Sometimes, you get the most memorable experiences with board games for 2 players. Head-to-head board games are taut, tense tests of skill against a lone opponent. There aren't many better feelings than besting your opponent one-on-one, whether in a slow and tactical oldie like Stratego or something more complex and wild, like Yomi. For one thing it’s easier to rub a victory in a single person’s face.
You don’t always get the party atmosphere with board games for 2 players, but that’s ok. For games like Pandemic Legacy or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, it’s far easier to see the beauty of competition with one trusted friend who you can hook in regularly than relying on a group of people with lives outside of board games (the fools). There are no out-and-out wargames in this list, so don’t scroll down looking for Warhammer or Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game - you'll find that kind of thing on our best board games round-up. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t expect each game to break out into a fierce rivalry (or tons of laughter), though. And if you're curious about the hobby, here's how to get started in board games.
Exit - The Abandoned Cabin
The best board game for 2 players, especially in co-op
Players: 2-4 | Time to set up: 10 minutes | Time to play: 60 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 12+
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.
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+
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
A game of luck and skill
Players: 2+ | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 10 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+
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).
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+
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.
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A great 2 player game for video game fans
Players: 2 | Time to set up: 10 minutes | Time to play: 25 minutes | Complexity: Medium | Age: 10+
‘Yomi’ is the Japanese word for reading the mind of the opponent. Knowing your opponent is a central tenet of fighting games - guessing when they’ll jump in, when they’re preparing a parry, when they’re about to pop a super move. That’s why matches between high-level fighting game players are so thrilling to watch, because they know each other’s patterns intimately, turning each match into a battle of wits as much as of input memorisation.
For most of us high-level fighting game play is out of reach because we don’t understand the fundamental rhythm of fighting games. Enter ‘Yomi’, a card-based game from the team behind Fantasy Strike and Street Fighter 2 HD Remix that seeks to teach players about the considerations that go into predicting an opponent’s move and countering effectively, at a less-than-blistering pace. With beautiful art across the 20 playable character decks and a refreshingly in-depth tutorial on the official site, Yomi is a fantastic experience for two players who want to test their predictive might.
Best for: Those looking to gin up on their fighting game skills in a slower-paced but equally competitive environment.
The classic game is still brilliant for 2
Players: 2 | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 45-60 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 8+
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.
And Then We Held Hands
A wonderful co-op game for 2
Players: 2 | Time to set up: 5 minutes | Time to play: 30 minutes | Complexity: Easy - Medium (depends on your partner) | Age: 10+
Not all board games have to be head-to-head struggles. Sometimes it’s nice to use the medium of tabletop games to reaffirm how well you know somebody. And Then We Held Hands is a co-operative experience where success rides on how well you can intuit your partner’s plans non-verbally.
Without speaking, you and a partner need to make your way towards the centre of the board via a series of nodes. The kicker is that each move has an effect on your emotional state, and to win both players need to enter the centre of the board on consecutive turns in the same emotional state. Doing so is more complex than it sounds - particularly as taking a particular move can have a disastrous impact on your partner’s ability to complete their turn as planned.
Appropriately for a game based around emotions, the art on the card is gorgeous. Designed by Marie Cardouat, the highly expressive and frequently abstract designs convey meaning without being overly complex. Apologies if you're in the US - it's tough to track down outside the UK.
Best for: Partners who want to play games together.
A classic with chess-like strategy
Players: 2 | Time to set up: 2 minutes | Time to play: 30 minutes | Complexity: Easy | Age: 10+
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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