real test is whether you can make leaps of logic and separate red herrings from real clues faster than your opponent, with the prize for winning being all the sweeter.

Because each casebook included in the box is its own adventure, but one that builds upon and potentially sheds light on upcoming mysteries, it’s best to play this game over time with the same selection of other players. But - failing that - going head-to-head with another fan of brutal murder and mystery is a great way to test the power of your little grey cells.

Best for: Armchair sleuths who want to pit themselves against their friends as much as against the culprit

board games for 2 players

©Fantasy Flight

Hey, That's My Fish!

Quick and quirky fun

Players: 2-4 | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 5-10 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 8+

Fast-paced
Tactical
Penguins
A faff to set up

As the name would suggest, Hey, That’s My Fish! is a wonderfully quirky game for 2 or more people. Players control a couple of furious-looking penguins who spend their time sliding around an iceberg collecting fish. Unfortunately for them - and us - that iceberg has seen better days. Every time you move, the floor underfoot breaks away. When you leave a tile, you collect it and win however many fish are drawn on it (3 fish on the  tile? That’s 3 points, you lucky thing). The trouble is, taking tiles away makes your iceberg smaller. Because of this, you’ve got to be tactical with what and when you select. What’s more, other players are probably trying to cut you off too. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself trapped on a spar of ice with only a couple of fish on it.

This results in a clever, daft game of forward thinking that’s over quickly enough to let you play a couple of matches in 15 minutes. A must for the ruthless among you, even if it is a bit of a pain to set up.

Best for: Those who enjoy ruthless competition… and penguins. 

board games for 2 players

©Steve Jackson Games

Zombie Dice

A game of luck and skill

Players: 2+ | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 10 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+

Cheap and cheerful
Scales for more players
Wonderfully random
Best in small doses

Designed by Steve Jackson, the mind behind games like Munchkin, Zombie Dice is a fast-paced game of luck that tests your willingness to keep betting as the stakes for losing get higher and higher. Any number of people can get involved as players, but two player games are typically fast and frenetic, where misplaced confidence can immediately cost you the game. 

The gameplay is simple: Each zombie rolls three dice that each represent a survivor. Rolling the dice reveals the outcome of each attempt to chow down, with the brain symbol representing success, a shotgun blast representing failure, and running feet signifying a chance to try again. On each roll, the zombies can keep all the brains they accumulated - and have to keep all the shotgun blasts they took to their rotting bodies. But if their hand contains even one set of running feet the player can choose to continue rolling, hopefully bringing their total successes to 13 before they take 3 shotgun blasts and lose all their brains. 

The skill comes from knowing when to stop rolling and bank your brains, betting that your opponent won’t be able to reach that magic number before you. Because nothing you can do directly affects your opponent, this often becomes a one-on-one game of chicken, with both players hoping the other buckles first.

Best for: Highly competitive couples who can both hold their nerve (and don’t mind losing due to bad luck).

board games for 2 players

©Gamewright

Forbidden Island

Where you battle time, as well as your opponent

Players: 2-4: | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 30 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 10+

Works well for 2 players
Nice tokens included
Very replayable
Relies heavily on luck

Forbidden Island (and its sequel Forbidden Desert) are cooperative games in the true sense of the word. The real enemy in these titles isn’t the other players, but time. In Forbidden Island, you and your fellow players must seek out the four treasures on an island that is slowly sinking into the ocean. It’s luck of the draw as to which tiles will sink first, and it’s perfectly possible for a run of bad fortune to rob you of your victory, so good strategizing is a must.

While the game is nominally designed for up to four people, playing in concert with a single partner provides a measure of extra challenge. The added complexity of managing multiple characters, each with their own skills, or running it with only two adventurers, makes for a much tenser experience against the clock.

Best for: People who don't mind a bit of luck in their board game.

board games for 2 players

©Jumbo

Stratego

The classic game is still brilliant for two

Players: 2 | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 45-60 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 8+

Easy to understand
Lots of themed boards
Very replayable
End-game lasts too long

The definition of ‘tried-and-true’, Stratego has been around in its current form since the 1940s. A relatively barebones tactics game, it involves players arranging their battle formations and flags in such a way to encourage their enemy to attack where the defence is strong, while misdirecting them from their flag entirely. 

It’s effectively both strategy and a bluffing game rolled into one, with players wagering one of their 30 pieces to attack the opponent’s without at first knowing exactly what will be revealed during the attack: Since each piece has a rank, and higher-rank captains and majors automatically beat lower-rank squaddies and privates, the game becomes a tense back and forth of betting that your piece can beat your opponent’s, while shoring up your own defence.

Unusual pieces like the Scout or the Miner exist in variants on the base game, and there are enough themed versions of the board that you’ll probably find one that suits your sensibilities. If you’ve ever fancied themselves as an armchair general, this is one of the games that will really test that claim.

Best for: Strategy-minded competitors who enjoy watching their enemy fall prey to carefully planner battle manoeuvres.

board games for 2 players

©Cheapass Games

Tak

A classic with chess-like strategy

Players: 2 | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 30 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+

Loads of strategic depth
Multiple variants
Fast and easy
Can get repetitive

Tak first appeared in Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy bestseller The Wise Man’s Fear as a game described as “simple in its rules, [and] complex in its strategy.” After a successful Kickstarter campaign the game joined Terry Pratchett’s Thud! in the list of fictionalised board games now available for purchase in the real world.

The aim is to create a ‘road’ of your own pieces that span from one edge of the board to the other while preventing your opponent from doing the same. The wrinkle comes from the fact that you can break an opponent’s road by placing a piece on top of theirs, and can eventually split the resulting stacks to occupy many spaces in a single move. The board allows for a 5x5 or 6x6 grid, both of which have slight variances in the rules.

Tak is one of those rare strategy games that genuinely improves the more you play it against the same opponent. Strategies that seemed undefeatable even a few games ago are headed off long before they can be implemented, and new tactics have to be developed on the fly to compensate. Eventually, as in the books, the real goal becomes not just to win, but to win a beautifully played game.

Best for: A pair of strategists who want to learn to outwit one another over the course of many games.

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