What Makes a Campaign Game and Great Campaign Games for 2 Players – Ask The Bellhop

I love tabletop games that have a campaign mode; games that tell a story that is revealed over multiple plays. Today I’m answering a question looking specifically for two-player campaign games. I’m also going to take this chance to talk about what I think makes for a good campaign game.

Kelly Jones writes,

What are your suggestions for a good campaign style game good for 2 players?

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The Short Answer:
The most epic campaign game for two players has got to be Gloomhaven.

Two players playing the campaign board game Gloomhaven.Let’s jump right to the chase. For Kelly, my number one recommendation is Gloomhaven. Gloomhaven has been in the number one spot on Board Game Geek for a few years now. It’s the number one thematic game, the number one strategy game and the number one game overall. Its reputation is well deserved. I play Gloomhaven once a week. Not only that we live stream our games on Twitch, every Friday night at 8:30pm Eastern. We then release those actual play videos on YouTube and those videos are some of our most popular content.

Gloomhaven is a really solid game and the closest to an open ended campaign you are going to find without turning to a full role playing game. Not only that, many people think Gloomhaven actually plays best with two players.

While the game is prohibitively expensive, I don’t think any other game is going to give you the long time playability, especially at this quality, that you are going to get from Gloomhaven.

Yes, it really is that good.

The Long Answer:
First up, a look at what makes for a good campaign game.

To me, there are a few key qualities that a good campaign game has to have. Just having a set of scenarios that you play in order is not enough for me to consider a game a campaign game. While I do enjoy a game that has a story that you learn as you play, a game needs more to really be a campaign game.

A picture of the board game Star Wars Imperial Assault.

The most important aspect to me is that, in a good campaign game, what happens in one game affects future games in some way. This can be done in a wide variety of ways. It could be that items found in one scenario carry over to the next. It could be that the story branches and depending on how well you did in one scenario it changes your options for the next scenario. You may destroy something, an item, a place, a character, and due to that, that item never shows up in the game again. The game may unlock new things based on what you do. Players may be required to write on the board or change a map, or permanently upgrade a card or ability. These are all ways in which one play of the game can change future plays.

Legacy games are a great example of this concept. Their key feature is the fact that while playing the game you make irrevocable changes to the game itself. Not only might what you do come into play later, but what you did made a permanent change that affects the game from then on.

Mechs Vs. Minions has some of the best component quality you will find in a tabletop game.

Another thing I look for in a campaign game is some form of advancement system. In many campaign games, you play a specific character. I want a way for that character to grow, to unlock new abilities, get stronger and “level up.” Improvement isn’t just limited to characters though. In other games, you may be improving your city, or your fleet of ships or your entire army. What I want to see here is some kind of reward for playing a scenario that makes the players better equipped to handle future and harder scenarios.

Choices are very important to me in a campaign game. This ties into both of the above items. I want choices and I want those choices to matter. The choices I make now should affect future games. This could be branching scenario paths or could be multiple character build options. Players should feel they have some control over their destiny and aren’t just along for the ride.

The best campaign games are going to have all of the above aspects. You are going to have many choices to make and the results of those choices will have long term ramifications. What you do now is going to affect what happens later and through all of that, you are going to improve your character (where that character could be a civilization, a mob, a vehicle, etc).

Here are my recommended campaign games that play well with two players

Getting back to Kelly’s question, here are some of what I think are the best campaign games when you only have two players. Note, all of these games do play more than two players, but also play very well with only two.

Pandemic Legacy Season 1 – If you follow this blog or listen to our podcast you know that I am not a fan of the original Pandemic. This should be noted, as I strongly recommend Pandemic Legacy Season 1 as a fantastic two-player campaign game. While we found some of the twists and turns to be rather expected, Pandemic Legacy was a fantastic journey. While I think the game plays best with four players, you can play with two. What I do recommend then is each playing two characters. You are going to need the extra abilities, especially later in the campaign.

Mage Knight – This one is a bit different, as you tell the entire story through one play of the game. There isn’t an overall campaign or anything like that, but each individual play is so epic, long and engaging that I feel that they qualify as a short campaign on their own. This is especially true to me because I’ve found that most games take multiple sessions to fully complete with leaving the game set up on the table between plays. Mage Knight has a steep learning curve and there’s a lot going on but it’s very rewarding if you can find the time to play through a full game.

Star Wars Imperial Assault – This is an extremely engaging one vs. many campaign game set in the Star Wars universe. With only two players one player is playing the Empire and the other a team of rebels. Here the Rebel player will play more than one hero but that works fine in this game. This is a very well balanced experience right out of the box. Then you have the option of downloading the app and playing it cooperatively, with both players going against the AI. Finally, you get the added bonus that Imperial Assault can also be played as a two-player skirmish miniature wargame. Perfect for when you want a break from your campaign.

Honourable Mentions: These games lack something to make them great campaign games to me, but are still fantastic games with some campaign elements to them.

Mice And Mystics – I have to recommend this one for the story. Mice and Mystics tells a fantastic story. While it doesn’t have any character progression and the story is very linear, there are some objects and awards you can earn that carry over from game to game. This is another game where I recommend with two players that you each take on the role of two characters each. Mice and Mystics also has the bonus of being rather family-friendly, so great for playing with kids. Just don’t start them off too young.

T.I.M.E. Stories – If you and your partner dig puzzles and mysteries take a look at TIME Stories. This one again lacks some of the elements I think are required for a campaign game. It definitely tells a story and a solid one at that. There is also an overarching plot that you can learn if you play through through the various expansion missions in order. Plus, (very slight spoiler mouse over to read) [after each game you unlock a bonus you can bring over to the next game.]. But, TIME stories lacks any type of character advancement or development.

Mechs Vs. Minions – This is by far the most well produced game I own. It’s amazing looking. Everything from the box, to the insert, to the playing pieces, it’s all top shelf. While this game plays best at four, it’s another one where two players can each take on the role of two characters each. While there is no character advancement in this game, and there’s nothing that carries over from one game to the next, there is a campaign mode that has some legacy aspects to it. You will be unlocking new things, opening packages and finding hidden things in the box to expand the gameplay as you progress through the scenarios.

Here are some more two-player campaign games recommended online.

I have to admit I’m probably not the best person to answer this question as I’ve never actually played through a campaign game with only two players. Most of my campaign play has been with a larger group, and when it’s just my wife and I, we tend to stick to more strategic games like The Duke and Onitama, or the occasional big box game like Fields of Arle.

Due to this, I did some searching online and found some other really solid sounding suggestions for two-player campaign games. I just didn’t want to list these above because I haven’t actually played them myself.

Pandemic Legacy Season 2 – While I’ve seen some negative reviews, a lot of people really dig Season 1 of Pandemic Legacy. The consensus seems to be that it’s not quite as good as Season 1 but reviews seem to indicate it’s just as good with two players. Our Pandemic Legacy group moved on to Gloomhaven when we finished Season 1, so we haven’t had a chance to check Season 2 out yet.

Charterstone – Board Game Geek notes this is best with the full 6 players, but I did find it on almost every campaign game suggestion list. When you play two players there are rules that let you add two Automa players and from what I’ve read online this is key to enjoying the game with only two. The Automa rules are said to be very nice, clean rules that they make it feel like a three or four-player game.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game – I have played this game but only once at a public play event. Not enough to recommend it myself but I did see it on a few campaign game recommendation lists. What I’m not sure on here is how well it plays two players. While the game does say one to four players the members of BGG seem to think it’s best with at least three. I’ve got a copy of the latest edition of this game on the way from Paizo and I’m looking forward to checking it out.

The Arkham Horror Card Game – This is a cooperative living card game where the players are facing off against eldritch horrors. The game is designed for two players right out of the box and it’s getting really positive reviews including a crazy number of award nominations and wins. Actually reading about this game in preparation for writing this article got me to put it on my personal wishlist.

The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth – I think this one is too new to show up on most people’s list. I’ve bought a copy of this, as far as I know, it’s in the mail. This is the hottest new campaign game from Fantasy Flight, the next evolution from Imperial Assault and Descent, set in the Lord of the Rings Universe.  It looks fantastic. Not only that but BGG is listing it as best for 2 players. This is one recommendation that may actually be as good as or better than Gloomhaven. I just haven’t played it to know for sure.

So there you have my thoughts on what makes for a good campaign game as well as some two-player campaign game recommendations. Do you play any campaign games with two players? What did I miss?

If you are looking for some non-campaign based two player games check out these other articles:
What are some of the best two player games for date night?
The best two player cooperative games.
What are some good two player games?

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