The 15 Best Two-Player Board Games

Board games are often a social experience. Many players find them a refreshing alternative to video games, and the opportunities to combine cardboard, beer, and community give tabletop games a bit of an edge. But while many games are designed with large groups in mind, there's something special about titles that work best with two players (or even one, but that's probably another list altogether).

Complexity is a key factor here. The more people you have to teach the game, the more uncertain the rules become; most board games have a knowledge multiplier effect that can diminish returns if players do not come prepared. To ease that burden, we've presented the games on this list in increasing order of difficulty, starting with one of the lightest two-player games on the market ("Codenames: Duet") and ending with a movie-themed wargame that will require hours of study to fully understand.

Some of these games are in my personal collection, others are games I've never quite managed to get on the table. All of them are widely considered two-player favorites. But each title on this list of the 15 best two-player games has one thing in common: a recommended player count of exactly two on BoardGameGeek. No matter how big the game scales, if you are going to take the time to learn and play a game as a two-player affair, you better be getting the most bang for your buck.

Codenames: Duet

On paper, most party games seem antithetical to two-player game nights. Party games are designed for large groups of varied backgrounds and interests; two-player games encourage matched skillsets and more competitive outcomes. What makes "Codenames: Duet" such a clever spin on the social deduction game is its ability to chart a path between these two worlds — and chart it well.

For the two-player spinoff of his popular party game, designer Vlaada Chvátil introduces a wrinkle: both players are working from the same word grid. This adds an extra layer of complexity to the game. Just as before, players will need to remember the different clues and stitch together confusing combinations of words, but now they will also be guessing around both sets of agent cards and civilians. Do you dare double guess the space that has already been revealed? It couldn't possibly affect the outcome, but it sure feels like it did.

But perhaps the genius of "Codenames: Duet" is its little dash of legacy spice. After your first win, you and your partner begin to track your progress across a simple map of Europe. Each new location you unlock has a unique combination of timer tokens and allowable civilian casualties. This adds a clever continuous element to "Codenames: Duet," encouraging you to replay the game as many times as it takes to beat the listed missions (and providing you with just enough agency to make you feel like you're running a complete campaign).

Jaipur

Modern cards games do an exceptional job of building on game mechanics we've known since childhood. Everyone of a certain age remembers playing countless hours of "Hearts" on Windows 95, so the leap from that to a game like "The Crew: Quest for Planet Nine" is a lot smaller than one might think. And if you have ever learned how to play "Rummy," then you are most of the way toward a productive game of Sébastien Pauchon's "Jaipur."

In "Jaipur," players take on the role of personal traders competing for the favor of the Maharaja. Each player begins the game with a hand of cards and an enticing row of cards in the shared marketplace. In your turn, you can choose to either take cards — often swapping out goods and camels from the market — or sell sets of cards directly from your hand. The more you string together combinations of goods, the more valuable your sale will be. This forces you to make tough decisions about when to take the cards you need or block your opponent.

With beautiful artwork and the ever-present allure of camels, "Jaipur" offers a degree of theme that transcends its familiar mechanics. This gives "Jaipur" all the benefits of a traditional card game like "Rummy" — one that has survived the test of time for hundreds of years — while still inviting your partner into something more immersive than the deck of playing cards in your junk drawer.

Lost Cities

If you're new to board games, a good starting point is "Gamemaster." Charles Mruz's 2020 documentary offers a concise walkthrough of the evolving industry, spotlighting the challenges and successes that have defined modern board games. One of the standouts of the documentary is Reiner Knizia, the German-born game designer with over 700 titles to his name — including "Lost Cities," a regular on the list of best two-player games since its original publication back in 1999.

You begin "Lost Cities" as adventurers mapping out expeditions to the most remote corners of the globe. Each turn, you will either discard cards from your hand or play cards to build your expedition routes, resulting in a "Solitaire"-style counting system that matches sequential numbers and card patterns. Each trail offers its fair share of rewards — even more if you are willing to put down a friendly in-game wager — but each attempted route will also cost you points, making the endgame counting a tense and varied affair.

Like so many of Knizia's games, "Lost Cities" balances crisp mechanics with a colorful theme, inviting people of all ages to sit down and try their hand at the next expedition. Just like "Jaipur," it builds on a familiar card mechanic with an engaging theme and some tense head-to-head decisions. But don't let the bowtie fool you: Knizia's mechanics can be as ruthless as the best of them, making "Lost Cities" feel at times a lot more like "Temple of Doom" than "The Last Crusade."

Patchwork

If you previously read our list of the 20 Best Board Games for Adults, you are probably already familiar with "Patchwork." Equal parts hardcore "Tetris" and a cozy Nintendo Switch game, "Patchwork" has been a global hit for years. Games that are simple to learn and hard to master are the golden standard of the board game industry. With the right opponent on the other side of the table, "Patchwork" can sometimes feel a lot more contentious than its gentle theme would suggest.

As a refresher, "Patchwork" is a game built around two resources: buttons and time. Each turn, you and your opponent will choose from an ever-shrinking circle of fabric patches to knit the most appealing quilt on your personal 9x9 board. Better patches cost more buttons, but the only way to replenish your supply of buttons is to move your timer forward. This puts you in a race against both your opponent and the game clock, ensuring that even the simplest choice between fabric patches can have enormous ramifications for your final rounds.

And if your preferred opponent is too far away for in-person gaming, you can also try "Patchwork The Game," the digital adaptation available in both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. With the same simple gameplay and the clever addition of a quilted environmental aesthetic, "Patchwork" feels like the sort of game that future generations of board gamers will just sort of assume has always been a gold standard.

Azul

Spend some time on BoardGameGeek, and you will quickly learn the importance of community player recommendations. While many games are designed for small groups, crowdsourcing the better and best number of players can elevate any gameplay experience. The more players you add to a game, the more outcomes between turns, making it harder for you to be strategic in your decision-making. So when we say that a game like "Azul" is best for two players, that does not mean that it won't also play well at three or four. It just means that the strategy and gameplay really shine when you and a friend go head-to-head.

In "Azul," players have been tasked with decorating the Royal Palace of Evora. Throughout the game, you and your opponent will select tiles from the shared factory displays, using those tiles to complete patterns and log decorations on your individual player boards. The more tiles you successfully place on the wall, the higher your score — or the better your favor with the king, whichever endgame language you prefer.

At a brisk 30-45 minutes per playthrough, "Azul" offers a nice balance of strategy and simplicity for those looking for a crunchier gameplay experience. And on a list that has been somewhat dominated by card game variations to this point, "Azul" certainly offers the platonic ideal of the modern board game experience: Individual player boards and oodles of cardboard pieces just waiting to be allocated.

Unmatched

In 2017, Justin Jacobson and board game designer Rob Daviau launched boutique board game publisher Restoration Games. Their goal was simple: They would dig through some of the forgotten board game classics of the last century and republish them for new audiences. Over the past few years, Restoration Games has become a fan favorite, bringing back out-of-print classics like "Fireball Island" and "Dark Tower" to wild acclaim. But perhaps their most successful game series is "Unmatched," a gladiator-style showdown between fiction's most famous icons.

In each of the "Unmatched" games, you and your opponent will pick heroes and sidekicks and begin a battle to the non-literal death. "Unmatched" is based upon "Star Wars: Epic Duels," a 2002 game designed by Daviau. This adaptation offers players a clever example of asymmetrical gameplay through cards and player powers. If you have always wanted to try battling with miniatures but needed something a little less daunting than "Warhammer," this is your game.

While there are several "Unmatched" games to choose from — including a "Jurassic Park" collection and a must-own "Buffy the Vampire" expansion — the true joy of the "Unmatched" series comes from mixing and matching the collections. Want to see Spike take on the Invisible Man? Or Bruce Lee battle against a group of hungry velociraptors? All of that is possible in the "Unmatched" system, making this the closest thing board games will ever have to their very own "Super Smash Brothers" intellectual property battle royale.

Star Realms

As someone who spent their childhood begging for allowance money to support my customizable card game addiction, I have a real love-hate relationship with deckbuilding games. Games like "Dominion" and "Ascension" have found their way onto my table over the years — sometimes physical, often virtual — but both games have a somewhat abstracted theme for deckbuilding newbies. That makes "Star Realms" a great way to introduce anyone to the hobby: You build ships, you blow up ships — what more is there to want?

In "Star Realms," you and your opponent will wage an interstellar war that ends when one civilization is wiped off the map. Players take turns activating powers, purchasing ships and bases from the Trade Row, and attacking your opponent's fleet. Over time, your deck grows in power, and your newfound resources allow you to purchase even more powerful cards from the pool of resources. String together powerful combos of ships and bases, and you may emerge the victor.

As the brainchild of two veteran "Magic: The Gathering" professionals, "Star Realms" offers a nice balance of accessible gameplay and crunchy decision-making. And with dozens of expansion packs — several released as recent as this past year — "Star Realms" can scratch both the itch of the casual deck builder and the veteran card game collector. This makes it a casual card game for people who want to round out their collection ... or a wicked piece of bait for someone who is laying a "Magic"-shaped trap for their partner.

7 Wonders: Duel

The original "7 Wonders" is an unassailable classic, but don't you secretly hate the random card draw just a little bit? Having a card that you want plucked from your hand adds more frustration than intrigue, and the larger player counts often force you to be more reactive than proactive in your strategy. So while it has yet to hit my table, I have high hopes that "7 Wonders: Duel" will ultimately offer everything I like about the original game with none of its drawbacks.

In "7 Wonders: Duel," players take on the role of competing civilizations. Each turn, you will draw a card from the table and use its value for resources, coins, or as an essential component in the construction of your wonders. Through a combination of military prowess, scientific domination, or a whole mess of victory points, your civilization may just emerge victoriously and withstand the test of time.

As someone who often gets lost in their own little trees, any game with multiple paths to victory will always have a special place in my heart. And as we move deeper into more complex games and themes, "7 Wonders: Duel" also stands out as one of the last family-friendly titles available to play. So if you want to play something that passes for education (but really just allows you to whomp on your opponents), "7 Wonders: Duel" could be a great way to bring history alive even as you bring the pain.

Memoir '44

When you think of World War II board games, you probably imagine long, grueling campaigns. "The Campaign for North Africa," a 1979 wargame release by Richard Beg, famously takes thousands of hours to play and comes with six separate rulebooks. But the truth is that World War II has long been a popular setting for tabletop games, and you can now find games to match any level of complexity. A game like "Memoir '44" is a great way to convince your dad to take an interest in your hobby.

In "Memoir '44," you and your opponent replay a series of key battles surrounding the invasion of Normandy. Players begin each game by selecting and creating a scenario from the rulebook, adding units for each side, and setting up terrain around the battlefield. From there, players will flip command cards, activate units, and roll dice to determine the outcome of each battle. Each game ends when one army is wiped out or a public objective is met, often with a few last-minute heroics on both sides.

In addition to the campaign layout, each scenario also includes a detailed essay on the events leading up to this historical battle and how the outcome shaped the war. Players can choose to run each scenario in order or jump between their favorite matches; dice give the game an element of randomness, but the clever use of cover mechanics makes "Memoir '44" more a game of attrition than wild swings.

Watergate

"Watergate," another title from our 20 Best Board Games for Adults list, is one of the last lightweight games on this before things ramp up in difficulty. While the theme might be a little dry for younger audiences, the balance between the complex scenario and straightforward gameplay — cards, actions, tokens — allows "Watergate" to be something of a Goldilocks title: a game that achieves a high replay value without sacrificing the first few playthroughs to the Rules Gods.

The year is 1972, and a group of men has just been arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Convention. Playing as either a newspaper editor or the Nixon administration, you and your opponent will do your best to connect (or obfuscate) any ties between the Watergate scandal and the White House. Each turn of "Watergate" sees players competing for evidence, with either side winning if the truth is revealed or blocked entirely.

Aside from a few thorny extratextual issues — forcing one person to cosplay as a corrupt government administration, forcing the other to listen to an hour of bad Richard Nixon impressions — "Watergate" offers satisfying gameplay for those who like their cardboard with just a splash of political intrigue. And with no true expansions to speak of, "Watergate" is also the rare game that does not require much upkeep on the part of the players. Each game of "Watergate" draws on the same resources, allowing the players' strategy to take center stage.

Hive

How much stuff do you really need to enjoy a board game? Asked another way: If I handed you a bag of hexagonal tiles and told you they were bugs, would you think that you were about to play one of the most beloved board games of the last two decades? "Hive" may seem like the kind of game that only entomologists could love, but hidden beneath its mild exterior are an ocean of complexity and two-player strategy.

In "Hive," two players wage war for control of the shared insect hive. The game's objective is to enclose the opponent's queen — to do this, you'll need to capitalize on the unique abilities of the different bugs in your hand. As you move pieces over, around, and through the hive you and your opponent are creating, the battleground will shift; how well you react to this changing board will determine if you are the last bug standing.

If games like "Jaipur" and "Lost Cities" are just expanded versions of family card games, then "Hive" shares a good chunk of its DNA with grid movement games like "Chess." Openings, gambits, and shifting boards allow for endless depth in strategy, and several key expansions have added further variety to how you play the game. And with an Android port of the game available and an Apple Store version allegedly coming soon, you will also have plenty of time to practice your moves between sessions.

Twilight Struggle

You know a board game is something special when it has online communities dedicated to turn optimization. Before my first playthrough of "Twilight Struggle," my friend and I spent several days combing through online research and figuring out the best way to not break the game in the first 10 minutes. Over time, we've come to discover our own playstyles in the varying options available to players. No two games feel alike, if only because our stubbornness means we'd rather overthrow a local government than do the things needed to win the game outright.

In "Twilight Struggle," you and your opponent replay the 40-year Cold War between Russia and the United States. The initial board is asymmetrical — favoring the Soviet Union's presence in post-war Europe and Southeast Asia — but over time, the balance of power shifts. And since the gameplay is structured around key events and political battlegrounds of the previous century, the resulting campaign feels both similar and unfamiliar to our collective history books. If alternate history is your jam, "Twilight Struggle" is your game.

If you sit down to play a game of "Twilight Struggle," you're almost guaranteed to spend three or four hours scowling at your board game table as you and your opponent play chicken with nuclear annihilation. This is a game of never-enough – never enough resources, never enough troops, never enough time – and the tradeoffs both players will make determine who maintains their tenuous holds on victory.

Star Wars: Rebellion

Thanks to the premium touch of Fantasy Flight Games, "Star Wars" fans have an abundance of quality board game titles to choose from. But while "Star Wars: Imperial Assault" and "Star Wars: X-Wing" might both be excellent two-player games, it is the sheer scope and scale of "Star Wars: Rebellion" that earns it a spot on this list. How else can franchise fans play out the events of the original trilogy? And what other game matches "Star Wars: Rebellion" for its fierce, asymmetrical game board?

Much like in the "Star Wars" movies themselves, Rebel and Imperial soldiers are swept up in the Galactic Civil War. Sheer numbers and firepower work in favor of the Imperials, but the Rebellion is cagey — all they must do is survive and victory is assured. Designed by the man who created "Twilight Imperium," this is a game with a richness that will take several playthroughs to be fully appreciated.

Be warned, though: "Star Wars: Rebellion" is no casual affair, and "Star Wars" fans who are lured in by the promises of rolling dice and moving Star Destroyers must understand the commitment they're about to undertake. But the promise of playing out your own version of the trilogy — battling over planets big and small and balancing spaceship battles with political intrigue — may prove too much for even the most casual "Star Wars" fan to resist. So just be prepared to spend as much time learning the game as you will playing it.

Spirit Island

While the board game industry is going through its golden era, many of the same conversations that impact the film and publishing industries are also present in this market. One common issue is that of colonialism. So many games are structured around the conquests of Europeans, and these games, no matter how fun, can leave a bad taste in the mouth of players. So it was that "Spirit Island," a 2017 cooperative strategy game, did its best to flip that script and make the invaders the enemy.

In "Spirit Island," you and your partner will play as weak island spirits whose peaceful region has become the desire of an invading populace. "Spirit Island" is frequently mentioned in discussions of the best two-player board games, and part of that is the balance between spirits: While the game scales up to as many as four players, which spirit you choose — and how their elemental powers complement each other — can change the games drastically. The more fear you cause (and invaders you massacre), the more powerful you will ultimately become.

Of all the games on this list that I do not own, "Spirit Island" is the most likely to find its way into my collection. Bright designs and bleak gameplay are something of a weak spot for me, and the concept of flipping the script — in their review, Ars Technica called this an "anti-colonialist board game" — represents the marriage of mechanics and theme at its absolute finest.

War of the Ring: Second Edition

Some games you play. Some games you collect. Some games, though, you just gawk at. I have never played a game of "War of the Ring: Second Edition," and unless the people in my life change their relationship to rulebooks in the coming months, I probably never will. But it will remain the board game I often marvel at, a title whose rules and YouTube videos give me the same kind of rush I would receive if I were to actually play the game.

In "War of the Ring," two players — and technically up to four, but c'mon, let's be honest — recreate the events of the "Lord of the Rings" novels, pitting the realm of man against Sauron and the armies of Mordor. Part-miniature wargame, part strategy and hidden movement, this is a pure distillation of everything that makes the books and movies great.

Just like Frodo and Samwise, do not undertake your challenge lightly: "War of the Ring" is run from a whopping 48-page rulebook, and players will not even reach the section on victory conditions until Page 44. But for those who are brave and forthright in their love of the "Lord of the Rings" franchise, "War of the Ring" can be their own personal Mt. Doom, a long and arduous trek that nevertheless leads to triumphs previously only dreamed of. Just know that odds are good you'll probably want to flip sides and try the whole thing again in a few weeks.