One of the first questions I answered here on the Tabletop Bellhop blog was “What are some good two player games?” This is, by far, the most popular post I’ve written. It’s also one that I still get a lot of comments on. Many of those comments are asking me for more specific two player game recommendations. People want to know what are the best board games for couples, or games to play on date night.
Playing games is something my wife and I do together often. When we do have a night out without the kids it often involves a nice meal, some craft beer, and some gaming. Over the years we’ve found quite a few games that work great for when it’s just the two of us.
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Rather listen than read? We discuss this topic on Ep 19 of The Tabletop Bellhop Podcast: Two to Tango.
The Short Answer:
In general, the main thing you are looking for when picking a game for date night is something small and portable with a small table presence and that can be played quickly.
This is based on the assumption that you are going to be at a standard sized dinner table at a restaurant or pub, and that you will be ordering food or drinks. Most restaurant tables aren’t that big in the first place and you also need room for all the other stuff on the table. Tents showing off the deal of the day, condiments, silverware and whatever else the venue thinks you need for your meal. Also, you want something you can set up and play quickly so that you aren’t just starting a game when the food comes.
Of these, Hive is my strongest recommendation as it comes in its own zippered pack that fits easily in a purse, bag or large jacket pocket. The game pieces are small Bakelite hexes about 1.5″ across. No board is needed, you just need a flat surface to play on. It has the added bonus that the pieces won’t get damaged if there’s a spill or you are eating greasy finger foods while playing. The game itself is an abstract strategy game where players take turn playing or moving these tiles. The tiles represent various insects and which insect a tile is, determines how that tile moves. The goal is to surround your opponents Queen Bee tile. The game is quick to learn with the only hurdle being memorizing how each insect moves. None of them are complicated but it’s worth keeping the instructions out for the first few games.
The Long Answer:
There are a lot of games that I think would be awesome to bring out on a date night. A big part of trying to decide what game to pick has to do with where you will be playing it. As noted above, in general, you want small quick games, but that’s not always the case. Maybe your date night is sitting at the local brew-pub that has nice big 5’x3′ tables and doesn’t mind you staying for four hours as long as you keep buying drinks.
Due to this, I’m going to recommend a variety of games and note where I think they fit in during your couple’s night planning.
Small Footprint, Quick Gametime
These are games you can probably fit on those small round coffee shop tables. They can also be played in about 10-30 minutes tops once you know how to play.
I’ve already talked about Hive in the short answer above. My wife and I played the heck out of Hive. At one time she just carried it around in her purse. We have played Hive at bars, pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, even waiting at Service Ontario to renew our health cards. There is also a newer printing of Hive called Hive Carbon. This version includes some expansions that are normally sold separately and can be a better deal. Personally I prefer the look of the original over this black and white version. Finally there is Hive Pocket a more portable version that also includes the two expansions.
The Duke was the game that eventually replaced Hive for us. Both are Chess-like games in that they are abstract strategy games where you have to learn how each playing piece moves. What’s neat about The Duke is that the movement information is right on the tiles themselves. Even cooler, when you move a tile you flip it over to the other side and the moves change. Now The Duke is much smaller than Chess. The board is only a 6×6 grid, so perfect for playing on small tables. We pack this in our luggage any time the two of us are headed out of town.
Onitama is a slightly more modern abstract chess based game. This one is simpler than The Duke but does take up a bit more room. Players control four martial artists and their master, and are trying to either wipe out the opposing team or get their master into the opponent’s temple. Moves in this game are determined by cards and can be applied to any of a player’s pieces. What’s brilliant here is that in each game only five cards are used. You have two, your opponent has two and one sits in the middle. As you use the move on a card, the cards end up moving over to your opponent. It’s a brilliant perfect information game. There are also two expansions you may want to check out. Sensei’s Path which adds 16 more move cards and greatly increasing the replayability of the base game, and Way of the Wind which includes rules for adding a ferret like Wind Spirit to the game.
Here one I actually used to play with my wife but I gave up. Bananagrams is an excellent Scrabble-like word game that doesn’t need the huge board. Instead, you just dump the tiles out on the table and players make their own crossword-style grid of words. The game includes a bunch of variant ways to play. Very simple to teach, just as portable as Hive and great for people intimidated by hobby board games. Oh, and the reason I no longer play this with my wife: she always wins. 😀
You’ve probably heard about The Mind. It’s still pretty hot since it hit North America at Origins. This is a cooperative card game where the players cannot communicate. Each player is dealt a hand of cards from a deck with numbers 1 to 100. Players then have to play the cards in their hands in numerical order from lowest to highest. Remember though, they can’t communicate. The first round everyone only has one card, then round two, they each get two, and so on. I’ve personally never gotten past round 5. I think it goes to round 10. While this one works better with a bigger group, it’s still fun to play two players and you also can’t get a much smaller game.
Similar to The Mind, The Game is another cooperative card game. You can talk during this one, so it may actually be the better choice for date night, assuming you want to socialize. The goal here is simple play all the cards numbered 1 to 100 in order. You have four stacks you can play into, two are counting up and two are counting down. If you are able to play a card that’s exactly 10 away from a card on the top of one of the decks you can go the opposite direction. It’s a really solid game for 1 to 5 players that I find very intense with two.
Small Footprint, Medium Gametime
These games still don’t take up a lot of room but can take a bit longer to finish. These games are still pretty quick. I’m looking at 20-45 minutes. Perhaps too long to try to fit a game in while waiting for a meal to arrive but potentially playable while having dessert or after dinner drinks.
…And Then We Held Hands is a very unique co-operative card game. I’m not even sure how to best describe this game. There is a game board representing the player’s emotional state. Players work together by playing cards to overcome challenges with the goal of ending up in sync and meeting at the center of the board. When playing cards players cannot talk about the game, what cards they have or what they plan to do. You can play cards from your hand or your partners and there’s a mechanic where you can change your point of view and splay your cards differently which changes all of their values. As you can probably already tell, the drawback of this game is figuring out the unique mechanics. Once you do it’s a rewarding experience.
Red 7 could easily fit in with the quick games but game length depends on what rules you use. I personally find the full rules including scoring is where this game shines and which is why I put it in the medium gametime category. Red 7 is a card game with only 49 cards. 1-7 in 8 different colours. The game starts with the player with the highest card winning. Then the next player needs to do something to make sure they are now winning. This can mean playing a higher card, or it could mean changing the objective (to something like the player with the most different coloured cards wins). At the end of their turn a player must be winning or else they lose. Red 7 is a brilliant game that blew my mind once I got over the small learning curve and really started to get the brilliance of its a simple system. Advanced rules add scoring and special abilities to odd-numbered cards. This one is great at two but just as good with up to four.
Santorini is a beautiful looking game. It’s an abstract game where players are building the city of Santorini using beautiful plastic pieces. Each turn players move one of two pawns and build up an adjacent square. The goal is to reach the top of one of the buildings while preventing your opponent from doing the same. Santorini is one of the best looking games I own. It’s a fantastic abstract that plays best with two players. Once you master the original game, toss in the god powers for more asymmetric fun. If you can find it, I recommend the somewhat better made Roxley games version.
EXIT The Game Series. While these escape room in a box games don’t take up much room at all, you do need about two hours to play most of them. That’s actually the time limit for the best score. If you’ve got the time this is a great way for you and your partner to test your wits and try to solve some puzzles together. Most of these play one to six players but some are considered best with two players. These include The Secret Lab, The Abandoned Cabin, The Pharaoh’s Tomb, The Forbidden Castle, Dead Man on the Orient Express and more.
Medium Footprint, Quick Gametime
These games are nice and quick but take up a bit of room. Now, these don’t need a card table or anything, I’m still looking at games for bringing out. They are still good at most restaurants but you are going to have a hard time fitting them at smaller coffee shop tables and many standing bar tables.
Patchwork is the game my wife and I play the most on date nights now. It’s a brilliant polyomino game where you draft pieces of a quilt and play those tiles onto your player board. Each piece takes a different amount of time and you move on the time track after each piece is placed. You have to pay for your pieces with buttons and you get more buttons at certain intervals on the time track. The time track also determines player order, so if you grab a big piece with a lot of buttons that takes a long time that usually means your partner is going to get to go a few times in a row.
There is also Patchwork Express which features a simplified board for a quicker game and more full quilts being made.
For something with a bit more meat and brain burn check out Agricola All Creatures Big and Small. This is a smaller two player only version of Agricola that focuses just on the animal husbandry aspect of the full game. This is an excellent worker placement set collection game that manages to give the feel of a full heavy euro in about half an hour. There is a bit of a learning curve and it uses a lot of heavier game elements, so save this for dates nights with other gamers.
Kingdomino is back on the lighter side of things. A great game to introduce to non-gamers as the basic mechanics are drafting and matching like in dominos. Kingdomino is much more than dominos though and it’s only after a couple plays that some of the deeper strategies come out. It really starts to shine when you are drafting tiles not just for yourself but also so your opponent can’t get them.
Medium Footprint, Medium Gametime
How many times am I going to mention Azul on this blog? It feels like it shows up in every single game recommendation post I do, doesn’t it? There’s a good reason for that. Azul is a fantastic game. This one was a bit hard to place. It doesn’t take up a ton of room, but I can’t see playing it on a Second Cup roundtable. It can also play very quickly, unless one of the two players takes a really long time to plan their moves. Which happens, especially with players who both know the game well. Depending on how serious you take the game it could be under 15 minutes, but I’ve seen an Azul game go close to an hour with people really trying to plan out every move. For those who have missed my earlier mentions of this great game, Azul is a tile drafting game where you are trying to build a specific Portuguese style wall pattern. Players score points for playing tiles adjacent to each other, filling rows and columns and collecting full sets of tiles. They lose points when tiles break due to drafting tiles that cannot be played. It’s one of the best games I’ve played, period.
A more recent release is Azul Summer Pavilion. This version of Azul also plays excellently two players. It’s a bit less cutthroat than the original Azul but has slightly more complicated scoring rules which should appeal to more hardcore gamers.
Le Havre The Inland Port is another one for the players who like heavier games. This is a meaty economic engine building game distilled down to a two-player, quick experience. Players acquire resources, construct buildings, refine resources and in the end get points for the buildings they have built and the money they have earned. This game is all about turn optimization, finding the best combinations of buildings and knowing when to build and when to use what you already have built. The game includes a cool clock mechanism where buildings get better the longer they sit unused. Timing is everything.
Once you have mastered Kingdomino I suggest a step up to Queendomino. Because it requires a central board and market and adds in some pawns, it takes up more room than Kingdomino. These new pieces also increase the complexity of the game, making it more of a gamers game. Now players are building buildings, having to worry about money and using knights to tax the people. It’s a solid step up from Kingdomino and like the original plays great with just two.
There are a lot of fantastic deck builders out there that play great with two players. Ascension is one of my favorites but due to the board and all the tokens, it’s not a good choice for playing when out for the night. What I recommend instead is Star Realms. This is a sci-fi deck builder where players each start with equal forces and use those to draft from a central supply of cards. Unlike Dominion, the cards available come from a central deck and change as the game goes on. As cards are bought new cards come out. One of the best things introduced in Star Realms are abilities that key off of playing cards from the same faction. A nice bonus is that everything is just cards, even Honour, the health points, of Star Realms is tracked with cards.
Speaking of card games I do have to mention collectible card games and living card games. Years back, my wife and I played a ton of Magic The Gathering. We also dabbled in the Star Trek Customizable Card Game and fell in love with Middle Earth The Wizards. All great games for couples that usually didn’t take up a lot of room (I did have that one white 1/1 deck that took up far too much room when it got going). I have to admit that we aren’t into the collectible card thing anymore but I do know these games remain popular. I see couples playing Magic at coffee shops here in Windsor often. I know a couple that plays Netrunner near obsessively and I see a ton of people playing Keyforge now that it’s out.
Large Footprint, Medium Gametime
These games need a decent sized table. They either have boards or require to have a bunch of cards on display or involve building a tableau. These are games we play at coffee shops with bigger 3×3 or larger tables or the Walkerville Brewery which has great lighting, nice big tables, and fantastic beer.
I love Race for the Galaxy. I love it at six players. It shines with four. It’s fast and furious with three. What many people don’t realize is that it’s actually amazing with two. This surprised me at first because there are special two-player rules for playing Race for the Galaxy. In general, I find that rule variants for player counts are a bad thing. Not so in this case. When playing two player, each player picks two actions to do each turn instead of one. All actions chosen are played out. The only funky rules are when you combine both explore actions or both consume actions. As I’ve said before Race for the Galaxy can be a beast to learn but it’s so worth it.
Carcassonne is another game that most people don’t think to play at two players, but is fantastic when just playing as a pair. Carc two player is super competitive and cutthroat and is almost more about making sure your opponent can’t get done what they are trying to do as it is about worrying about your own score. Carcassonne is a classic tile laying game where people are building roads and cities and cloisters and the farms surrounding them. It’s been around since 2000 and still stands up as one of the best games I own. There is even a two player only version of Carcassonne called Carcassonne The City. Though I have to admit I prefer the original.
7 Wonders is an example of a game with special 2 player rules that are just not as fun as the base game. I think Antoine Bauza realized this and that’s why he worked with Bruno Cathala to put out 7 Wonders Duel. Duel manages to recreate the engine building and feel of 7 Wonders but make it work for two players. Actually, it doesn’t just work, it works great. I actually prefer 7 Wonders Duel to the original. The only problem I have with the game is that you have to lay all the cards out for each era when it starts in a pattern reminiscent of pyramid solitaire and that can take a lot of room.
Large Footprint, Long Gametime
In general, these are the games you save for game night or for playing at home perhaps after the kids go to bed. I’m only including this because my wife and I are known to take apart the desks in hotel rooms and set up large heavy games on them when on vacation. This can sometimes including moving the lamp, phone, all the travel guides etc. Playing these games on date night takes some dedication. These are games that my wife and I specifically re-arranged a room to be able to play:
Fields of Arle by Uwe Rosenburg is a heavy euro farming game specifically designed for two players. It’s got a huge board, not much smaller player boards and tons of chits and tokens. In Fields of Arle, players are expanding their estate by cutting peat and building dikes. Using worker placement, players pick from a huge variety of manufacturing processes to create and refine goods as well as ship them to neighboring cities. I’ve never played a worker placement game with as many options (note I haven’t played A Feast for Odin) and it can be overwhelming but also rewarding in the end. If you and your partner can’t get enough of heavy euro engine builders you should check out Fields of Arle.
The last game on my list is Fallout the Boardgame. For our last anniversary, my wife got us the Brewmaster Suite at The Grove Brewhouse. We were there for two nights and over the three days we spent in Kingsville we played Fallout four times. We played at Merli’s Coffee Shop after asking if they were cool with us sitting there for multiple hours as long as we kept buying more coffee. We played at Jack’s Gastropub after asking if it was cool if we kept the table until close after finishing our meal and ordering some flights of beer. The hotel room itself had a low long table that just barely fit the game and we played in our room a couple of times. I’ve mentioned it before that I really dig this game and thus far I have to say I’ve enjoyed it more with just the two of us than I have with three or four.
Check out these other great two player game articles:
If you want to see more two player game suggestions, with a focus on two player cooperative games, check my The Best Two Player Cooperative Games article. There I answer a question from Ryan Peach who is a blind meeple looking for cooperative games to play with a sighted partner.
If you want a two player game that is quick and easy check out my 27 Quick, Easy to Learn, Fun Two Player Board Games article.
Finally, my older What are Some Good Two Player Games? article also has some great games you may want to check out.
Fog of Love seems to be the new hotness as far as couples games go. I personally haven’t played it so didn’t want to include it on this list. It’s one I’m curious about and hope to try sometime. If you’ve played it please comment below and let me know how it is.
There’s an entire genre of two-player games I skipped over. Wargames. They are small footprint wargames and wargames that take 1000 hours to complete. I’m personally not a wargamer so that’s not the kind of game I think to bring out when it’s just my wife and I. While we did enjoy Twilight Struggle, have had fun with Hammer of the Scots and love Command & Colors Ancients, they aren’t the kind of games we bring with us when on vacation or out for a night at the pub.
There are of course a number of games meant for the end of date night. Things like Consentacle A Card Game of Human Alien Intimacy, 1000 Sex Games, the Finov “Funny” Dice Set, heck there’s even a XXX version of Monopoly. I think I’m going to hold back on the recommendations and let you discover this category of games on your own.
What games do you like to play on date night? Let us know in the comments!