Picking the best two-player board games is quite a different scenario to working with three or more. For starters, you’re going head to head, without anyone else to mix things up, or ally with, or even to make mistakes you can take advantage of. As such, not all of the best board games scale that well down to just two – they can lack the same cut and thrust.
However, there are some games that play well with more that do work perfectly with two players, and even better is that there are lots of board games designed just for two instead.
Our selection of the best two-player board games will take you from the deserts of India to the Scottish highlands, yet each one is easy to learn, quick to play and offers lots of variety and challenge to enjoy and master. So whether you’re playing with a spouse, a sibling or a friend, there should be something here to tickle the two of you together.
As an added bonus, many of these games are quite inexpensive, but you can check out our list of the best cheap board games if you want other great low-cost games. Be sure to also check out our picks of the top new board games for the latest releases worth keeping an eye on, and see our picks of the best board games for kids.
The best two-player board games
You might think a trading game between two people would be a limited concept. But Jaipur has its hooks in the ingenious way it re-creates actual market forces, and tempts you into making a mistake by offering big potential rewards. During play you collect and sell sets of matching goods. But each sale of a particular type of goods brings decreasing returns, as items flood the market, so you always want to be the earliest to sell any given good. However, you also get bonus points for selling large amounts of a single good in one go. How far dare you stock up before your opponent swoops in and satisfies the pent-up demand before you?
As well as this core tension, Jaipur cranks up the stakes in many other ways. A hand limit also makes collecting too many cards a risky proposition. And there's always the temptation to take camels instead which you can't sell, but which do let you pick up multiple cards at once. With the pressure ratcheting up each turn, it's down to you to ride the right balance of luck and skill to make a market killing.
The big draw of Unmatched is slick, fast, one-to-one combat between any fictional characters you can imagine. This box sees King Arthur, Alice from Wonderland, Sinbad and Medusa face off, with players choosing one of the four to play each game. There are alternative boxes and expansions to build out your options – Unmatched: Robin Hood vs Bigfoot is available now, while Unmatched: Cobble and Fog will soon add Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, The Invisible Man and Jekyll & Hyde; future plans include a Bruce Lee pack (who is, admittedly, not fictional) and a Jurassic Park pack.
The engine of this miracle is a simple card system where you play from your hand to move and attack on the board. Each character has their own deck, and that's where the magic lies. From Sinbad's voyage card stacking to Sherlock's knowledge of his opponent's cards, it offers incredible variety from very few rules. Yet between all the moving parts, it's a thrilling game of tactical cat and mouse.
This game's name translates as 'Scots kill', and is themed around Scottish clans fighting for territory control (though you can find effectively the same game as Battle Line: Medieval if you prefer knights to kilts). It's not a game that feels like battling, however: it's more a kind of multi-hand Poker where you won't lose any money. Players select cards from their hand to play into one of nine table positions. You're trying to build up a better Poker-style meld of three cards on your side than your opponent can manage. Once you've done so, you win that position, and if you win five of the nine, you win the game.
What's great about the game is that when you play a card you can rarely be sure you'll ever finish the meld you're aiming for. Instead, it's all about playing the odds, trying to bluff while knowing your opponent might actually have the cards you need in their hand. It's enough to make your palms sweat, and for extra tension, there's also a deck of one-shot power cards to mix things up.
The original Codenames was a breakout hit. In it, you laid out a grid of 25 word cards. Then, one player on each team took a secret pattern card showing which words 'belonged' to each team. They had to give one-word clues, trying to tie as many of their cards together in that one clue as possible, while their team-mates tried to guess which they were. It was a hilarious yet taut dance of trying to guide players to the right cards with minimal information, but where a misstep could reward your opponent or even lose you the game instantly, like walking through a minefield.
That box also included a co-operative variant, which has been brilliantly refined and improved on to make Codenames: Duet for two. Now, both players take turns giving clues to each other and the game's aim is to avoid three deadly assassins hidden in each grid, which mean instant failure if guesses. By giving both roles to both players, Codenames: Duet doubles the fun and manages the rare feat of being even better than the original.
Another two-player game that’s evolved from a huge hit game for more people, 7 Wonders: Duel is quite different from its predecessor. In both games, the aim is to collect a tableau of cards that represent a growing civilisation. By matching and building on sets of cards you gain points for your technology advances, military strength and so forth. In the original, much of the fun was had in selecting cards from a draft, where each player picked one from a hand and passed it around the table.
That’s no good with two, so instead there’s a clever pyramid where players pick cards from the bottom row, slowly revealing the cards in the tier above depending on what you choose. This neat idea ensures the game retains the tension of the draft while becoming even faster and more exciting. You'll need to make wise decisions with just two of you: pick the wrong card and your opponent will snaffle up the one you really wanted.
We know that a WW2-themed squad-level infantry combat game isn't the most appealing game here in theme or design, but give it a chance, because it's kind of brilliant. Undaunted is a magical game that brings to life the heroism and tension of hedgerow firefights with just a few pages of core rules and an hour of your time to play. Yes, there is a little more to it than that, but more complex rules are introduced gently over 12 scenarios. At first, you can dive into a simple version of the game; by the end, you'll be co-ordinating scouts and snipers, mortars and machine guns like a seasoned veteran.
The engine of this sorcery is that you control your squads via a personal deck of cards that you play through over and over, shuffling again when you run out. Cards correspond to squads on the board, and you can only order a unit to do something (move, attack, capture a point) when you have one of their cards to play. You'll also add cards into your deck during the game, still matching the units you have – when you do so, it's like ordering re-enforcements or bolstering morale. You're literally making it so that these squads are able to do more! But then, as units are hit by fire, cards matching that square get removed not only from your hand, but the entire game. Your troops are lost – maybe you shouldn't have thrown them against a machine gun like that, when they're both finite and fragile.
Cards play thus becomes an unlikely but effective stand-in for all sorts of issues facing real-life combat commanders – cards for the right squad not coming out are like communication issues; get all your cards for one squad out in one hand and they'll be able to move and take out enemy solders left and right, like a genius general has just turned up personally to give the key orders.
At the same time, players have to balance making their decks work with tactical action on a tile-based board – you won't be looking to eliminate enemy soldiers, but instead to achieve objectives, so combat is only one part of what you're thinking about. Strategy and tactics, excitement and simulation all stack together in a quite brilliant whole.
Klask looks like a miniature game of table football or air hockey. Which it kind of is: the aim is to use your on-board piece to push a little ball into your opponent’s goal. However, instead of controlling the piece directly, you guide it with a magnet underneath the board. Already this adds a fun extra challenge to the air hockey concept, as well as hiding your moves from your opposite player.
But the real kicker in Klask is the magnetic obstacles on the table. Get too close and one will attach itself to your playing piece, making accuracy much more difficult. Attract another and you’ll lose the point. Together with the ever-present risk of an own-goal, they make every match a fast-paced tightrope walk, dangling between speed and sureness.
The unusual theme of giving gifts to Geishas to win their favour is an excuse for some luminous art and a compelling game of risk and number-crunching. Each turn, players can take one of four actions one time each. Two of them hide cards: one as a secret gift to a Geisha, the other to carry two cards over to the next turn. The other two involve picking gift cards to show the other player, letting them give some while you give the rest.
Gifts automatically go to their matching Geisha, and the player who gives the most gifts to each Geisha wins their favour. The secret and public aspects of gift-giving set up a fascinating tension each round where you try to plan ahead with limited information. But for those keeping track of the numbers, forcing your opposition to give a useless gift is a special satisfaction.