We need a good, fun, intelligent two player board game!
May 30, 2010 10:07 PM   Subscribe

I want a game that is intelligent and very fun for two people that can be played in someplace like a cafe.

We don't want playing time to be too short but we also don't want it to be too long. So maybe something that takes around 45 minutes or an hour? I know there are a bunch of other topics like this but they are still overwhelming to me. So is boardgamegeek. We're kinda geeky but not too geeky. But we're open to being really geeky if the game is intelligent and fun enough.

I've enjoyed Stratego quite a bit, but that's about my only experience with board games minus games from when I was really young. My boyfriend likes Scrabble and chess. So I guess we're looking for a strategy game to introduce us more to the world of board games that is fun and intelligent, while not being overwhelming. A lot of the games I saw seemed overwhelmingly geeky/intense and I don't know how fun they would be. Like that Twilight game. But this is just what it looks like, I haven't played it.

Also we would like to keep it below 30 dollars if possible. And all these rules can be bent in the case of an exceptionally good game.

Thanks for any help! I feel overwhelmed. We just want a good introductory game.
posted by tweedle to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (59 answers total) 181 users marked this as a favorite
Gloom -- it sounds depressing, but is delightfully fun.
posted by Brent Parker at 10:14 PM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not a board game, but I can't recommend the card game SET enough because holy hell what a great, addicting, geeky/fun/visual/good-kind-of-intense time it is
posted by Juicy Avenger at 10:20 PM on May 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

Though I think you might need to better define what your parameters for geeky/too geeky are. What about Risk?
posted by Juicy Avenger at 10:22 PM on May 30, 2010

Backgammon. Plenty of portable versions. It takes about ten minutes to learn the rules, and you'll never grow bored with it.
posted by halogen at 10:22 PM on May 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Dominion is fun for two. My boyfriend and I play it at home.
posted by cabingirl at 10:22 PM on May 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

2nding backgammon. 2nding everything, really: Quick games with the option for long matches, super portable versions, super-simple and infinitely complex at the same time.
posted by supercres at 10:23 PM on May 30, 2010

For classic games, I recommend Go. It is simple to learn, difficult to master.

Second SET.
posted by pedantic at 10:25 PM on May 30, 2010

Response by poster: It's hard to explain what too geeky is. Like that game I was (kinda) talking about earlier, Twilight Struggle... that seems a little too geeky/overwhelming. I mean it might be tons of fun but history? I mean people must like it, it's high at the top of the best games of boardgamegeek. But it seems kinda too geeky.

Another thing I might add is that I kinda want a game we can get really into, master, buy expansion packs, the whole shebang. In this way I want a super geeky game. But it has to ease me into it.
posted by tweedle at 10:27 PM on May 30, 2010

Hive! Oh, God Hive! You will love it, amazing game.
posted by Cosine at 10:36 PM on May 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

Quarto is trivially simple in rules, difficult in play, comes in portable versions, and looks like a Star Trek game to boot.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 10:47 PM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

A few quick questions for starters:

1. How do you feel about games that involve direct conflict? (my guy kills your guy)
2. Are you about equally matched in skill/attention, or does one of you always win? (if you are unevenly matched, then a game with more luck helps to even the playing field)
3. Are there specific "themes" that appeal to you (like trains, or war, or supernatural things, or space/sci-fi, or fantasy/dragons, or money/business, or what)?
4. Are there specific themes that you dislike (sounds like you are not very excited about history)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:54 PM on May 30, 2010

I have a soft spot in my heart for Ricochet Robot. It is one of those easy-to-learn hard-to-master type games, but it can be a frustrating game as a beginner if you get frustrated easily. You just fail to see any paths and everybody is going so much faster than you and you worry you'll never make progress. This may be mitigated by playing with two beginners. No expansions, though. I guess it also isn't strategy. Hem.

Have you thought about Magic (the card game)? Sure you can end up spending millions of dollars on it and get extremely obsessively into it, but you can also play casually with starter decks and not take it too seriously.
posted by that girl at 10:55 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

TRAX. Simple rules, huge depth of strategy and advancement. Bakelite tiles so you can bring it to a cafe or pub and not worry about them getting soaked.
posted by meadowlark lime at 11:06 PM on May 30, 2010

Response by poster: 1. How do you feel about games that involve direct conflict? (my guy kills your guy)
2. Are you about equally matched in skill/attention, or does one of you always win? (if you are unevenly matched, then a game with more luck helps to even the playing field)
3. Are there specific "themes" that appeal to you (like trains, or war, or supernatural things, or space/sci-fi, or fantasy/dragons, or money/business, or what)?
4. Are there specific themes that you dislike (sounds like you are not very excited about history)?

1. Sounds good.
2. My boyfriend usually wins!
3. Hmm, not really. My boyfriend really likes mythology. I guess if I were to rank the order in which those things are appealing in a game it would go something like war, space/sci-fi, money/business, fantasy/dragons, trains.
4. I'm not really into history... One of the other top games on boardgamegeek was a game about agriculture. I'm not really into farming either I think. I guess I could get into these things though?
posted by tweedle at 11:14 PM on May 30, 2010

tweedle: "Another thing I might add is that I kinda want a game we can get really into, master, buy expansion packs, the whole shebang. In this way I want a super geeky game. But it has to ease me into it."

It seems like what you really want is Settlers of Catan, which fits all of your needs perfectly except for the two-player requirement. But I do see that there's a Catan card game for two players, with a whole litany of expansions, etc.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:21 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

For simplicity, complexity, and playability, try YINSH.
posted by Paragon at 11:31 PM on May 30, 2010

Best answer: Another thing I might add is that I kinda want a game we can get really into, master, buy expansion packs, the whole shebang. In this way I want a super geeky game. But it has to ease me into it.

This sounds like Dominion really. It has two expansion packs but even with just the original set you never play with all the cards at once. I think of it more like a game system than just one game. You can choose which decks to start with to give different types of games, including different skill levels, or you can pull some at random and see what happens. It's fairly easy to learn, I had no problems and I don't have much patience, but there's some substance there so even a total game dork like my boyfriend can enjoy it. Some people only ever play this one game and don't get bored. It plays well with two but also plays with more, which can be a nice feature to have available. And it's a card game so portable and fits into a cramped space like a cafe table, no chunky board to lug around or pieces to worry about knocking over.

My favourite two player game is actually Balloon Cup. It's cute and fun without being totally silly, and has some skill involved (I usually win, heh). I think Dominion sounds more suitable for you guys but it's my favourite game so I wanted to mention it as well.

Don't get too hung up on the theme. It generally just means there are pictures of that on the board and sometimes has some words or shaped pieces worked into the game play, but overall you can ignore it if you're not interested. Just because a game is about farming doesn't mean you have to know or care in any way about farming to like it, it's the play mechanism that really counts (assuming the board and pieces etc are a good standard). Dominion has some link between what a card is called and what it does but I never take any notice, the actions etc are written on the card so I just read those.
posted by shelleycat at 11:34 PM on May 30, 2010

Milles Bornes I loved this game, I have to play it again.
posted by fifilaru at 11:44 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a game my lovely partner and I have played in restaurants, cafes, planes, trains, and automobiles all over the world. I think it has the right level of difficulty and length for you, but it's not a boardgame and doesn't have expansion sets or a major storyline to it, so it doesn't fit those bills. We love it though and it has the big advantage of not requiring any equipment but pen and paper, and not even those once you get practiced at it. I'm sure it has some other names, but we just call it the Word Game. Here's how you play:

1. Each person picks a secret 5-letter word. The secret word must not be a proper name, nor may it use any letter more than once.

2. Players then take turns guessing each other's word. After each guess, the other player tells the guesser how many letters their guess had in common with the guessee's secret word. So, for example, say my secret word is "brain", and my partner guesses "binge"; I reply by saying "3". The guesser writes down their guess and my response, then it's my turn to guess.

3. The guess words may be a proper name (as long as we both have heard of it) and they may use letters more than once, though duplicated letters only count for one. So again, say my secret word is "brain" and my partner guesses "blabs". My response would then be "2", for the "b" and the "a".

4. If the player who went first guesses their opponent's word first, their opponent has one chance to tie. If the player who went second guesses their opponent's word first, they win immediately.

5. If one player has accidentally given a wrong answer somewhere along the line (it happens), their opponent gets a free extra guess at the time that fact is discovered.

6. At any point either player may ask their opponent to repeat the number for any previous guess.

So, it's a bit like the game Mastermind, but the positions of the letters make no difference. Variations on the game include 4-, 6-, and 7-letter words (of course, whatever the word length is it must be the same for both players.) We've tried higher numbers but it becomes a bit unplayable at that level. Also, after you've played a while you may find (we did) that you no longer need to keep track of your guesses on paper, which adds another level to the game that's about how good your memory is.

I hope all that makes sense; if you have any questions about the rules just ask. This is a great game to play during waiting times, like after you've ordered but before the food has arrived, or during vehicular transit.

And speaking of levels to this game, I shouldn't reveal this because it's sort of a expert-level refinement but once you really have it down little clever things can start to happen in terms of the /meaning/ of the words you choose to hide and guess; whole narratives can develop from the chain of words used, and players' guesses can reflect and comment on each other. It's meta!

You'll find yourself developing strategies as well, methods of eliminating letters and knowing how to use certain words and chains of words that give more information than others. Here's a free example of a particularly useful one for the 5-letter game: "deeds". And, when you've been playing with one person long enough, you'll start to get to know the types of secret words they like to choose and adapt your guessing strategy accordingly, at which point they may realize this is happening and change up what they pick. You'll also get to know your opponent's guessing strategies and choose secret words specifically to defeat those strategies. Wheels within wheels...

I love the Word Game. My junior high librarian taught it to me and I've been grateful to all librarians ever since. Try it!

pro-tip: eatoinshrdlu!
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 12:04 AM on May 31, 2010 [47 favorites]

Best answer: Okay - here are some thoughts. You'll want to look at the page of each game on BGG and see if the photos look appealing, etc.

Dominion, described above, is a good possibility. It might be a bit of reading to get started with, but it's very flexible once you get going with it.

Most games I'm describing do not have expansions. I note it if they do.

It's true that the theme shouldn't bother you too much in the long run - for example, the current popularity of Agricola as a game isn't because gamers like farming, it's because the rules are set up in a clever way that allows for satisfying play. It could be about monkeys on Mars for all they care. I myself generally like games that are "abstract", that don't have any theme at all (like checkers or Go). BUT - for some people the theme really matters a lot! Some people love war games and some hate them, etc. And this is especially true when people are starting out.

---------------- Simplest rules (these are "abstract" games, no expansions)----------------

*Hive - I love this game. Tactical (favors short-range adaptability over very-long-range planning), intense, short (10-30 min), no luck element. It has lovely slightly-heavy pieces, perfect for playing at a coffeeshop. BUT - If one of you is a lot better at games, this will probably be too lopsided because there is no luck element.

*Quarto (mentioned above) is terrific too, but shorter than you want, and I believe it's out of print as well. A copy of Set will hit similar logic buttons, so if you were destined to like Quarto you will almost certainly like Set.


---------More complicated rules (not super complicated, but will require a read-through)---------

Carcassonne - requires table space. Has lots of follow-ups and expansions, easy to get started playing.

*Lost Cities - card game, part of a series of Kosmos 2 player games, which are typically pretty good and quick to get started with. (You can skim that list and see if there's anything with a theme you might like, and check out the BGG description page for it. Other well-regarded ones are Jambo, Balloon Cup, Kahuna, Odin's Ravens, Blue Moon)

*Battle Line is a somewhat similar 2 player card game with a different theme (ancient Greek military) but it's not really combat-like. Battle Line feels more logicky to me than Lost Cities; Lost Cities feels a little more press-your-luck-ish.

*Memoir '44 - if you want a starter war game, this one is nice. Good pieces, pretty straightforward rules; this one's about World War II. It will be more complicated to get started with than some of these others, but not nearly as complicated as some of the more advanced wargames out there. You'll need a full board size table to play this, so if your cafe has tiny tables it won't work. Battle Cry is a similar game set in the American Civil War. Commands and Colors: Ancients is a similar game set in various places in the ancient real world. BattleLore is a similar game set in a fantasy world with things like trolls and goblins.

Attika - is a lovely board game; a bit complicated but not overwhelmingly so, nice pieces, nice balance. Might be hard to find.

San Juan is the card-game version of the very popular game Puerto Rico. It may take a bit of getting used to/figuring out, but I know a lot of people who really love it.

* = 2-player only. (Games without the asterix can be played by 2 or more than 2.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:16 AM on May 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

One of the other top games on boardgamegeek was a game about agriculture. I'm not really into farming either I think. I guess I could get into these things though?

You are referring to Agricola, I assume? It really doesn't matter that it is about "farming": it's just a strategy game, and the premise could be anything the author wants it to be. We owned Agricola for a full year and attempted to play it several times before we finally read through all the rules (it's not particularly complicated once you get past the 12-page or so instruction booklet). It's absolutely not a game you can take to a coffee shop, but fun nonetheless.

Ticket to Ride is the game that made us buy games like Power Grid and Agricola, but for something you can play outside of your house, I still stand by backgammon. It is not as common in the U.S., but it is definitely the coffee house boardgame in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece et al.

We've played plenty of backgammon it on transatlantic and transpacific flights and Amtrac trains and our local park in Seattle. I'm so excited about the game, I volunteer to teach you if you're anywhere near the Pacific Northwest. You'll love it.
posted by halogen at 12:17 AM on May 31, 2010

slappy_pinchbottom, that game is also called Jotto; wikipedia has a nice list of word games if you're looking for more along these lines, too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:23 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've heard good things about Fluxx.
posted by davejay at 2:42 AM on May 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's a card game, but Munchkin! It's a tongue-in-cheek simple little role-playing/strategy game, perfectly suitable for two people, and there are lots of expansion packs available. You can play it dirty and backstab each other all the way through, or keep it nice and help each other out. A friend and I always bust it out as our "let's get tipsy and eat cheap brie and crackers" entertainment.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 3:56 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try Snatch! Really addictive, fantastic fun and easily portable. I highly recommend it.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 4:06 AM on May 31, 2010

Abalone is a good two-player game that's easy to learn, fairly quick to play, and addictive. (but not mindless.)

Cribbage is always good.
posted by usonian at 4:48 AM on May 31, 2010

Re-iterating this awesome list. Lost Cities stands out as being really fun and really simple to learn (and set up/put away).
posted by jbickers at 5:06 AM on May 31, 2010

Second Milles Bornes. Great game, plus learn incidental French terms that will aid you if your car ever breaks down on the outskirts of Saint-Etienne. Coup-Fourré!
posted by umberto at 6:54 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Magic the Gathering is a really fantastic game with a lot of depth. Drafting is especially fun (albeit potentially expensive), but sidesteps the whole 'collectible' aspect.
posted by wrok at 7:43 AM on May 31, 2010

A full Go game can take hours, but you can make yourself a little printed, laminated 9x9 or 13x13 board to make it a little quicker. That also tends to turn it from a serious, hard-thinking game to a more fun, friendly game.
posted by ctmf at 7:56 AM on May 31, 2010

Fluxx is great, easy to learn, and there are lots of varieties - you can also get blank cards and make your own.

I'm going to put another vote in for Set - it's great for stretching your brain, and there are lots of variations on the standard game that you can play.

I like Pente, which is a two player game kind of like go or othello (played with colored stones on a grid board, in other words). It's also easy to learn but has a lot of depth. For that matter, go or othello are good too.

Treehouse is also nifty. It's very fast to play - usually games only take a few minutes - but there's lots of thinking involved, and not very much set up.

Settlers of Catan has already been mentioned but I'll bring it up again - games are perhaps a little longer than you'd like, but it's fairly portable, easy to learn, and has a lot of strategy. It's more fun with more people, however. Don't let the theme of settling and building an island fool you - it's cut throat and great fun.

Race for the Galaxy also takes a little longer (usually about an hour, depending on the cards) but it's a neat game with a lot of deep strategy and lots of expansions available. It has the advantage of not having a lot of fiddly pieces or a board to get lost - you play with just some counters and cards, plus a reference for the rules while you feel you need it.
posted by lriG rorriM at 8:03 AM on May 31, 2010

I looked at the above comments and saw that everything I wanted to recommend had already been listed. Here are the ones I most want to second. Note that these are the games that appeal to my sensibilities; they may not be right for you. I really like games where winning means absolutely crushing your opponent. I also like games that are improved by a chess clock set on andante (I usually play abalone with a minute per player, plus a five second grace period per turn. Go and Hive would require different timings).

Hive. Fast without being brief, serious without being intimidating, easy to cary with you and play wherever, and there actually is an expansion available: The Mosquito.

Abalone. This is my favorite, most often played pure abstract game. Play by the rules in the box to learn how, but once you think you know what’s going on, switch to one of the “daisy” starting positions and watch the game become twice as hard right before your eyes.

Go on a 9x9 board. The greatest board game in history made fast, portable, and fun.
posted by Ptrin at 8:38 AM on May 31, 2010

You mentioned that your boyfriend likes Scrabble. In that case, may I recommend BANANAGRAMS!

It's like Scrabble in the sense that you create words in a crossword-puzzle style grid. It's unlike Scrabble in that there are no turns (so it's somewhat fast-paced), the letters are not given a point value, there's no board, and you can rearrange your letters as many times as you like!

The link to the official website explains it much better than I have here. Rounds can take as little as 5 minutes, but it's easy and fun to clear out and start again. For prolonged amazingness, you can buy the big pack.
posted by Night_owl at 8:45 AM on May 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure why chess is being slighted here, were you determined it would something new for the both of you? If not chess is excellent portable sets can be bought cheaply and games can be timed for short matches and can be light and tactical it they can be intense and positional. You should give chess a chance it's a fun addictive game. If you both have smart phones you can play many chess server games (chess with friends) free no equipment needed. Chess games can be exciting intense fun even funny and even revelatory.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 8:47 AM on May 31, 2010

Another "not a board game"- game: with the right person, I can get lost in Rummikub for hours. It's got its roots in Gin Rummy, but involves a lot more forethought and planning.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:02 AM on May 31, 2010

Settlers of Catan - this game does not work for 2 players without rule modifications.

Carcasonne - Great game, very simple to learn but with some insidious strategy. Plays alright with 2, but shines with 3 or 4.

Abstract strategy games are almost exclusively 2 player, which is why so many are mentioned here. Some friends of mine play a greek variant of backgammon which involves playing a set of 3 games, each with different rules. Play goes very fast once both players know the rules well, and they easily finish a set of 3 within a 45 minute lunch hour.
posted by utsutsu at 9:04 AM on May 31, 2010

Another question to clarify--since you mention playing in cafes, do you mind if a game has a bunch of fiddly little pieces to screw around with? How important is it to you that someone can bump the table, or a little breeze can come up, without messing up the board?

I don't know if you're opposed to card games, but there are some great ones. For two players, I love gin.
posted by box at 9:06 AM on May 31, 2010

Settlers of Catan is a great game, but it it only for 3 or 4 players. There is a 2 player card game version but as I understand it, it's not very good.

Chess I have never really gotten into for some reason, but I enjoy other abstracts a lot. So I guess the lesson is, try a few abstracts because different ones attract different people.

The problem is that some of your listed requirements are in conflict.

Abstract strategy games (like chess, backgammon, Go, Hive, Pente, Blokus, Abalone, Othello, etc) will tend to have:
Very simple rules
Simple setup
Deep strategic play that can take a long time to really master
Great for 2 players
But no expansions
And often they do not have a lot of luck, which might mean that you will not be evenly matched. But this is worth trying out to see.

Whereas games with lots of expansions will tend to have:
Somewhat more complex rules
And many of them are sort of silly/fun/light, rather than being strategically deep (Munchkin or Fluxx are examples of this - I think of them as being more for geek parties, or in between "heavier" games).
But the silly/light/fun games often have more of a luck element, which might work well to even the playing field between you.

Some of the games listed don't fit into either of those categories - for example the Kosmos card games tend to have a good dose of luck which can help to level the playing field, but still have a bit more strategy than Fluxx. I think Carcassonne, and other games where you have to draw pieces out of a bag, are in this middle category which might work well for you. (Luck is introduced by having players get random pieces/cards, but be able to make strategic decisions based on what they get.)

A couple of other notes:
Set is great, though it's more like solving a puzzle as fast as you can, no strategy. Another nice thing about it is that you can include other friends in the game if you want, but the two player version is great on its own. Richochet Robot is similar in these ways, though Set is simpler and thus easier to get people involved with.

I'm not sure how strongly you feel about the portability requirement. Some of the games I listed will not work well on a tiny table (I'm thinking mainly of the military games, these will have a bunch of little plastic men that you don't want to knock over) though they could work ok on maybe a 3'x3' table or bigger.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:50 AM on May 31, 2010

The word game that slappy_pinchbottom suggested is called Jotto, and you should play it without allowing repeated letters in guesses (the game goes better) and counting an anagram as a solution (if my word is "pears" and you guess "spear" or "pares" or etc, you still win). A good player can win within 12 turns every time, fyi, and usually more like 9. My current favourite change to the game is that, when you guess a word, you also have to tell the other player how many of its letters are in your word. (My word is 'house', I guess 'night', I tell you 1, and then you tell me how many letters overlap between 'night' and your word.) I am unsure if this is a fair version, because when I play, the first player always wins it. It takes forever to play this version, but it's fun. You need lots and lots of paper.

Two player board games I like:

Mr. Jack. There are a few expansions which I have never played. Completely about interaction, minor luck effect. 2p only.
San Juan. It's a lot of fun, but eventually becomes a game of luck. 2-4p.
Fjords. This is much more portable than the others, but is a lot about visualising tilings, and reasonable interaction. Little luck effect. 2p only.
Taluva. This has a lot of possible levels of strategy, and a fair amount of interaction. Little luck effect. 2-4p.
Cities. This is mostly a logic and some luck game, though the tiles are identical for both players. 2-4p, and extremely fast.
Lost Cities is fun, but takes up more room than you think. Lots of luck. 2p only.
posted by jeather at 10:14 AM on May 31, 2010

We've been enjoying Schotten-Totten lately as our two-player game of choice. It's a card game, has some nice strategy, and takes between 15-45 minutes, so it might be a bit short for your taste. It's also nice to pack on a trip, since it's a small box, and it's cheap. You need a small table to play on, about 9 by 9 cards.
posted by cameleon at 10:51 AM on May 31, 2010

Backgammon is the perfect combination of strategy and luck. It allows a lesser skilled player to luck into a victory vs a better opponent.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:12 PM on May 31, 2010

I like a bunch of board games and specialized card games like Lost Cities, but for compact, portable, affordable fun with a good balance of luck and skill, I find it hard to beat cribbage and Yahtzee. You don't even need a cribbage board or special Yahtzee scorekeeping pad, though both are useful (especially the former), and playing cards and dice are very cheap and easy to find. The games are fun, competitive, lively, and the right length of time, and super simple to set up, clear away, and play on a small table.
posted by redfoxtail at 12:17 PM on May 31, 2010

DD Mau. Kind of a hyped-up, more complex version of UNO.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:25 PM on May 31, 2010

Seconding cribbage. It fits your time and cost limits. Can be played with 2, 3 or 4 players. They sell small travel boards that are easy to carry around. There's a bit of luck involved with the game based on the cards you're dealt but there's a lot of skill involved as well.
posted by quadog at 1:06 PM on May 31, 2010

There are a lot of great recommendations here. I'd second Carcassonne, Lost Cities, Dominion, Hive, Mr Jack, Memoir '44, San Juan, and I'd add in Stone Age, Pandemic, Campaign Manager 2008, Jambo and Cold War: CIA vs KGB as games that are either specifically for two-players, or play well with two. Fluxx and Gloom aren't very highly rated, but you may like them. Fluxx is very random, which limits the tactics, but it's silly and fun. I find it works well in the pub with 3 or 4 (I've heard similar things said about Munchkin, but I don't know it myself). With Gloom, the fun is in the storytelling rather than the gameplay - again, this may be exactly what you're looking for.

Of those mentioned that I'd avoid, I'd say Settlers of Catan is good but doesn't work with 2, Race for the Galaxy is a baffling array of numbers and symbols that will likely send you mad (you cannot tell me that this is suitable for beginners) and - more of a personal thing here - Cities looks awful and has no real interaction between players.

My absolute top recommendation would be to find out if you have a games store nearby, and pop along. I have to warn you, though, there's a strong possibility of geekiness therein. My way into the boardgame hobby was through reading about Settlers of Catan in Wired - the very friendly bloke in the games shop told me that Catan wouldn't work with two, and sent me away with Carcassonne. I now shudder about the money I've spent on games so far. And believe me, it is 'so far'.

A couple of words on the games you mentioned... The farming game that tops Boardgamegeek, Agricola, is a great game, but not one I'd recommend to beginners. It's quite overwhelming, and possibly frustrating; make the wrong move early in the game and you may not be able to recover. Similarly, Twilight Struggle, while a great game, is an epic where a lot of time is spent frowning at little counters on a map of the world, then peering at your cards indecisively. I love it, but it's in no way an entry point, nor does it meet your criteria. So, you're right to be put off a bit by those.

Of the games recommended, here are a couple of cheeky self links to reviews of the three I would most recommend: Dominion, Cold War: CIA vs KGB and Carcassonne. Cold War is the most portable of those, but Carcassonne and Dominion fit your 'lots of expansions' requirement.

Let us know what you decide!
posted by liquidindian at 4:01 PM on May 31, 2010 [5 favorites]

I just played Schotten Totten recently and it was great!

Another fun game is Red November, in which the players are a bunch of drunken gnomes trying to keep their submarine from sinking. It's designed for 4-7 players BUT you can easily make it a 2-player game by playing two (or three!) gnomes a piece; I think this is actually a better way to play than with six or seven players. It has the distinction of being a cooperative game, which are few and far between.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:07 PM on May 31, 2010

Also: Bananagrams is exactly like speed Scrabble, which has been around for a while. Someone realised they could put scrabble pieces in a banana-shaped bag and market it, methinks. It's hella fun, though, and if you already have a scrabble set, it's effectively free!
posted by kaibutsu at 4:10 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go to boardgamegeek and look around.
posted by mecran01 at 7:18 PM on May 31, 2010

mecrano1, she began by saying that she finds BGG too overwhelming without having some starting points.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:28 PM on May 31, 2010

Carcassone and Dominion are the best matches to what you asked for - great with two players, expansions, not too hard to learn, and not too long to play.

Race to the Galaxy is a good choice for a little later. It has everything you asked for except that the learning curve is a little steeper with all the symbols, but the symbols are very consistent and everything that isn't really simple is explained on the card.

Ingenious, Blokus [get Travel Blokus for two players], Lost Cities, Hive, Taluva and Stone Age are all great games without expansions that people have mentioned already.

A couple of games not mentioned by anyone:

Qwirkle. It's similar to scrabble, but with 6 shapes and 6colors instead of letters, so you don't have the memorization factor. There's actually a new version of it called Qwirkle Cubes, where every cube has one color but all 6 shapes, so every turn you can reroll to change the shapes you have.

Small World. It's a fighting game - you pick a adjective/race combo, each with their own bonus [such as Wealthy Ratmen or Pillaging Dwarves], and get points based off how many territories you control plus any bonus based off your powers [like Pillaging means you get a bonus for killing other units]. They actually have a 2 player version of this available for the iPad [no AI]!

A lot of these games have [legitimate] computer versions available, if you want to give any of these a try, I can dig up some links.
posted by radicarian at 1:48 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

liquidindian and I play a lot of games. I like Gloom a lot - he says it's too random. If you want something portable enough to take to a cafe, though, then I'd recommend this, Cold War (which I'm told is similar to Pontoon) or Hive (Hive can be played in the amount of time it takes a cup of tea to cool, but is still challenging). Lost Cities is compact enough to play on a cafe table too, and has a cool explorer theme. There's also Bananagrams if you like Scrabble, which comes in a cool banana-shaped bag.

Have you thought about Magic (the card game)?

If the idea of collectable card games scares you, but you like the fantasy theme, Blue Moon is similar. Dominion too - both of them involve building a deck and using it. Dominion has the advantage of being combatitive if you want it to, with interactive cards. Tricky to play in public places though. I am frightened of Magic given that I already have several ways in which to spend large amounts of money on ostensibly worthless items.
posted by mippy at 4:07 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dominion is great for two players or more. It is a card game and is easily playable anywhere with a small bit of table space (to place the cards). Dominion is probably one of my favourite games. Carcasonne is a sort of puzzle/strategy game and also can be played just about anywhere. Both games take between 30 minutes to one hour to play a typical game with two-players and both can be played with more than two players.

My girlfriend and I also play a game called Agricola. It is a pretty complex game and needs a lot of table space so perhaps it is not the best game for a coffee shop. If you try the earlier two games I mentioned, give this one a try. Once you take the time to learn it, you will not regret it. Agricola takes at least one hour to play though there is a shorter "Family Game" included. You can play the game by yourself or up five people. Tip: Try YouTube for some Agricola videos as the manual sucks big time.
posted by 1awesomeguy at 5:14 AM on June 1, 2010

n-thing Banagrams.

Also, Royalty is a fantastic card game, which is also very much like scrabble.
posted by xammerboy at 8:11 AM on June 1, 2010

If you are thinking along the lines of yahtzee, you might also try the dice game known variously as Farkle, Dice5000, Squelch, and others.
posted by CathyG at 9:17 AM on June 1, 2010

Icehouse, Aquarius or any of the other great game from LooneyLabs.
posted by Rash at 10:50 AM on June 1, 2010

Backgammon w/ betting; enough chance to make it easy to learn, enough skill to make it fun to continue playing.
posted by Kale Slayer at 8:18 PM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll second Pandemic (and recommend the On the Brink expansion too). It's cooperative, fairly easy to learn, but pretty tough to win. Really good players win about 30% of the time in the original version. If you're winning more than that chances are you've inadvertently cheated. It's still good fun though, and because you work as a team there's never downtime waiting for your next turn.
posted by Cody's Keeper at 8:43 PM on June 2, 2010

Go to boardgamegeek and look around.
posted by mecran01 at 8:18 PM on May 31 [+] [!]

mecrano1, she began by saying that she finds BGG too overwhelming without having some starting points.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:28 PM on May 31 [+] [!]

I linked to a single list of two player games to narrow things down.
posted by mecran01 at 4:33 PM on June 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks guys, these are all great suggestions. We decided to go with Dominion but I was also considering Carcassone and my boyfriend liked the sound of Lost Cities, San Juan, and Gloom. We also both liked Race to the Galaxy. Hopefully we'll decide to play one of these other ones at a different point in time! We haven't played Dominion yet but I organized all the cards and read the instructions and it sounds like lots of fun.
posted by tweedle at 10:41 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

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