If you’re anything like us, Valentine’s Day brings to mind iconic images of candlelit dinners, boxes of chocolate, roses, and, of course, board games.
“What tabletop games are best for couples?” is a question we get all the time here at Ars Cardboard, and today we’re answering (again) by reprising our 2016 two-player guide with fresh new picks for 2019. Of course, you don’t have to be romantically linked to your gaming partner to enjoy these titles; our recommendations are perfect for any time your group is running behind and you only have one other person to push some cubes with. Or maybe you don’t have a group—all you need to play these games is one other willing (or kinda-sorta willing) partner.
The games below are new-player-friendly card and board games (sorry, we’re not tackling miniatures or wargames today) that can be played in an hour or less. While most board games accommodate two players—many quite well—we’ve found that the best two-player experiences are often those built from the ground up for duos. So we’re sticking with two-player-only games for this list (including one that has recently added support for other player counts).
If your favorite game didn’t make the cut (and with the endless list of great two-player games, it may not have), share your picks with us in the comments.
Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.
7 Wonders Duel
7 Wonders Duel, a two-player version of the modern classic 7 Wonders, retools the civ-building-with-cards mechanism of the bigger game into something quick, tense, and interesting from turn one.
On every turn, spread across three “ages,” you select an available card from the table in front of you and either build it with resources, discard it for money, or use it to build one of the game’s titular “wonders.” Building cards gives you wood, stone, glass, bricks, parchment, scientific achievements, military power, or luscious, unadulterated victory points.
You win the game in one of three ways: victory points, military invasion, or complete scientific dominance. (A clever military track across the top of the game spaces uses a “push-pull” mechanism between players to track military supremacy; move the shield pawn all the way into the opponent’s base and the game ends immediately.) Along the way, you’ll build your personal set of wonders to provide powerful bonuses, more resources, and occasionally additional turns.
While the full 7 Wonders uses card drafting to make these same mechanisms work, Duel relies on drawing from specific geometrical card arrangements, such as a pyramid in which every other row of cards is face down and certain cards are only available once the cards below them are removed. This turns the process of card collection into a puzzle of its own, as you don’t want to expose powerful cards that you want (or cards you want to deny your opponent) until you’re in a place to snap them up.
Best of all, the whole thing offers a meaty experience in around 30 minutes and stores its goodness in a small box. Stop what you’re doing right now and go buy this game.
The best gaming partner you have access to might just be your real-life partner. And unless your significant other is as much of an uber-gamer as you are, you’ll need to pull out something less intimidating than Terra Mystica when you want to get a game in. Atop the pantheon of two-player games sits the storied “couples game,” and Jaipur, a game about trading goods in India, is perhaps the perfect realization of the form. It’s a snap to teach, it plays in about 30 minutes, and it’s interactive in the best of ways.
At the beginning of the game, both players are dealt a hand of cards representing various goods—spice, silk, leather, etc.—and camels, which aren’t goods but can be used in trades. A central market of five more goods cards is dealt to the middle of the table. On your turn, you’re presented with a deceptively simple choice: get new goods or sell the goods you already have. To get goods, you can either trade cards with the market or take a card from the market without giving anything up. If you decide to sell, you’ll discard all the goods of a certain type and be rewarded with tokens representing money. The value on the money tokens goes down as more and more goods are sold, so you want to sell quickly to get the best price. But conflicting with this “SELL NOW” mentality are the stacks of bonus tokens. The more goods you sell at once, the better bonus you’ll get. Do you sell your two silk now to get the best price, or do you hold out and hope to collect more so you can get that nice, juicy five-card bonus token?
Jaipur is a great game of tug-of-war that provides a surprising amount of tense decisions within a small decision space.
KeyForge: Call of the Archons
Any self-respecting list of two-player tabletop games must include a card dueling game, and our pick this year is Richard Garfield’s super-hot 2018 release Keyforge: Call of the Archons. The game’s schtick is an odd one: Keyforge is a CCG-style card game that forbids deckbuilding. Instead of asking you to buy booster packs or chase down coveted cards on the secondhand market to build a killer deck, KeyForge wants you to let it do heavy lifting for you. Specifically, an algorithm assembles every deck and assigns it a unique name and card back—you buy it and play it, no alterations allowed.
But beyond the intriguing distribution premise, the game is a ton of fun to play. There’s no mana economy to manage; instead, each deck has cards from three of the game’s “houses,” and you can only play and activate cards from the house that you declare as active at the beginning of your turn. Creatures you play can attack each other, of course, but the goal of the game is not to reduce your opponent’s health to zero. Instead, three “keys” must be constructed by using the game’s “ember” resource, and collecting ember is one of the actions available to creatures, forcing you to choose between attacking and resource gathering. There are a lot of fun and interesting decisions to make.
KeyForge has a nascent tournament scene, but although the game has some baked-in mechanics for balancing powerful cards and decks, I’m not sure the game has competitive legs. As a kitchen-table brawl between friends, though, it’s a blast. A starter set, which includes tokens and four decks (two handcrafted “learning” decks and two regular, algorithm-constructed decks) is available for around $40, or you can just pick up two $10 packs and see what you get.
A light, two-player game about quilting from the designer best known for the heavy serf farming epic Agricola, the heavy Frisian farming epic Fields of Arle, and the heavy dwarf farming epic Caverna? Yup—and it couldn’t be better.
Patchwork is a two-player game about picking up fabric pieces and assembling them, Tetris-like, onto your personal square game board while simultaneously trying to maximize the number of “buttons” (essentially, money) that these pieces deposit in your personal treasury. The game uses a wonderful circular movement mechanic to ensure that, on each turn, players have a choice of just three fabric pieces—but that these three change constantly.
The rules can be explained in a couple of minutes, the gameplay is quick (20 minutes) and non-confrontational, and play is smooth and engaging. Many Tetris-like puzzle games have flooded the market over the past few years, and Patchwork remains our favorite.