Happy are the players who have countless partners! Happy are those who can therefore launch crazy game sessions needing a minimum of 3, 4 or even (ouch!) 5 players.
However, next to those blessed people, there are those who have trouble finding even one kind soul to get their daily ludic fix. These people must pray to any saint they can find! This is because the most popular games, those that everyone is talking about, usually need a handful of players in order to experience their full flavour. Of course, we have all been tempted by those nice boxes promising jewels as playable with two as they are with six, but we soon have to come back to Earth. For many of these, such promises are only smoke blown in our eyes! They may be excellent with four people around the table but with only two they're be boring to tears.
All is not lost though because there exist several possibilities for having a really great time with two.
There is many a good tune played on an old fiddle! Our ancestors often played with two so the vast majority of games throughout history are in the same category that we play today: Chess, Draughts, Go, Mancala (and its multiple variants), Backgammon, etc. They are all part of the abstract games category, games without theme or with themes so thin you do not even think about them while playing. (Some people still see Chess as a battle between two armies but this theme is so idealized that few will argue that Chess is not an abstract game.)
However, one should not think that this category is limited to thousand year old games. Masterpieces are still released on a regular basis, even if they do not make as much fuss as the latest Knizia or Spiel des Jahres (the German "Game of the Year"). Thus, the Gipf project, which currently consists of four games, is unanimously recognized as a treasure of inventiveness, subtlety and... poetry! Octi is another example of a successful modern abstract game, able to compete with its worthy predecessors.
All examples given above are games for which an entire lifetime would not be enough to master all their subtleties. For those who fear such a commitment, there are many lighter abstract games such as Mastermind (though it is almost a solitary game), Connect 4, Quarto, Hive and many others.
Games Specifically Designed for Two Players
Here, I'm referring to non-abstract games with a reasonably strong theme. Let us delight because publishers have finally understood our troubles and come to our rescue with a host of quality games.
Kosmos was the first German company to regularly release games for two. Presented in small square boxes, the vast majority are more than decent and some of them have almost achieved classic status (Lost Cities and Caesar & Cleopatra come to mind). More than twenty games are now available and you can practically buy them blindly, the line is that good.
Of course, the German language represents a barrier for the majority of us, but two factors help solve this major problem. First, Rio Grande Games has translated many of these games into Shakespeare's language. Other companies, such as Tilsit (in French) and 999 games (in Dutch) do the same. Secondly, for some of those games only the rules are in German with text-free components. There are numerous sites on the internet that provide translations of the rules.
Such success can only generate similar projects, so Eurogames has launched itself into the fray. Their new collection, "Games for Two", starts strongly with three games, all by Bruno Cathala; War & Sheep, Tony & Tino and Drake & Drake. All three have received quite positive reviews, although perhaps not as glowing as some of the Kosmos games. This may partly be due to the typical "French chaos" involved in their mechanics which many German game addicts do not appreciate.
Many other publishers release games for two from time to time without including them in a dedicated collection but they are too numerous to be listed here. (Check Luding's site in the link section at the end of this article to read about many of them.)
Games for Many Which Also Play Well With Two
I must mention the jewel games category, those universal games that can be played as well with a table full of players as with a party of two. Many games aspire to be a part of this group, but very few actually achieve it. How to distinguish the authentic pearl from the fool's gold? Unfortunately, there is no miraculous method to differentiate them, apart from word of mouth (and the links provided at the end of this article) but let us state some rules of thumb anyway. Usually, when a Reiner Knizia or Wolfgang Kramer game is listed as playable for "2 to X" players, you can rest assured that it is indeed playable with just two. On the contrary, if a big brand (such as Hasbro, Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers) states the same, be suspicious and investigate before making a mistake. As a general rule, a game involving auctions or any kind trading is very likely to fail at providing pleasure for two players.
Gamers are a bit crazy. Despite the fact that publishers release games specifically for two, they have their obsession, their favourite game and the fact that it isn't designed to be played with two makes them sick! Thus, variants are created, sometimes by the player himself, sometimes by the company who feels pity for these poor frustrated souls.
While some companies are generous enough to publish official variants which do not require additional materials (such as what Alea did for Puerto Rico), others use the occasion to release a new product. The Settlers of Catan has its card game, Al Cabohne is a one or two player version of Bohnanza and the more recent Canal Grande is a two player version of San Marco.
Still more numerous are the games for which dedicated fans have created a variant themselves. Sometimes these are for games not playable with two, other times they're to fix problems with the official, two player rules.
Being desperate because you don't belong to a big game group is not the right attitude anymore, one good game partner is all you need to make your gaming life engrossing. Hundreds of games now exist to satisfy the "intimate" gamer and the list is still growing!
- http://www.flash.net/~markthom/html/abstract_games.html - General page about abstract games.
- http://www.octi.net - Everything you need to know about Octi.
- http://www.gipf.com - The official Gipf project homepage.
- http://www.hivemania.com - The highly acclaimed Hive game.
- http://sunsite.informatik.rwth-aachen.de/luding/reviews/e2p/two.html - Luding's list of games designed specifically for two players.
- http://sunsite.informatik.rwth-aachen.de/luding/reviews/e2p/multi.html - Luding's list of games designed for multiple players but also work well for two.
- Xavier Van Aubel