Sunday, December 03, 2006

Two Player Gaming

It is often hard to gather together a large group of friends to play a boardgame on a weeknight. However, my wife and I do find time to get together to play two player games from time to time. She prefers spatial-reasoning games like RoboRally, while I savor games where there is a large development effect (as in planting and tending a garden or what some call “snowball” games. Unfortunately, our favorite games (RoboRally and Puerto Rico as examples) do not play very well with only two players.

Thus, I am always on the lookout for more games that can fit the two-player bill. Two player games are often in a class of their own. One problem that immediately jumps out is the problem of a runaway leader. In a multiplayer (3 or more) game, the other players outnumber the leader and can gang up. But in a two-player game, there’s only the losing player. Unless the game has some sort of artificial catch-up mechanism, it can be a very hard row to hoe in order to catch back up to the leader. If a two player game is sufficiently complex to allow me to enjoy developing my own little empire, the game tends to take two or more hours to play. If one player gains a distinct lead, then the losing player could find themselves sitting through a losing battle for upwards of an hour. This is not a tantalizing proposition for a fair-weather fan of boardgames (such as my wife), and even though I just love games I don’t find it all that enjoyable either.

A second problem with many two player games is a lack of options. Many of the “best” two player games are lightweight fillers that only give a few options for the players and do not provide a diverse set of ways to win. One of the things I enjoy most in a game is exploring various paths to victory. In a two-player game against my less competitive wife, I often find enjoyment in trying more obscure strategies, just to see how they pan out. In many 2-player games, there just aren’t that many options.

Currently, I own just a few games that have the variety, depth, and playability that I enjoy and can also be played with only two players. The first is the Settlers of Catan Card Game. This game is great as players can develop their country in different ways, there are a reasonable number of strategies that can be tried, and it plays in just over an hour or so. Its main drawback lies in the “catch-up” problem. Since it is a resource production based game, a player who falls behind early in resource production will often remain behind the whole game with no hope of catching up. In fact, I have a friend who feels the determining factor for the win will always go to the player who gets the most towns built. (There are an odd number of additional settlements so if they are all built, one player will always have and extra compared to their opponent.) A second, less frequently played, game is San Juan. As a fan of Puerto Rico, San Juan hits the right spot for me, giving me lots of options and a few ways to win, while remaining a two player game. San Juan can also have disproportionate production issues, but I find it to be less frequent than in the Settlers of Catan Card Game. The newest game to add to my two-player lineup is Caylus. I was very pleasantly surprised at how well Caylus holds up to a two player situation. There are still many paths to victory points, and lots of fun little combinations to consider, but the game plays just fine with only two players. Sure, some things become a bit more predictable, but there are even some strategies that can be implemented in a two-player game that just don’t work well in a multiplayer game. In one game I decided to try to build buildings as much as possible, just to see what would happen. I managed to win, but only because I pushed the provost out ahead as fast as I could and my glut of buildings precluded my wife from being able to build (and use) the necessary buildings to build any of the blue mega-point buildings. While this is not an uncommon strategy in a multiplayer game, in a two-player game it can become slightly more extreme, since I had to build much harder in order to prevent my wife from getting the buildings she wanted.

In all, I’m pleased with the games I’ve found so far that match my favorite style. (I admit I now need to work on more spatial logic games to appeal to my wife’s sensibilities, I have a few possibilities that I plan to look into – Ricochet Robot for one…) I’m curious what other people have found for middleweight to heavyweight games that work well with two players. Twilight Struggle, Memior ’44, and other Euro-wargames are all possibilities, but while there are many good two-player wargames I think the entire genre is one that has less possibilities for playing with my spouse.


Fraser said...

We like two player Puerto Rico, granted it is better with more, but still perfectly acceptable in my book. Also two player Euphrate & Tigris even if Melissa demolishes me about 85% of the time.

I'd agree with Caylus and you should give Pillars of the Earth at try.

MDK said...

I strongly encourage you to pick up Ricochet Robot(s) if you like spatial reasoning puzzles. Ithas been a good staple in the groups I've played with, and I snapped up my own copy almost as soon as I saw one on the shelf at my FLGS.

You can always do the RR Daily Puzzle to play before you buy.

At BGGcon, I played two French puzzle games worth mentioning here: Vitrail and Carrousel.

Greg Parker said...

Hello, I agree that most 2 player games are one trick ponies. Mostly tactical with little deep strategy. Some bigger games that I feel work very well with two are:
a)Puerto Rico if both players play two mats. The winner being the person whose worst model beats the opponents worst model.
b)San Marco with the posted 2 player variant on bgg
c)Attica (works best with two imho)
d) St. Petersburg
e)Jenseits von Theben- when Queen publishes this. It is a great game for 2-4.
f) Baumeister vom Arcadia (again when this gets published) this game blew me away. Works great with any number.
g) as you mentioned Twilight struggle is very good.

huzonfirst said...

Matt, have you tried the official two-player variant of Puerto Rico and found it lacking, or just not played it? Because I thought it worked very well. To me, it's remarkable how well PR scales from 2 to 5 players.

Goa plays very well with two. This is somewhat surprising, given that it's an auction game, but there's actually quite a lot of tension in trying to keep your money supply up to the level of your opponent's. I recommend it.

Tikal plays well with all numbers, including two. Two-player games have the added benefit of reducing down time if you've had problems with that in multiplayer games.

I've been told that Stephenson's Rocket is excellent with two, but have never played it with that number myself.

I also think that Louis XIV is pretty good with two. Not as excellent as with 3 or 4, but still a solid game.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Thanks for all the good comments. I'll keep my eye out for some of those games.

enhorning said...

Looking over my gaming shelves... a few suggestions for heavy two-player games:

Roads & Boats
La Citta
Reef Encounter
the Mayfair crayon rails games (EuroRails et al.)

... and then, of course, there are whole categories of two player games like the Columbia Games block games, and some abstract strategy games, which for me fulfill that itch for a heavier game, while still playing well on two.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan said...

Two games that I have seen a lot played at home here is Hansa and Thurn & Taxis. While I think the game can be much better with more the 2 player version is quite interesting and engaging.

Mukesh said...