Recommend me some mellow, non-electronic two-player strategy games.
June 11, 2011 3:04 PM   Subscribe

My spouse and I are looking for some new board/card games - can you help?

Specifically, games that:

- work well for two people
- do not require lots of table space
- play in a half hour or less
- have a strategy component
- are non-electronic

Our current favorite is Ticket to Ride - we also enjoy Carcassonne and Forbidden Island.
posted by expialidocious to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (72 answers total) 130 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Dominion.
posted by grouse at 3:06 PM on June 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Agricola.
posted by Lifeson at 3:10 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agricola does not play in 30 min or less, in my experience, even with two people. Although it is fun!
posted by grouse at 3:10 PM on June 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: We love Ticket to Ride, too--the Europe map is great for two people. Another one we enjoy is Lost Cities.
posted by hought20 at 3:12 PM on June 11, 2011

Dutch Blitz, Ticket to Ride, Blockus, Carcasonne.
posted by sadtomato at 3:15 PM on June 11, 2011

posted by bryghtrose at 3:16 PM on June 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've been thinking about picking up Hive based on the Board Game Family's review.
posted by bcwinters at 3:16 PM on June 11, 2011

Scrabble. And 2nding Cribbage.
posted by COD at 3:19 PM on June 11, 2011

If you like more abstract strategy, try Abalone or Ingenious.
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:21 PM on June 11, 2011

Best answer: My wife and I occasionally enjoy a game of Casino (or Cassino). It's very quick, very simple, but there is some strategy just to the play.
Rules here:
posted by carlh at 3:23 PM on June 11, 2011

Hive is exactly what you're looking for. There's a black and white "Carbon" version that comes with the two expansion pieces; it's the best value last I checked.
posted by toxotes at 3:24 PM on June 11, 2011

Best answer: My partner and I just got Pandemic. It's pretty good for two people, though the board is large-ish.
posted by just_ducky at 3:24 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Another vote for Dominion, although I think it's better with more than two players. My wife and I play a lot of Lost Cities.
posted by iwhitney at 3:24 PM on June 11, 2011

3rd on cribbage, and perhaps a travel version of Catan
posted by ibakecake at 3:27 PM on June 11, 2011

Best answer: My wife and I play a lot of board games. Our current favourites are Mr Jack (Mr Jack Pocket is a related but different game, and also looks good) and Lost Cities.

If you like cooperative, Pandemic is a good call, and if you're looking for more complexity, Race for the Galaxy is outstanding once you get past the learning curve. San Juan has a similar conceit but is simpler.
posted by Paragon at 3:29 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, these are all great suggestions. What are the learning curves like on Lost Cities and Dominion?
posted by expialidocious at 3:33 PM on June 11, 2011

Magic the Gathering.
posted by empath at 3:33 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by plokent at 3:34 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lost Cities hits that perfect balance - easy to learn, and difficult to win. There's a bit of adding-up at the end of each round, but BoardGameGeek has a few spreadsheets that speed up the scoring quite a bit.
posted by Paragon at 3:35 PM on June 11, 2011

posted by sacrifix at 3:43 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I thought I would hate it...but my husband talked me into it and it's really fun...but I get really mad when he wins! :)
posted by fresh-rn at 3:49 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hellas is a fun 2 player strategic game using a tile map that you build as you go, and special cards which let you bend the rules when you play them. The game has little plastic warriors and boats, which are cool looking, but also very tiny. The rules are pretty easy to pick up, but the implications of the rules and strategies around it have some more depth. I consider it medium-light in terms of strategy.

Kahuna is a territory-control game where you play cards to build bridges, which lets you claim islands. The key to play is setting up chain reactions that will cause your opponent's control to collapse, while strengthening your own. The rules are very simple, but the strategy is high.
posted by yeloson at 3:50 PM on June 11, 2011

Set. Oh my sweet Jesus, SET. Works for any amount of players for any amount of time on a very small space. (warning: will SWALLOW YOUR BRAINS and you WON'T MIND AT ALL)
posted by EatTheWeek at 3:51 PM on June 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Since you asked: I hate games that have a ton of rules or a steep learning curve or are otherwise too "serious." Dominion is not one of those games, and I really like it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:58 PM on June 11, 2011

Would Cartagena or Mancala count? They're a lot of fun and, as for mancala, you can play that with pebbles at a picnic.
posted by codswallop at 4:02 PM on June 11, 2011

+1 to Dominion, and another vote for Magic: The Gathering. The learning curves are a bit steep, but they are games with a lot of depth and so they can be enjoyably played over and over and over again.

I am also a fan of Skip-Bo. Much lighter and easier to learn.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:04 PM on June 11, 2011

We were given Hive by a fellow mefite and love it. I play the electronic solitaire version on my ipod now too. Both Hive and Set work well for solitaire as well as group play.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:09 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Skip-Bo, Phase 10, Canasta, Yahtzee, Scattergories can be modified to 2 player. And my new favorite, bananagrams
posted by TravellingCari at 4:39 PM on June 11, 2011

Best answer: Another vote here for Lost Cities.
posted by Frasermoo at 4:43 PM on June 11, 2011

Best answer: Hive, Banangrams and Lost Cities are good calls. Dominion is an awesome game, but I agree that it's not at its best with 2 players.

Race for the Galaxy is usually played with 3 or more, but the 2-player variant actually works incredibly well.
posted by mkultra at 4:47 PM on June 11, 2011

Another Dominion vote. It's quite easy to learn.
posted by dfan at 5:04 PM on June 11, 2011

Nthing Dominion
My wife and I have also been enjoying Mr. Jack, lots of strategy, takes about 25-30 minutes to play, minimal set-up.
posted by 2ghouls at 5:23 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Dominion is great choice, but if is just 2 people I recommend Race for the Galaxy.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:05 PM on June 11, 2011

Lost Cities is fun. I also find Fjords -- another 2p only game -- a very enjoyable tile-laying 2p game. Another tile-laying 2p game (but very, very, very different) is Taluva. (Taluva plays 2-4: at 2, it is strategic, at 4 tactical. I prefer 2.) Coming in at around 30 minutes is Stone Age. My current favourite game, though taking more like 45 for 2p, is Fresco. Stone Age and Fresco are both very different worker placement games. Both are also good with more than 2 players.

Mr Jack + pocket are good games. Pandemic is a fun cooperative game which works very well with 2 people.

I'd say that Pandemic, Mr Jack + pocket, Lost Cities and Fjords all count as gateway level games. Lost Cities is a set collection/hand management game. In general, there will be too many good turns to take. Pandemic is also hand management. Mr Jack is weird, and hard to explain. Fjords is tile placement, and later area control based on tiles you have placed, but the two stages are distinct. I find all of these games have more depth than, say, Catan, and none are too luck dependent. Of these, I play Fjords by far the most often. Pandemic is my second choice among them.

I think worker placement games cannot be gateway, because there is just too much going on. Stone Age is a little mathy, too, because you roll as many dice as you put meeple, and then you divide by 2-6, depending on what you are buying. Because there are a bunch of dice, the luck is more balanced. With two players, there's a little balance problem with cards vs tiles. It's a fun game, and another game I am always willing to play. Fresco is worker placementy, but you place them at the same time (hidden behind a screen), and the play order is chosen again each turn. There is a dummy player to make it an effective 2p game. I enjoy this game a lot because the mechanics are intriguing -- you need to plan ahead in an unsual way -- and also because it is pretty.

Taluva requires good visualising of objects and, essentially, 3d planning. There's an aspect of screw the other player in it more than the other games, which may or may not appeal.
posted by jeather at 6:27 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by ohtimorousme at 6:50 PM on June 11, 2011

Milles Bornes
The premise of Mille Bornes is that the players are in a road race. Each race—or hand—is usually 700 miles (or kilometers) long, but the first player to complete that distance exactly has the option to declare an extension in which case the race becomes 1,000 miles. Mille Bornes is played with a special deck of cards. There are hazard, remedy, safety, and distance cards. Each hazard is corrected by a corresponding remedy, and is actually prevented from happening in the first place by a corresponding safety. The target distance is reached by playing distance cards.

Whenever I think of card games, I think of this one. I found it great fun.
posted by fifilaru at 7:01 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like to play Go. Easy to learn, tons of strategy, and VERY engrossing and competitive.
posted by mudlark at 7:31 PM on June 11, 2011

Very thinky, no luck factor, so if you are unevenly matched it will be lopsided. Much more tactical (short term) than a game like Go (which requires some longterm thinking). Rewards replaying, takes only a small table space, satisfying pieces. Just a terrific game.

A couple that I enjoy which are not listed here: On the Underground, Attika. Both are maybe a bit longer and heavier than you're looking for, but not by much and might be a nice next step.

Many other good suggestions here. Offhand I would second Lost Cities (easy to learn and has some luck to balance out unevenly matched partners), Blokus (I would get the 4 player version and each of you play 2 colors; I don't like the 2 player version), Hey That's My Fish (again, thinky), Through the Desert (thinky); Pandemic (super fun and very much like Forbidden Island); San Juan (the card game version of Puerto Rico; though has a small element of "learn all these card types before you can really make a smart decision); Go and Mancala of course.

Quirkle is very light and has more luck than I like.
I'm not crazy about Dominion although everyone but me seems to love it; seemed like it had a million card types to keep track of, which means the learning curve is steeper than I enjoy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:44 PM on June 11, 2011

Set is also fun, more of a puzzle than a game, but it does take some table space.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:46 PM on June 11, 2011

Hive, plus 1.
posted by Mr. Justice at 8:05 PM on June 11, 2011

Citadels is another one my partner and I like a lot. It's simple and quick, but has some fun strategy components.
posted by rivenwanderer at 8:10 PM on June 11, 2011

Just moments ago, I finished a game of Power Grid with my wife. It has a bad reputation with 2 players, because the auction phase can be a little boring, but it worked out well for us!
posted by jozxyqk at 8:34 PM on June 11, 2011

About ten years ago the company Kosmos identified your exact question as a market niche. They have subsequently published many games (over 50 I think) that very well match your parameters. Scroll half-way down this page and see the linked items, note that this is page 1 of 6 for these items, and you can sort them by boardgamegeek rank.
posted by meinvt at 8:35 PM on June 11, 2011

Oh, but "half hour or less" is doubtful for Power Grid, even in the best of conditions.
posted by jozxyqk at 8:38 PM on June 11, 2011

Set is a lot of fun if you're fairly equally matched, but can be less so if one of you is a pattern-spotting freak (um, that's a quote) and the other isn't. When my husband and I play, I self-handicap because it's not fun for him to get resoundingly stomped; I'll either impose a rule like "After I see a set, I must count to five [or ten] before yelling 'Set!'", or we'll play after I've had a couple of beers. *grin*

Backgammon! It's a classic for a reason.

Gin and rummy can be a lot of fun. Also cribbage.

Q-Turn is a nice way to pass time while waiting for a pizza or something. It's not currently being manufactured, but if you follow that link you can print out your own stickers and stick them onto wooden nickels or poker chips or something.

Quarto is a good game and one where you can be surprised by who wins. And the killer is that you just selected and handed your opponent the piece that beat you. Ouch!
posted by Lexica at 9:15 PM on June 11, 2011

Piquet. The original strategy card game, and the best two-person game I know.
posted by Go Banana at 9:50 PM on June 11, 2011

Yes - Quarto is great! Games are usually very short, I find, like 2-10 minutes, but you immediately want to play again. Especially if you are logicky types.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:59 PM on June 11, 2011

Small World is good for two and can be played in a half hour pretty easily.
posted by that girl at 1:27 AM on June 12, 2011

Space Alert!

Marginal according to your prefs, actually, but it looks so much fun I have to recommend it.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:49 AM on June 12, 2011

Best answer: Jaipur is the 'Lost Cities killer' for me. It plays quickly, doesn't take up lot of room, and is a nice mixture of luck and strategy. It feels less like a 'pasted on' theme.

Race for the Galaxy is always recommended in these threads. It's good, but not for everyone. If you have a local games store where you try it out, I'd recommend that. If you have a local gaming group, they may also have a copy you can try - and some suggestions of their own. San Juan might be a better choice.

Traders of Carthage is a nice game for two but not terribly easy to get as it's out of print. It has a small board but is mostly a card game, and has a little bit more 'ha! take that!' in it that Lost Cities and Jaipur.
posted by liquidindian at 5:14 AM on June 12, 2011

I am liquidindian's better half and I much prefer San Juan to Race for the Galaxy - not sure why, but SJ seems more intuitive for me. Perhaps it's the theme, perhaps it's simplified, I'm not sure.

We do like Cold War: CIA vs KGB. There's a bit of direct conflict in there which makes playing against a partner a lot of fun. I find I enjoy games based on 20th Century history particularly, for some reason - there may be a theme which appeals to you in particular.
posted by mippy at 5:35 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check out Cheapass Games - a great collection of games that use the pieces you already have from other games. Sometimes there's a board, sometimes cards, but they assume you already have dice, markers and/or money.

There's also the Boardgame Remix Kit, which shows you a bunch of variations you can play with your collection of everyone-has-them games.
posted by Mchelly at 5:41 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Double N'thing Dominion and it's several expansion sets. Awesome replay value and quick pacing once you have the basic mechanics down. The guy who introduced us to Dominion also managed to get me hooked on a Chinese card game called tichu, but it's for 4 players. It's a trick-taking game, sort of, but with elements of poker thrown in as well. Quite addictive. I say it on every game AskMefi, but have a look at the ratings over at too.
posted by jquinby at 6:43 AM on June 12, 2011

I find my husband and I reach for Bananagrams a lot more than Scrabble simply because it's much faster and easy going, so much less frustrating than Scrabble (to be fair when we play Scrabble it's only ever Super Scrabble, which takes HOURS) while still satisfying the word nerd urge. You don't have to keep tallies and you don't even take turns. And it's way more portable, easier to sweep up and put away too.

Way too obvious to the point of dumb, but Uno and Spit are good when you just want to kill time at say, an airport and want to be able to still hold a conversation at the same time.
posted by ifjuly at 8:34 AM on June 12, 2011

Nthing Dominion and Qwirkle, and adding Qwirkle Cubes to the list.
posted by halsted at 10:04 AM on June 12, 2011

Seconding Abalone. A little gem of a strategy game, and it ticks all your other boxes too.
posted by Decani at 11:08 AM on June 12, 2011

Dominion is quick to learn and plays well with two people. Plus, there are so many different cards, the rarely plays the same way twice, especially if you randomize which cards will be used. Generally 30 min or less for 2 players. Dominion: Intrigue can be used as a standalone Dominion game, or mix-and-matched with the original Dominion for even more diverse card combinations.

Small World is also fun for two, and there are several expansions available.
posted by xedrik at 12:57 PM on June 12, 2011

I'll second Magic the Gathering. It's not too hard to pick up, new expansions come out a few times a year, and you learn have the potential to learn new strategies with the different decks. A store like Target or a game shop probably can sell you pre-constructed decks that have a "How to Play" insert.
posted by dragonplayer at 2:34 PM on June 12, 2011

Seconding Citadels, it's pretty quick as a two-hander and the rules are easy to follow straight off. Carpe Astra is another good one one for two-player strategy - a bit more involved but still doable in 30 mins. I wouldn't reccommend Race for the Galaxy - reading the rules made my head hurt.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:45 PM on June 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations. We went to the game store yesterday and picked up Lost Cities and Blokus to Go, along with the Ticket to Ride Europa 1912 expansion and Carcassonne: The River II. Race for the Galaxy, Mr. Jack, and Dominion are on the short list to try next, as well as revisiting Casino. We've already played several rounds of Lost Cities, and it's definitely a keeper.

I am one of those 'pattern-spotting fiends,' so I can't always persuade friends and family to play Set. Blokus was a bit too head-to-head to be a mellow choice, though I might like it better if I were better at it!

I'm sure I'll be coming back to this thread for a long time.
posted by expialidocious at 4:38 PM on June 12, 2011

Hmm, I was gonna recommend Yomi though you'd mentioned "mellow." It's a very solid two-player game (it's designed to try to stimulate does-he-know-that-I-know mind games as much as possible) that's pretty quick and lots of fun, but it definitely has a very head-to-head thing going on. You can try it for free online at if you'd like, though, to see if you even like the basic gist of it. I think it's lots of fun, of course. : )
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:13 PM on June 12, 2011

Stratego. Looks like a children's game but plays like a cross between chess and poker.
posted by Manjusri at 2:40 AM on June 13, 2011

sacrifix: Fluxx.

Seconding Fluxx. It's a card game that requires a moderate amount of table space, but it's not bad for two players, and can scale up to 5 with a single deck. There are 6 "flavors" and a bunch of expansions/bonus packs, if the basic game(s) wear thin. I've played and enjoyed both Zombie and Monty Python Fluxx.

In short: the rules and goal of the game changes with the cards in play. The game can be over in 5 minutes or an hour. Monty Python Fluxx is a LOT better with at least general knowledge of Monty Python universe, as you get some benefits from knowing songs and such. Zombie Fluxx plays on zombie tropes, but no special knowledge is needed (or even helpful, except for the jokes).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:28 AM on June 13, 2011

Canasta (if you play only a round or two).
posted by lunit at 9:53 AM on June 13, 2011

I like GoSu, although it says run time is 45 minutes.

Also, Blue Moon City - 60 minutes.

Infinite City 35 minutes.

I agree with Dominion, provided you are familiar witht he card types and know which ones you are using - otherwise, I think it can take a while.
posted by needlegrrl at 10:32 AM on June 13, 2011

Regarding Fluxx, I would strongly advise against it if you like strategic games - because of the randomness of the game, it's essentially strategy-less. There's a nice visual review on BGG about this.
posted by Paragon at 1:59 PM on June 13, 2011

Innovation is much better than Fluxx, in my opinion. The second or third games should play I. 30 minutes.
link to review

Is Seven Wonders any good with two? It seems to be a. Ice, self-contained Dominion-ish game getting lots of love over at Boardgamegeek.

Man, I miss playing Fjords. I need to get a copy. Such a nice little meditative, Go-like game.
posted by mecran01 at 6:43 PM on June 13, 2011

Neuroshima Hex! It's also got a pretty perfect iPhone/iPad version. But the boardgame is exactly the same and just as awesome.
posted by Skyanth at 1:02 AM on June 15, 2011

My wife and I are HUGE fans of the Project GIPF games, especially Gipf, Zertz and Dvonn.

When we're not busy trying to kill each other in cribbage or gin rummy, we'll grab one of those and just enjoy the hell out of ourselves.

Bohnanza is also a stupid amount of fun, even for 2 people.
posted by scrump at 5:51 PM on June 15, 2011

Can't Stop is a great little press-your-luck dice game. You could even make your own copy, you just need a bunch of six-sided dice.
posted by mkultra at 9:39 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can't Stop is one of our family classics, I'm surprised I forgot it! It is a good game for when you aren't really wanting to think.
posted by that girl at 4:57 AM on June 17, 2011

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