Tabletop for Two

While hosting a game night once or twice a week is ideally the best way to share your enthusiasm for tabletop games, sometimes we just end up having a little game night with just the two of us.  Sometimes that’s by choice, and sometimes our friends’ equally busy schedules conflict, so occasionally a regular game night will get put on a hiatus.  After we started having more and more game nights alone, we decided to build up our collection of two-player games.  There are many games that we own that we have fun just playing as a two-player game, like Eldritch Horror or Pandemic, but we like having a collection of games that are perfectly balanced for two players.  Here are some of the two-player only games we recommend for those nights you’d rather not play an eight-player TI3.

Rivals for Catan

Yep, just like it sounds, this the Catan experience distilled for only two players. While it doesn’t completely capture the essence of hating your friends for not trading with you, mechanically it still comes very close. Two players attempt to build linear colonies of roads, settlements, and cities amounting to 10 points. It differs in that you can add improvements to your settlements and cities to increase the amount of resources you get from the die roll, or increase your military might or trading prowess for the bonus points they afford. When you don’t have the 4 (or 6) players required for a game of Catan, this is a wonderful substitute worthy of the Catan name.

Hive

Hive is another perfect example of a game that is relatively simple to learn, but increasingly complex tactically. Two players have duplicate, hexagonal tiles of differing colors, each with unique abilities based on the insect embossed upon it. The object of Hive is to encircle the opposing player’s Queen Bee piece, with the chief limitation being that the integrity of Hive is always maintained. And by that, I mean that each piece must be in contact with at least one other piece. Moreover, each player must play their Queen Bee to the board by at least their third action.Chess would be the most apt comparison, although there isn’t a board for Hive – the pieces make up an everchanging, fluid play area.

Twilight Struggle

We’ve mentioned Twilight Struggle in multiple posts at this point as a game we highly recommend you play, and we’re going to mention it again because, frankly, it’s just that good. Twilight Struggle is a card-driven, area control game replicating the heavy tension between the American and Soviet forces (and their allies) during the Cold War. Players vie over political influence for control of countries to increase their score – a score on a linear track that ebbs and flows from one player to the other and back again. All the while the DEFCON lowers to a game-ending 1 if players get too greedy militarily. You wouldn’t expect playing cards and moving pieces on a board could be so stressful.

Memoir ’44

Memoir ’44 is a card-driven, area control, combat game with some dice-infused luck. It utilizes scenario setups to replicate historical battles from the varying fronts WWII, from Pegasus Bridge to the Normandy landings. Gameplay progresses by playing a card and activating any units of yours on the field that meet that card’s criteria. Generally, cards will activate a set amount of units either of a particular type or a set number of units residing in a particular region (the board is divided into the left and right flanks and the center). Units can, unless otherwise specified, either move twice, move and fight, or just fight. Fighting involves rolling a number of dice based on how far away the opposing, targeted unit is. Overall, Memoir ’44 is simple and not terribly deep, but by no means not fun. If the game has a detractor, it would be the set up time required to create the scenarios you play.

Pixel Tactics

Pixel Tactics is an 8-bit themed, card-driven strategy combat game, that feels a little like the tower defense genre of computer games. Both players utilize duplicate decks of double-sided cards, one side featuring a unique Leader and the other featuring a supporter. The players each select a Leader to place in the center of their 3×3 grid of a playing area. After-which, players alternate playing supporting characters around their Leader to empower their field and/or attack the opposing field. Last Leader alive wins. Gameplay is straight-forward, and replayability is immense as every card is unique, you’ll likely never see the same Leader twice. Admittedly, I’ve only played Pixel Tactics once, but it seems perfectly acceptable and enjoyable for the $10 price tag.

Netrunner

While still eclipsed by Magic: the Gathering, this Richard Garfield gem is swiftly rising in popularity. Netrunner is very unique in the strategy card game realm for offering strong asymmetric play. Set in a dystopian, cyberpunk future, one player represents the self-serving Corporation and the other plays as the rebellious hacker called a Runner. The Corp player’s goals are to accrue 7 agenda points or to outlast the Runner’s card pool while the Runner needs to hack the Corp and steal those same agendas for points. The cards represent servers and and firewalls for the Corp player, and malicious programs for the Runner. After playing Magic, Netrunner has been a breath of fresh air thematically, mechanically, and for the wallet – Fantasy Flight Games’ LCG model is far more affordable than the collectible, randomized packs Wizards of the Coast offers with Magic.

So, we’ve touched on several games for two players that we own and/or have played a few times. As the gift-giving season swiftly approaches, it seems only fitting to mention a few games for two that we have our eyes on. Jaipur, an economic card game of trading and set collection with an Indian theme (and by that I mean the country India as opposed to the indigenous peoples of North America). It sits atop a few lists of good two player games we’ve come across, and so it sits atop our list of games to acquire at some soon but as of yet undetermined time.

Asante and Jambo both piqued my interest as a returned Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia. These two games feature trading, set collection, and economics not unlike Jaipur. What sets them apart for me, if you haven’t put the pieces together yet, is the African marketplace theme they share. I squealed with delight after finding out they existed and stated rather matter-of-factually that we were going to get one or both of them. Our combined kitchen/living room already has several tokens of memorabilia from my second home in Africa, why not our game collection too?

Cam was a little surprised to hear that I recommend we give Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small a try after my vociferous reaction to regular Agricola. But considering A:ACBaS focuses mainly on the animal husbandry aspects of farming for points and removed the bits about sowing and harvesting grain and carrots which seemed to irritate me so, I suppose it’s no surprise.

I’m sure we’ll be receiving some of the two-player games we have on our wishlist during the upcoming holiday season.  I look forward to giving them a try and writing reviews of them.  If you’ve played them, let us know what you think.  Are there any other two-player only games that you’ve tried and highly recommend?

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Board Games for History Buffs

historical games

One of the great things about board games is that they can be educational. Basic strategy is often the foremost of skills you increase your knowledge of – learning to anticipate your opponents moves, setting yourself up for later moves, and the generalities of board control. However, board games can take you far beyond this, helping you learn vocabulary or math with the mass market Scrabble or lesser known Paperback. While a lot of games benefit from imagination and creativity, a few like Dixit or the more abstracted Rory’s Story Cubes feature these in the forefront. The majority of games utilize competition, but many focus on teamwork and cooperation such as Pandemic or Flashpoint. Cam and I enjoy a wide variety of games, but I must say that we most enjoy board games that focus on a particular historical event or period.  I consider myself an eternal student of history, so I love diving into a board game that is also going to teach me a history lesson.  Geography is also one of my favorite subjects, and most history board games focus on a regional or world map from that era.

We’ve already reviewed a couple of our favorites, including Twilight Struggle and Memoir ’44.  Twilight Struggle is, hands down, my favorite game.  It is a two-player strategy game based on the events of the Cold War.  One player is the USA and the other is the USSR.  It’s a brilliant card-driven game that has consistently been the #1 ranked game at Board Game Geek.  Not only does it accurately portray the events of the Cold War, it also does a pretty good job of mimicking the tension between two political ideologies.  While players are competing against each other for influence all over the world, a bit of realistic cooperation must be obtained while watching the DEF-CON status.  When each player makes an aggressive move, such as a coup or realignment in a country, the DEF-CON status moves down.  If it were to reach zero, nuclear war ensues, the game is over and both players lose.  One of my favorite things about it is how it is somewhat realistically unbalanced.  In the early war cards, USSR definitely has an advantage, and in the late war cards, the advantage tilts towards the USA.  Overall, I think it’s a great teaching tool for the era and a must-have for history buffs and gamers alike.

Memoir ’44 is also a two player game, Allies vs. Axis during World War II.  It is a war game designed to emulate specific battles during 1944.  Like Twilight Struggle, it attempts to be realistic and some of the missions seem a bit unbalanced to portray each battle as it happened in history. Setting up a game can take a while (laying terrain, villages, soldiers) as each mission is set up to depict a battle from history you choose out of the scenario book.  Game play isn’t very long, so it is possible to play the mission multiple times.  It’s a fairly simple game for someone wanting to get started playing war games.  It involves a mix of strategy and luck based on cards drawn and played.  The mechanics are fairly simple and you don’t have to constantly keep track of multiple war theaters or variables like you do when playing Twilight Struggle.  I would definitely suggest it as a first wargame.

1775: Rebellion
1775: Rebellion

Another great game is 1775: Rebellion.  Players of the American Continental Army and Patriots against the British Army and the Loyalists.  The game can be played with between 2-4 players in teams, and the game ends with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  1775: Rebellion was published by Academy Games, a publisher that focuses on historical board games.  Their games generally blend your typical wargame with political influence games.  Like most historical games, you don’t have to know a lot about the American Revolution to enjoy it, but it does give detailed write-ups so you can understand the social and political context.

If you don’t feel like competing with your friends, you can also try a different Academy Games’ offering, Freedom: The Underground Railroad.  This is a cooperative game about slavery in the American South during the early to mid 19th century.  Players take on the roles of Abolitionists attempting to free slaves through the Underground Railroad and into Canada.  Again, it comes with excellent write-ups and a teacher’s guide so you can learn/teach about a controversial time in America’s history.  Instead of battling through a war game with your friends, you can work together.  It’s still tense as you attempt to avoid slave catchers.

If you’re not in the mood for a lengthy game, but more in the mood for some easy trivial knowledge, Timeline might be more up your alley.  Timeline is a simple card that can include up to 8 players.  Each player is given two cards with a picture of an invention on each.  One card is randomly drawn from the deck and placed in the middle of the table as the first card in the timeline.  During each player’s turn, he/she must decide where in the timeline does the invention go?  When was it invented?  In the beginning, it’s fairly simple to determine that fire was invented before the light bulb.  Once a player’s card is placed on the timeline, it is flipped over to reveal the year of the invention.  Once several cards are played, it becomes a bit more difficult to estimate whether the fax machine was invented before or after the photocopier.  There are several versions of the game, from Timeline: Inventions to Diversity, Discoveries, Music and Cinema.  We’ve only played Inventions, but I dream of a day where I can really test my historical knowledge and play several decks at once.

There are historical board games designed for all major world events, from ancient to modern.  They are designed for all levels and ages as well.  While I realize this list only scratches the surface of historical board games, I wanted to highlight a sample across different historical eras and types of games.  These are the ones we are most familiar with, but hopefully our shelf will be filled with more historical games as our collection grows.  Are there any other historical games you’ve played that you recommend we add to our collection?

How I Won the Cold War (Twice) – My Review of Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle
Twilight Struggle

Cam and I got Twilight Struggle for Christmas.  We finally got it out for our first game.  This is not just your average war game. Twilight Struggle was designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews in 2005. It is a two player card driven strategy board game set during the period of political and military tension colloquially known as the Cold War. It’s a beautiful, well designed two-player game.  It also wasn’t that complicated to learn.  The mechanics are simple.  There is the board, where you each track your influence in the world, and the cards which dictate game play.

The two players take the roles of the major superpowers of this era, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  In our first attempt at the game, I played as the USA.  Since Cam hates to lose, we played again the next day.  We switched it up, and I played as the USSR.  Since he hates to lose twice in a row, we might get it out again this weekend.

The game draws it’s name from a portion of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…” Twilight Struggle echoes this sentiment exactly in its tension, as players do battle on the board primarily through increasing their influence or decreasing their opponent’s influence in countries on the game board, which resembles a map of the world as it was in 1947-1991.

The game can last at most ten turns, each turn representing between three and five years historically, but has the potential to end sooner. Victory is achieved when either player has amassed 20 points on the singular victory point track, which ranges from -20 to +20, mirroring perfectly the ebb and flow of power between the eastern and western blocs. These points are usually gotten from the various regional scoring cards spaced throughout the three decks that make up the core interaction of the game, with players scoring particular regions based on how much influence they have in that area.

There are 3 different decks of cards.  The players start out using the early war cards, and the remaining decks are sequentially shuffled in, to mark the passage of time at particular points in the game.  The cards themselves are how the players interact with the board and each other. They can be played in different ways, as each card has a point value and a historical event associated with it. The players can use either the point value to affect their or their opponent’s influence on the game board, or utilize the event listed on the card. The events really make the game shine, as they are actual important moments from the Cold War, such as the formation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the formation of the Warsaw Pact, and the blockade of West Germany, all retooled in the game’s influence oriented mechanics.

Twilight Struggle board
Twilight Struggle board – USA victory!

One of the most interesting parts of the game is the DEFCON level.  It begins at level 5, the most peaceful state between the two players.  As the levels decrease through various player actions, such as coup attempts, those actions become more limited in certain regions.  For example, DEFCON level 4 means that no coup or realignment attempts may be made in Europe; level 3 prohibits coups in Europe and the Middle East.  Once the DEFCON level reaches 2, the threat of nuclear war is imminent.  Interestingly enough, the player whose action causes nuclear war automatically loses the game.  I thought this was a game flaw to begin with. I okingly said that this should cause both players to lose, seeing that in nuclear war, everyone loses.  However, it does prevent the mentality of “if I can’t win, nobody can.”

Both times we played, the game play was different. The randomization of the decks and the multiple paths connecting countries for influence placement result in varying permutations for game play. Players are constantly adapting their strategy to the evolving game state.  The USSR always leads each turn, which causes the USA to be reactive to their actions rather than proactive.  I viewed the cards in my hand differently as I played as both superpowers.

Overall it was a game that we both enjoyed immensely.  It is a game that neither of us will get tired of any time soon.  We both highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in history or well designed games.  In fact, you don’t need to know anything about or have lived through the Cold War, as the game does an excellent job of exposing you to the important events of the era.