If you’re a tabletop enthusiast, recent months may have come with an extra frustration. Beyond being stuck at home a lot and wearing a mask everywhere we go, it’s simply a lot harder to safely get together with friends to play a great game. If you’re in that camp, but you have at least one partner, spouse, or roommate close at hand, then there are still some great options to explore. While plenty of tabletop games support two-player options, these recent and excellent releases are built from the ground up for a pair of gamers to enjoy together.
An abridged version of this article originally ran in Game Informer Issue 328.
The Fox In The Forest Duet
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios/Foxtrot Games
Many cooperative games are built for big groups and feature large and involved set-ups, but Fox in the Forest Duet is a lovely and inexpensive two-player option that offers an enjoyable and easy-to-learn challenge focused on working together with limited information. Over three hands, this trick-taking card game provides a fascinating experiment in non-verbal communication. The goal is to walk back and forth along a forested path, collecting red gems that appear at each space. Players take turns revealing cards from their hand to push and pull the play token in opposing directions along the path, trying to avoid walking beyond the edge of the board. Each player must try to play a card that either purposefully trumps or loses the trick, which determines which way the token will move. Special powers on several of the beautifully illustrated cards add an additional tactical layer. Of course, along the way, you can only let the cards do the talking – no verbal coordination is allowed.
Simple mechanics and a quiet, nature-focused setting lend this casual cooperative affair a feeling of breezy fun. It’s an especially great fit for an experienced player alongside a relatively casual partner, demanding that the two of you sync up your plays.
Cosmic Encounter Duel
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
The original Cosmic Encounter is a classic of the early boardgaming scene, spawning numerous new editions and revisions over the years. The new Cosmic Encounter Duel takes that larger multiplayer experience and retrofits everything for a tense two-person competition. Players control one of over two-dozen unique alien species, each of which breaks the standard rules of play in a unique way. You and your opponent are both vying to join the Cosmic Citizenship Council, but there’s only space for one of you; the first to control five newly discovered planets wins the slot.
Players move their ships across the vastness of space, discovering new worlds, confronting surprising outer-space events, and gradually building up forces and allies to win the day. A clever dueling mechanic demands that each player secretly selects numbers of ships and tactics before revealing a plan of attack and resolving the throwdown.
The science-fiction theming and art is wonderfully imagined, the playtimes are under an hour, and the tense one-versus-one exchanges are great fun, doing honor to this venerable tabletop franchise.
Publisher: Smirk and Laughter Games
Lovers of abstract strategy games like chess, go, or Othello should pause to consider the intriguing potential of Shobu, an especially striking new two-player game that feels like it’s been unearthed from some long-forgotten treasure hoard. Four small wooden boards each house a set of white and black smooth-tumbled stones. On your turn, move one of your stones one or two spaces in any direction. Then, move any one other stone on one of the boards of the opposite color, where it must shift in the same direction and number of spaces. The goal is to knock all your opponent’s stones off of any one board to win.
Shobu is one of those fascinating games that takes only moments to pick up, but promises a rich spatial challenge with nearly endless replayability. Inevitably, the early part of each session sees many stones knocked away on both sides, until the two opponents have just a few viable pieces left on each board, and the real match begins in earnest. With a Zen-like aesthetic and gorgeous components, it’s a great fit for two deep thinkers ready to get lost in a novel matching of wits.
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
You are competing stargazers and astronomers, working to gather insight about the universe as you stare through your telescope. This clever card-drafting game challenges the two players to gather cards of planets, asteroids, black holes, and other celestial objects, and form a beautiful tableau of the night sky.
In practice, Stellar is a particularly fascinating and challenging competition, offering plenty of interesting choices over the course of its brief 30 minutes of playtime. Playing cards with smart placement into either your telescope or your notebook garners points that help you edge out a victory. Beautiful card art does a great job of reinforcing the outer space theme, but it’s the puzzle-like structure of play that will appeal to players who enjoy formulating interesting sets; expect to spend a lot of time staring at your hand, and trying to figure out your exact path to the highest point totals over the course of the game’s 11 quick-playing rounds.
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
The Codenames series of games has gathered a host of accolades, not to mention a regular spot at the table for lots of players around the world. And that’s for good reason. The game, in all its incarnations, is fun, smart, and easy to learn. Codenames Duet earns a spot on this list, as it is the best way to play the game when you want to enjoy the fun of Codenames, but only have two players ready to give it a shot.
For players new to the concept, Codenames demands that one player offers up a clue word that connects to multiple concepts displayed on cards on the table, and the number of cards that connect to that word; the player on their team then tries to find and select the cards in question. But you have to be careful not to give a clue that accidentally guides your teammate to the wrong word. So, “Yellow 2” might be a good match as a clue to guide your teammates to “Bumblebee” and “Bus,” but maybe not if one of the cards you’re trying to avoid is “Sun.” It’s a game that is immediately accessible and exciting, but remains great fun for nearly endless replays.
Codenames Duet changes up the formula by making the whole experience into a cooperative venture, rather than two competing teams. Minor adjustments to the rules ably convert the dynamic, and beyond the two-player option, it also may appeal strongly to couples who prefer non-competitive dynamics. Codenames Duet works great as an ideal solution for two players; alternately, you can also still play the whole experience with a big group, if that situation arises.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
The Arkham Horror brand and its many spin-offs have a long history in the tabletop scene, and there are plenty of great games to explore, each of which approaches the Cthulhu Mythos from its own unique perspective. But many of these games are squarely targeted at larger groups of players looking for a beefy, full-evening game session. If there’s just two of you looking to play out an exciting adventure against the backdrop of Lovecraftian horror, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is an ideal choice.
Over the course of the game, each player embodies an investigator exploring the threat of ancient evil in a small New England town, balancing your talents and flaws to overcome certain death. A wonderful risk/reward mechanic lives at the heart of the game, all about discarding cards to increase the chance of success in a given situation, but losing out on that card’s ability that might come in handy later.
There’s an engaging RPG feeling to the ever-growing campaign of this card game, which can be expanded by a wide array of expansion sets that have come out since the core game’s launch. After several years, it’s a rich and rewarding adventure, with a ton of branching paths and stories, that could keep you and a partner playing for a long time. Also, while the core game only supports two players, it’s worth noting that a second core set expands the player count options to four.
What two-player board games win a spot at your table? Share your selections in the comments below.
And if you don’t see quite what you’re looking for in this list, or you are simply looking for something else in the tabletop sphere to bring out for family game night, don’t hesitate to drop me a line and let me know what you’re looking for. I’m always happy to offer up a personalized recommendation.