Two-player board games occupy a special niche in the wider canon of the best board games. As soon as you rise above that number, you create various design problems around balance and turn order that need to be considered. In a fighting game, for example, it allows two players to gang up on a third. Two-player board games thus have a particular purity of purpose that can make them particularly fun to play: there’s a reason so many classic board games like Chess and Go are designed for two. It also makes them a particular joy to share with that special someone, whoever they might be.
We have to start a list like this with a game designed specifically to tell the story of a couple in a relationship. However, it isn’t your relationship but one that you’ll create between a pair of fictitious characters and then go on to explore its nuances and ups and downs. Although there’s a certain amount of blue and pink in the visuals it’s also open to same-sex relationships, too. Your couple each get a brew of secret traits and destinies and then go on to play through a number of scenes, making choices based on traits that affect the outcome. As an experimental game, there is no winner here in the strict sense, but you’ll win by enjoying a fascinating journey through an imagined relationship instead.
Patchwork works because it’s a super simple synthesis of several clever concepts in one small package. Players buy geometric pieces using buttons to try and form a quilt with as few holes in it as possible. Each purchase also moves you forward on a time track, which intermittently earns you extra buttons or very useful single-square patches for your quilt, but the person last on the time track always takes the next turn. This lets you set up interesting plays like planning for double turns or trying to leapfrog your opponent to snatch a one-square patch. Gently addictive while it transfixes several parts of your brain at once, it’s no wonder it won a slew of awards and nominations.
The original Codenames was a rare breakout hit into the wider world of party games. Players laid out a grid of cards with words on them. Then one player per team had to give out single-word clues to try and link multiple words together in order to help their teammates identify which cards were coded to their side. Codenames: Duet is very similar but it’s been refined for two into a much sleeker cooperative game. Now you’re trying to find fifteen clues between you before a timer runs out. Because you both take turns giving clues, downtime while someone thinks of a clue to give is almost eliminated, bringing a fun slice of party game magic to the table with just the two of you.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Unlike the other games on this list, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a narrative-driven title where you retell the legend of the famous outlaw across nine scenarios. But it brings all sorts of clever ideas to the formula, making it intriguing and engaging to play. There are no board spaces for starters: instead, you measure your progress across the map with a long base on your wooden playing piece, trying to stay in printed shadows and out of sight of guards. The board is like an advent calendar, with hundreds of numbered pieces you can lift out and flip over to create the feel of a living, dynamic world you encounter by looking up the numbers in the included book. Can you and your partner work together to save Nottingham from the clutches of the evil Sheriff before Guy of Gisborne hunts you down?
Played with delightful chunky plastic hexes, Hive is a game with an unfortunate tendency to make your skin crawl thanks to its insectoid subject matter. On the plus side, it also makes your brain crawl in all the best ways with its ever-escalating web of interlocking strategies. Each player has a Queen hex and you win by surrounding your opponent’s Queen with your pieces. There are four other types of insects, each with its own movement rules that you must leverage in pursuit of your goal. There are only eleven tiles on each side, which enter play one by one, and the Hive itself must always be a single conglomeration of tiles. That makes Hive easy to transport, set up and play, but the complex interaction of movement rules makes it devilishly hard to win.
Onitama gets a lot of mileage out of a very simple idea. It’s played on a grid where each player starts with a master pawn and five students. Moving any of your pieces onto an opponent’s piece knocks it off the board and you win either by knocking out the enemy master or moving your own master to the opposite end of the board. The kicker is that the legal moves for your pieces depend on a random deal of cards: you have a choice of two each turn and the one you pick is discarded and refreshed from an extra card from the side of the board. This creates a fascinating and challenging interplay of cause and effect where you can see the likely path to plan ahead but the ever-changing roster of potential moves muddy the waters.
You may have played the classic board game Mancala where you grab a handful of beads from a pit and pop one each in the following sequence of pits. Five Tribes translates this concept into a modern strategy game played on a grid of tiles. Each handful you pick up will consist of multiple color pieces and the final tile you drop one on determines what actions you take for that round. However, the changed board state then determines possible combinations for the next player to take, making each turn a mind-bending puzzle of balancing your own needs against your opponent’s opportunities. Add in an auction to determine the first player and you’ve got a modern classic. With two, Five Tribes lets you double your turns meaning there’s a whole other layer of using your first turn to set yourself up for a combo second turn.
The Fox in the Forest
If you’ve ever played a traditional trick-taking game like Whist you might be baffled that such a thing could work with two. Yet that’s what The Fox in the Forest achieves thanks to its three-suit deck in which even-numbered cards work like standard playing cards, but odd-numbered cards all have a special power. The 3-value Fox, for instance, lets you change the trump suit while the 9-value Witch is treated as always being a trump. Its other clever coup is the scoring system which rewards you for winning either the majority or the minority of tricks, making it very hard to eke out a lead unless you can time your wins to perfection. Fast, fun and innovative, The Fox in the Forest is an incredible answer to a seemingly impossible question.
7 Wonders: Duel
While the original 7 Wonders was a smash hit by itself, this two-player refinement is widely regarded as being even better. The core concept is the same: you’re drafting cards to make point-scoring sets representing aspects of an ancient civilization. Different types of cards represent different aspects such as military, technology or wonders of the world, and will give you bonuses and resources when added to your tableau. However, instead of the standard pick and pass drafting of the original game, 7 Wonders: Duel instead has players drafting from a pyramid of overlapping cards, most of which start face down and only become available when the cards atop them are taken. This adds a wonderful element of timing to the draft as you balance taking your best picks against giving more options to your opponent.
As a Greek island, Santorini is famous for its dazzling white buildings, capped with blue domes. They’re replicated in plastic in this fun abstract, where players take the role of Greek deities battling to get one of two worshippers atop a tall tower. On your turn you can move one figure and then add a building level to an adjacent space: it’s that simple. But this simplicity belies a fascinating battle of trying to climb tiers while capping your opponent’s buildings with those beautiful blue roofs before they can ascend themselves. Great looking on the tabletop and with a slew of special god powers to keep things varied, abstract puzzling has rarely been so much fun.
In this asymmetric game, one player takes the role of a team of scientists and the other a family of velociraptors. The scientists want to capture the young dinosaurs while their mother is trying to protect her babies. The action plays out on a modular map but what really makes the game shine is the simultaneous card play. Cards have a numeric value and a special power: the player with the lower cards gets the special action, while the player with the higher card gets the value difference in board actions. This adds a whole new layer of doublethink to the usual bluffing and guesswork that’s the main draw of games with simultaneous hidden card play.
A classic from back in 1999, Schotten Totten still holds up well today. Its central idea is that you’re battling across nine stones with each player trying to create Poker-style three-card combos on their own side, one card at a time. This creates the most delicious tension as your opponent wonders what meld you’re aiming for, and you worry whether you’ll draw the right cards to complete it. Just like Poker itself, there’s plenty of strategy in playing the probabilities, plus there’s an extra deck of special power tactics cards to spice things up. And if that wasn’t enough for you, you can also use the cards with their amusing cartoon art to play a completely different game called Lost Cities.