TTG's Top 10: Two-player games for Valentine's Day
Cut up that card and bin those chocolates: whether you’ve found your perfect partner or not, all you need this Valentine’s Day is a fantastic two-player game. Here are ten worth coupling up with
Agricola and A Feast for Odin creator Uwe Rosenberg is the master of complex, brain-busting Euro epics, but Patchwork proves the designer also knows how to create a simple yet equally gripping game that plays in a matter of minutes. Players take it in turn to purchase patches by paying buttons, before adding them to their quilt. Each piece takes a different amount of time to stitch into the beautiful spread and must be carefully arranged to avoid leaving holes – because that makes it more of a poncho, and loses you points. It’s fast, gorgeous and easy to learn, and has quickly solidified itself as one of the most popular and celebrated two-player experiences on the tabletop. If you’re Rosenberg fans, the designer has also come up with brilliant two-player takes on some of his bigger classics: Caverna: Cave vs Cave and Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small.
For those seeking: Crafty creators, blanket snugglers, Euro perfection
Magic: The Gathering may be Richard Garfield’s better-known two-player card game, but we’d say that Netrunner has even more of an intense head-to-head atmosphere as one player’s team of hackers tries to break into the megacorp of their opponent. Each side of the virtual battle plays in a unique way, as the corporation advances its agendas and locks down its servers with security software, while the attacker’s runners race against time to bypass the barriers. The living card game is kept constantly fresh with regular cycles of expansions and recently updated its core set – which is all you’ll need to start playing – so now’s a good time to jack in for the first time.
For those seeking: Cyberpunks, competitive counterparts, a lifelong obsession
The historical cat-and-mouse chase of Jack the Ripper and the London police officers on his tail makes for particularly exciting two-player games, as one person takes on the persona of the killer and tries to outwit their pursuer. Mr. Jack boils the tense hunt down to its basics, as a lone investigator rushes to eliminate suspects from a board of eight characters by catching them in the light. Equally great is the snappy card game spin-off Mr. Jack Pocket, which condenses the gameplay down to just 15 minutes. It’s also available on mobile, if you’re looking to play out and about (or in bed).
For those seeking: Crime lovers, vintage dressers, dangerous liaisons
Great for on-the-go gaming thanks to its lack of a board, Hive is a quick abstract game about laying down bugs to try and surround your opponent’s queen bee – before they do the same to you. Each insect has unique rules that determine the way they move, so you’ll need to command your army of spiders, beetles, grasshoppers and soldier ants tactically to claim the win. There are only 22 pieces in total, the rules are easy to remember and Hive can be played on any flat (or almost flat) surface you can find, so it’s a prime choice when travelling with someone else – or when trying to make a new friend. Hive Pocket is an even smaller version that includes a couple of expansions (adding a mosquito and ladybug), so you’ll soon find yourself playing it everywhere you can.
For those seeking: Outdoorsy opposites, chess exes, the non-squeamish
The Fox in the Forest
A charming and magical two-player twist on the classic playing card game whist, The Fox in the Forest is a fast trick-taker with a beautiful fairytale theme. As in the traditional game, hands are claimed with the highest-ranked card or by laying down a trump card, but a series of special abilities shakes up the formula. There’s also an interesting scoring system that means winning too many tricks will start to lose you points, so learning to master your cardplay is a must.
For those seeking: Romantics, fairytale dreamers, animal obsessives
A mash-up of deckbuilding and card-battling created by two Magic: The Gathering pros, Star Realms is an engrossing competition of sci-fi combat that only takes 20 minutes to play. Players purchase cards for a trade row and add them into their decks, before playing bases and ships when they reappear later on. It’s not hard to learn, but there’s plenty to chew on as balancing generating trade resources and keeping the pressure on your rival begins to swing the victory either way. You only need a single copy of the box to play with two people, but extra copies can be combined together to expand the player count up to six.
For those seeking: Out of this world hook-ups, sci-fi fanatics, deckbuilding devotees
Reckon you drive a hard bargain? Prove it in this neat little card game about trading in the capital of Rajasthan. The action centres around buying and selling goods more efficiently than your competing trader, aiming to get the best price without losing out on potential deals. Only one type of good can be sold each round to earn chips, so hanging onto cards and building up a bigger set can pay dividends. It’s a race against time, though, because the chips’ value drops over the course of the game, so waiting around for too long can mean missing out on the money. Meanwhile, you’ll also need to collect camels that can’t be sold but help you trade for more goods from the market. Jaipur is quick and easy to pick up, and recently came out on mobile with an app, making it even easier to get into.
For those seeking: Brill bargainers, diamonds in the rough, camels with the hump
Often considered one of the best couples’ games for those who aren’t as gaming-savvy as their other half, Lost Cities is a simple two-player card game from prolific designer Reiner Knizia. The archaeological theme is mere dressing, as the players play down cards of increasing values on five colour-coded expeditions. Each card played must always be higher than the previous card, but doesn’t need to be consecutive. At the end, each pile is scored with extra multipliers from ‘wager’ cards that must be played at the start of the expedition, but starts at minus 20 as result of ‘expedition costs’ – meaning you can end up with a negative multiplier if you’re not careful. The rules can be taught to anyone in 30 seconds, but there’s a good deal of strategy hidden beneath.
For those seeking: Adventurous types, hidden romance, first-time gamers
This beautiful little card game came out a number of years ago in Japan, but only recently made its way across to the UK – and we’re very glad it did. Inspired by the geisha street in Kyoto, Hanamikoji sees each player attempting to earn the favours of seven of the female performers by presenting them with a variety of gifts. The twist is that each of the four actions can only be taken once in a single round, and half of them involve offering your rival a choice of cards that they then give to the geishas, so winning comes down to a combination of strategy, luck and just a tiny bit of bluffing. The most gifts for each geisha earns their favour and the whole game is often over in a single round, but can go onto into two or three without giving a single player the complete upper hand. It’s a stunning set and wonderful to play – the perfect gift to share with someone else.
For those seeking: Gift-givers, 15-minute flings, Japanophiles
7 Wonders Duel
Another case of a fantastic multiplayer game being turned into a truly brilliant two-player version, 7 Wonders Duel takes the streamlined civilisation-building gameplay of its bigger card-drafting sibling and trims it down once again into a tight head-to-head race to build wonders and out-progress your rival. The players pick their cards from a pyramid of cards on the table, with the ability to leave cards overlapping to stop your opponent choosing certain cards – making timing key. Instant victory comes through military might or advancing your scientific discovery far enough, or is ultimately decided by points at the end of the game. It’s a wonder!
For those seeking: Globetrotters, picky partners, history buffs
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.