Last week, I popped in with some of my best experiences of co-operative games with two players, and this week I figured I’d flip that and list the “versus” style games my husband and I have enjoyed on our trip through the gaming jar. The gaming jar was our way of trying out all our board games that say they’re okay for two players and figuring out which of them really were fun for two players (unsurprisingly, it’s a lot less than advertised) but there were a few surprises where we went in thinking “oof, this will be bad,” and… it wasn’t. That risk of un-fun seems higher to me when it’s not a co-operative game, but not always.
Five Competitive Games Fun for Two Players
Creature Comforts (1 to 5 Players)
Okay, it’s possible the reason this one is so fun is the sheer, absolute adorableness involved in the artwork and thematic of the game, but we still had fun with two players (and even more fun with four). The set-up for Creature Comforts is simple: you take on the role of one of five animal groups—bunnies, raccoons, squirrels, foxes, or hedgehogs, all of whom have two options for a special ability—and then you spend Spring, Summer, and Autumn getting ready for Winter to come, with the goal of making yourself a snuggly, warm, super-comfortable home for when the snow flies.
This one is a worker-placement but also dice-rolling mix, and the resulting mechanic is really interesting—you each roll two dice of the colour matching your animal tokens, and then place your workers on various spaces around the board which will require one or more dice with particular rolls to activate on your turn (meaning, you know two of the dice already so you have two dice you’re sure will be the numbers you might need) but then once everyone has placed their animeeples, the first player rolls four more dice, and everyone uses that same set of dice results on their sequential turns. So there’s a random element, a bit of a gamble (will dice be rolled that I need to make the space where I’m putting my little fox activate?) but there’s a nifty balancing mechanic, too: any of your little animals that don’t end up getting activated earn you a “lesson learned” token, which you can use to modify a dice roll in another round up or down by 1.
Gathering resources, building things, and then snuggling down is the whole process, and there’s very little about this game that feels “versus” in play—you’re mostly doing your own thing, with the exception of someone perhaps picking up a comfort card you wanted, but honestly, you’re mostly trying to optimize your own space, so it was never done as an “attack” in our experiences. The replayability is solid—the turn order of each season’s cards is random, and there’s also a traveling guest who comes to stay and offers up specific deals every turn—and the game itself has a built in number of turns you play before final scoring starts, so it doesn’t run overlong, either. And it’s adorable. I mean, snuggly foxes in their den knitting blankies and collecting books for winter? I’m in.
Dinosaur Island (2 to 5 Players)
Definitely not snuggly and cozy, this game is totally a riff on Jurassic Park, only with all the serial numbers filed off. It’s also not adorable in design so much as it’s 80s Neon To the Max, Dude! in theme. You play as owner/operators of your own Jurass—er, sorry—Dinosaur Island theme park, where you splice DNA, create dinosaurs, fill paddocks, set up exhibits and concession stands, greet guests, and try really hard not to let anyone get eaten (or at least, not so many people as to ruin your reputation or lose your business, because 80s Capitalism is totally down with some people getting eaten, as long as everyone else has fun and buys a T shirt).
I think where Dinosaur Island really shines is the ability to play a short, medium, or long game by virtue of choosing from short, medium, and long goals, and there are enough of those goals that random draws make for different game strategies every time you play. That said, we did have one two-player short game where I won at the end of something like the second turn, which was more amusing for me than my husband, and definitely wasn’t worth the set-up time for the game, but it did mean we played another game right after, which went in a more balanced way. The dice—did I mention they’re 80s Neon To the Max, Dude!?—control the randomness of the game, and from there it’s a blend of worker placement and to a lesser degree a tile-placing game as you design your own island in front of you. You can hire specialists, choose how dangerous a dino you want to introduce to your park (more dangerous dinos get you happier customers, but also increase the risk of said happy customers being eaten), and while the crunch to this one is a bit complex in places, by the second or third game you’ll have it down.
A quick note about the 80s Neon To the Max, Dude! thematics, though—I have a really, really hard time telling two of the colours on the dice apart. I’m colour-weak (not colour-blind) and there are also shapes on the dice, but those shapes are complex rather than simple (they could have gone with Triangles, Squares, Circles, etc., but instead they went with… I don’t know what they are, frankly, but I have to stare at them a while to make sure I’ve got it right). So that part is a bit of a frustration. Still, it’s a fun game. And it came with a slap-bracelet, because 80s Neon to the Max, Dude!
Parks (1 to 5 Players)
If Creature Comforts is adorable fun and Dinosaur Island is neon capitalism danger fun, Parks is a more beautiful fun, albeit fun that also jacks up a kind of tension in the sense of you’ll only be able to accomplish so much, so you really feel how every turn counts. This is another game we had even more fun with beyond two players, but with two is still good. Of design note is how absolutely freaking perfectly the game stores, packs away, and sets up. The world needs more game boxes designed like this gem, frankly. The theme of the game is simple: you’re hiking through the national parks of the United States of America, and more or less “collecting” memories of doing so.
It’s a worker-placement and resource-gathering kind of game, where you’ve got Sunshine, Water, Trees, and Mountains (and wildcard Animals) which you use to trade in for specific parks to add to your personal checklist of visited places. You get those resources by moving forward (never back) with one of two campers, and that’s the crunch of the game: if you jump ahead on the trail to a spot where you definitely want the resources it offers (and the first person on any space also gains bonus sunshine or water, depending on the weather), any spaces behind become harder to get to. Each season, you add one more space to the track (and in larger player games, you have extra spots from the start of the game), and there is a Campfire mechanic that lets you join a space where another hiker (even yourself) is already placed, but believe me when I say choosing where to advance one of your hikers to can be really, really nail-biting, even while you’re looking at the gorgeous artwork on the cards and thinking, “I would totally love to go explore Alaska someday! (No, no you wouldn’t, ‘Nathan, you can barely tolerate Ottawa winter.)”
You can purchase equipment, start the game with a hidden goal that will adjust how you’ll likely strategize, and while there’s definitely a frustration element of “you just took the park I was going to take, damn you” again it doesn’t feel like an attack. Both of you are just trying to do your best with what you’ve got. If someone gets quite a bit further ahead point-wise, catching up can be difficult, which can also put a damper on the fun, but Parks is also a fairly quick game with a built in number of seasons before you’re done. And given the randomized seasons, available parks, weather, equipment purchases, and personal goal cards, the replay-ability is really high. You’ll evolve some tactics, yes, but I’ve not really felt like I’ve played this the same way twice.
Patchwork (2 Players)
It’s hard to come across a list of fairly recent two-player tabletop board games without bumping into Patchwork on that list, but honestly? I get it. It hits a bunch of really great sweet spots for me as a competitive two-player game, and more importantly, both myself and my husband find losing doesn’t feel bad in the slightest on this one. Thematically, you’re both making a patchwork quilt, one covered in buttons for some reason, but I’ll put that down to a quirky grandmother who realized she had a big honkin cookie tin full of buttons or something and decided to just what-the-hell it and put them on a big ol’ blanket.
The things Patchwork does so well are these: Set up is quick. Gameplay is quick. The mechanics are simple, and there’s a kind of built-in balancing effect via the way the turns work depending on who is furthest behind on a track that I freaking love. There’s a puzzle-placing element to it. It’s super-portable (ie: small-ish). All those things are great, and when you’ve got them all in one game, even better. We routinely pick out Patchwork when we’re feeling up for a quick game, but don’t want to spend ages setting up or anything super-challenging. Also, the closest you get to “versus” feeling is when the other player picks up a patch piece you were hoping for, but again, the other player is trying to make their own quilt. Sabotaging the other player isn’t really a strategy that works in Patchwork.
Setting up involves making a big circle of patches, doling out your buttons (which are currency) and placing the starting marker inside that circle. The player can buy a patch within a certain range of the starting piece, and “buying” involves either time (which advances your marker on a game board), buttons, or both. Then the player moves the piece forward to the empty spot where the patch was, and the player furthest behind on the game board goes next. It’s possible to take multiple turns in a row, and it’s also possible to jump way ahead and end up not having a turn for a while, but both can lead to victory. As you place the pieces on your large board, there are bonuses for filling in a certain sized square, and then, at the end, there’s some math done with how many buttons you have, how many open squares aren’t covered in, and ta-da, you declare a winner.
Timeline (2 to 6 Players)
Was the can-opener invented before or after stainless steel? When was gravity discovered? When were the pyramids built? The good news when it comes to playing Timeline is you don’t need to know the exact dates for any of these questions. The bad news is you need to be able to put them in order, but that’s also still good news because it’s both fun and funny and, well, informative. Timeline is a deck of cards with the same image of some piece of history on both sides, but on one side the date is listed. Everyone starts with the same number of cards (6 each for two or three players, less for more players), and then a single card is flipped up and placed in the middle of the table with its date showing.
After that, your goal is to get rid of your cards by placing them in the ever-growing row of cards in the centre of the table in chronological order, which sounds simple, but can get quite vexing the longer that line of cards grows. If you place your card, flip it and it’s correct, it gets added to the timeline. If you flip it and it’s wrong, you discard it and draw another card to put in front of you to place on your next turn. You always finish a round, so if someone goes out and the other player(s) only have one card left, they get a shot at tying the game (and then it becomes a face-off between those players) but in my experience that doesn’t happen much, especially if my father-in-law is involved, because apparently he knows everything, which I’m sure is super-fun for my mother-in-law.
Strategy-wise, there’s not a lot beyond potentially hanging onto cards you’re most sure of till the end, since you’ve got a better chance of placing them correctly and going out, but I’ve had that backfire on me when I knew a card was for-sure in the 60s, but not more specific than that, and later on in the game cards ended up on the timeline in 1961, 1964, and 1968, making “I know this was the 60s,” rather less helpful then than it would have been when the only cards on the table were dated 1804 and 2001. The game cards are small, making this one very portable, and there are multiple sets out there you can absolutely mix and match to your hearts content to make the deck larger—we have the Canadian-specific Timeline, among others—and from a Stocking Stuffer point of view, this game is fabulous for multiple years in a row if you find someone who enjoys it.
What about you? Do you have any two-player head-to-head games you enjoy you think I should check out? As always, I’d love to hear about new games, so pop a comment below if you’ve got one you love.