Tabletop Tuesday — Two Players, No Competition

When the pandemic started, my husband and I had recently gone through our board game collection and tucked a few aside as games we hadn’t played in a long time, and weren’t likely to play again, and had even found new homes for those games, though they’re still in a pile because, well, pandemic. When it became clear we’d be socially isolating for a while, I made a “game jar,” by cutting up little slips of paper and putting the name down of every game we had that declared itself playable by two players, and we started pulling them out of the jar and making our way through them and discovering that for a lot of games, “Two to Four,” “Two to Five,” “Two to Six,” or even more really meant, “You should probably play this with three or four people at least, but it’s technically possible to play with just two, albeit much less fun.”

That said, we did discover quite a few games that were fun to play with just the two of us, and to start with, I’m going to stick to my favourite kind of games to begin with: cooperative.

Cooperative games are the “everyone wins, or we all lose” of board games, and they’re my favourite precisely because of the lack of versus involved, and that comes into play all the more with only two players—when it’s a competitive game and you’ve got only two players, very often it’s clear who is going to win early on and that can rob the game of a lot of the fun. Or, it means the whole experience is about doing the other player dirty, stymying them and getting in the way of their plans, and that’s not generally something I enjoy doing to someone else, or enjoy having done to me, frankly. I’d rather us work to a common goal, and have some sort of AI board game mechanic to defeat. That isn’t to say there aren’t fun competitive two player games—there are, and maybe I’ll do that post another day—but cooperative games always have my heart.

Five Co-operative Games Fun for Two Players

Castle Ravenloft (1 to 5 Players)

The cover of Castle Ravenloft board game

Castle Ravenloft was a game that we took a while to warm up to. For one, it had the unfortunate 4th-Edition feel of Dungeons and Dragons, a version of the game neither of us enjoyed, but as a tabletop board game, that landed better for us than trying to role-play. I’d also tried it solo and got absolutely slaughtered, so my first impression wasn’t entirely positive. But when we set up a two-player adventure and grabbed characters and made our way through it with a surprising amount of fun. It’s not a slower-paced game, plays sort of like a streamlined dungeon-crawl, and it’s not the kind of game where you can afford to let your character hesitate. The game functions with tiles being revealed on most turns—and if you’re not opening up a new tile, the game tends to make the bad things already on the board even worse, and you’ll end up overwhelmed. That works to jack up the tension and keep your characters on the move.

Crunch-wise, the mechanics weren’t too hard to figure out—I watched a video walk-through first—and from a replay point of view, there are five characters with different abilities and you choose only some of those abilities for each adventure, so you can absolutely play the same character a different way from adventure to adventure—of which there are more than enough to play through before you’d need to start repeating—and the same can be said of the treasures and equipment your character will have. Finally, from a theme and world-building point of view, this is Ravenloft, which frankly goes down as one of the best D&D settings ever, and there’s just something about facing off against Strahd, no?

Meeple Party (1 to 5 Players)

Cover of Meeple Party game

If Castle Ravenloft can be a bit frenetic and make you feel like you’re always teetering on the edge of overwhelmed, Meeple Party is a much gentler gaming experience, but it still has its own ticking-clock mechanics and ever-shifting goals. The idea behind Meeple Party is simple enough: you’re a group of roommates having a party, and trying to give everyone a good time and make some memories and snap some photos. But people are people—in Meeple Party, they’re all categorized into five types: jerk, flirt, party animal, wallflower, and cool—and as new people arrive and you have others mingle, the crowds that form in the different rooms of your house get more and more complex.

Each player has their own individual goals, which are the photographs of groups you’re trying to gather, often in specific number or specific places in the house—but the game is won or lost as a whole on the basis of anyone “stressing out.” How you stress out depends on the cards you have—”Peer Pressure,” as one example, means having no rooms with Party Animals and Wallflowers—and every turn more people arrive at the party and more people mingle. It’s cute, fairly quick, and the mechanics are deceptively simple but create a decent puzzle—moving a Jerk into a room, for example, will send another meeple already in that room two rooms away (because, well, he’s a jerk, and probably did or said something bad); moving a Cool into a room draws two meeple from adjacent room(s) into the same room to hang out. So, strategically, the players move meeple around to try and set up the groups of they need in the rooms they need them in, all while trying to avoid the stress-causing disasters. Once enough photos have been taken and the clock hits the closing time of the party, the game is won.

Onirim (1 or 2 Players)

Cover of Onirim game.

Onirim is a rare solo Solitaire-like game that also has a two-player mode, and thematically it’s a game I adored so much I couldn’t resist mentioning it in my first YA novel, Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks as a favourite of the main character, Cole. In Onirim, you’re lost in a strange dreamworld, trying to find your way through doors in time to escape before the dream ends. It’s played entirely with a deck of cards, and the two-player version creates a back-and-forth as you each try to find four doors of the four colours and place your cards down in the right pattern to unlock them, or luck into—and discard—the keys you need. Meanwhile, nightmare cards lie in wait.

Onirim has just the right balance of luck and skill for me. When we lose, it doesn’t feel like it was completely out of our control, but enough of it is poor luck, so it doesn’t sting as much, either. Playing together also involves a lot of “okay, if I do this, then I’ll get my door, and then we can try to get you your next door…” discussions, and the laying down of cards (trying to get three of the same colour in a row, though no two played cards in a row have the same symbol) has just enough complexity to be challenging without feeling like too much. It also has a bunch of expansions, and we’ve played with a few of them, but for the most part, it’s fun by itself. It’s quick to set up, fairly quick to play, and doesn’t have a steep learning curve.

Paperback (2 to 5 Players)

Cover of the Paperback game.

While thematically, Paperback is a game about being a pulp fiction writer who is paid by the word, and trying to write that elusive best seller, from a gameplay point of view, it’s a deck-building game where you use the pennies you earn from the word you assemble from your personal deck of cards to buy more cards from the communal “shop.” The bought cards are added to your deck, and those cards earn you more cash that you can then use to buy better letters, often having powers that grant you boosts to your earnings, and on it goes. The competitive version of this game is fun for two players, too, since you’re building from your own deck and it doesn’t involve any attacking, really, since you’re just trying to buy more victory point cards until two of the piles of victory cards run out, at which point the game ends and you tally up to find the winner. The cooperative version, however, gives you a limited number of turns with which to empty out a pyramid of those victory cards, and I find it all the more satisfying because the tactical move isn’t always to get those cards as fast as possible, but rather to make sure both players are building decks strong enough to handle the next layer of the pyramid.

Where Paperback really shines is if you’ve got a couple of word-nerds (like myself and my husband) and you can help each other out, figure out which tactic your individual deck will focus on (I tend to like building decks that let me draw extra cards, and my husband likes to get cards that give him more buying power) and playing to your strengths while you watch the ticking clock of the pyramid of cards you need to clear. Both players start with the same basic decks, but they soon become very different in how they play as you use the money you earn on each word to add more letters (and more abilities) to the cardss you draw. When it comes to the co-operative version of the game, we often win by the skin of our teeth, which is just so satisfying.

Sentinels of Earth Prime (2 to 5 Players)

Cover of the Sentinels of Earth Prime card game.

Last week I talked about Mutants & Masterminds, the superhero tabletop role-playing game, and Sentinels of Earth Prime is a card game is based on the RPG, using the “Earth Prime” setting, but offering up a deck-based card game with a lot of replay-ability, and a satisfying amount of individual crunch. When you play with two players, each of you picks two of the decks of hero cards, so you are technically playing two characters each and the equivalent of a four-player game, but honestly, it’s just as fun to play with two heroes, so if it’s a “cheat” to call that two players, I’m not going to call anyone out on it. Those four heroes then go against one of the villains (who has their own deck), and then a setting is also put into play with its own environment deck. I kickstarted this one with a bunch of expansions, but the basic set has ten heroes, four villains, and four environments. Even just considering which bad guy you’re taking down and where that bad-guy is being fought that’s sixteen different options that change the way the game unfolds, and which heroes you bring jacks that up to a lot of variability. Add in the expansions and it goes even further.

The hero and villain and environment decks are all listed with complexity levels, which is nice, so you can start out with more simple games as you get the idea of how your hero works, what sort of curveballs the environment might throw your way, and the tricks the bad guy has up his sleeve. The way the rounds progress creates a clever sort of AI for the villain, and it was interesting to see how quickly my husband and I ended up with “favourite” hero decks. (I like the Doctor Metropolis, Johnny Rocket, and Lady Liberty decks, whereas he liked the mechanics of the Captain Thunder and Star Knight decks the most). I should also note Sentinels of Earth Prime stands alone, but is also cross-compatible with another game I don’t yet have, Sentinels of the Multiverse, for even more combinations (and thereby fresh gaming experiences).

What about you? Do you have any two-player games you love to play? Are they co-operative, or are they competitive? I’m always interested in hearing about new games, so drop me a comment if you’ve got a gem.

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