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Taking Turns

Essays
  • Essays
  • Face-off: Interactions in Two-Player Games

Face-off: Interactions in Two-Player Games

O Updated
(Photo by Big Potato on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

I love playing board or card games with my wife. Spending a little, or a lot of time together focused on the same activity is a wonderful way to connect. It started as a date night, but now we might play a quick 5-10 minute game or two over lunch or we play a longer game. Co-operative games tend to be our favourite. Working together to solve the puzzle that the game presents is a lot of fun. That's why we also love solving the Sunday crossword puzzle together. There are very few two-player competitive games that we enjoy and in this article, I want to explain why.

Let's start by talking about the handful of competitive two-player games we do enjoy playing together.

In We Can Play by Julia Johansson and Albert Pinilla from Julibert you're trying to play cards in chronological order. You need to guess which year an event took place and add the card to your existing timeline accordingly. Even though only one of us has to say the year, both of us tend to try and guess it, one silently, the other out loud. It's great to see when one of us gets it right and even though we're playing competitively, we secretly do root for each other. It's also a great test of our own knowledge of history.

Wingspan by Elizabeth Hargrave from Stonemaier Games is another example. We both try to score the most points and have the best bird sanctuary, but we also enjoy seeing when the other player pulls off a great combo. There are even elements in the game where the other players benefit from your actions. Ultimately though, it's just such a beautiful game. You can stare at the cards for hours.

Direct Player Interaction

One of the reasons why competitive two-player games often aren't enjoyable is direct player interaction. In the games I have mentioned above, there is very little you can do to negatively impact the other player's game. In We Can Play, the only time you have any influence is when a player is about to win. In Wingspan, you can try and take a bird from the display or food from the birdfeeder that you think another player wants, but that's more or less it.

However, in a lot of competitive games, there is a large emphasis on direct, negative player interaction. That's fine in a game of three, four or more players. In a two-player game though, you are forced to attack the other player. There is no choice. In a three or more player game, at least you can decide to attack the player in the lead. That's when negative player interaction is a way of stopping a runaway victor. In two-player games, it just leads to negative feelings and bad blood.

That's why some competitive games add rules for a two-player mode that remove the negative, direct player interaction. For example, you might be asked to remove cards that have negative effects on other players or they make those effects optional. There are also some games where players control two or more characters or factions when there are only two people playing. It's a way of making the negative, direct player interaction feel less severe and less personal.

Two-Player Bidding Games

Bidding, or auctions, is another mechanism that often causes problems in two-player games. That's especially true if the amount of money, or other resources used in the game, is public knowledge. Auctions suddenly become a matter of counting each other's money and then just bidding enough so the other player can't afford to bid more. It's very boring and the game might as well do away with it when played with only two players.

Biblios by Steve Finn from iello solves that problem very elegantly in my view. First of all, your hand of cards is not public knowledge. So nobody really knows how high you can bid. Additionally, you are allowed to bid more than you have, but if you win the auction, you will have to pay a hefty penalty.

However, games that implement bidding for two players well are far and few between. They exist, but you do have to look hard to find them.

Two-Player Solitaire Games

Ultimately, competitive games where all players pretty much do their own thing and where there is very little or even no direct player interaction tend to be the best for two players. The concept of multi-player solitaire games is well known in games for three or more players and there are plenty of people, including someone in my games group, who love them.

For me, multi-player solitaire is usually not as much fun when I play with my games group, but when I play a two-player competitive game with my wife, it's perfect. If there is positive direct player interaction, then that's also good. However, in that case, we do prefer to just play a fully co-operative game.

What About You?

As you know, I always love to hear what others think. So, what types of games are your favourite when playing with only one other person? Do you choose co-operative or competitive games? Do you enjoy direct, negative player interaction in two-player games? Who do you play two-player games with? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. It'd be great to hear from you.

There Will Be Games

Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #335809 29 Sep 2022 12:33
My favorite type of 2-player game is cooperative, especially if I am playing with a significant other and/or an inexperienced player. I don't want there to be hard feelings after a game with my partner, and I don't want to either crush or coddle an inexperienced opponent.

If we are going to play a 2-player competitive game, then I want there to be a lot of interaction, not some 2-player solitaire snoozefest. But I generally prefer my direct interaction games to be multi-player. Actually, I prefer all of my games to feature direct interaction unless I am playing a solitaire game.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #335811 29 Sep 2022 12:47
Definitely gotta pick your partner carefully if it is going to be a direct head to head conflict game, even more so if it is an hour+ game. It helps if the game has a lot of luck so you can offload animosity to the dice or whatever but almost no one likes seeing their demise turns away and having to watch themselves get crushed. Realizing this and being able to call the game is critical, but agree beforehand because some folks will (somewhat paradoxically perhaps) get mad that they CAN'T play out your destruction.

If I'm playing with an experienced player it's gloves off. But with a novice I find dropping some helpful hints, or at least suggestions, about mitigation strategies can go a long way towards making the game more challenging for myself while also still fun for them. Of course I also get accused of pushing the other player into a position advantageous for me, so it isn't my fault if they fail to listen :P

But I think there is a reason that lots of newer 2 player games are short and sweet. They are more of a "best out of 3" deal rather than a 4 hour slugfest like the old MB or AH wargames.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #335818 29 Sep 2022 15:29
Boy, I gotta disagree with you on this one. There's a distinct diplomatic advantage to a two-player direct conflict game, because quite simply there is only one way to win. If that's not your thing that's fine, but there's little (and in some titles no) confusion on the matter -- you win at your opponent's expense.

When you have three or four players the choice of the person you attack isn't merely about beating up on the leader. It could be more based upon improving your own personal position in the game by picking on someone who iss weaker thanyou, or just because they're close enough to you that you can do it. The result is that your intentions can be misunderstood by the other players at the table, especially if they're struggling.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #335824 29 Sep 2022 20:48
I kinda agree with both of you. Sag is right that direct confrontation is often best in 2-player games, but I also agree that if your main 2p game playing partner is your… partner, it might be best to play something less confrontational, especially if they’re less into games than you are.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #335894 03 Oct 2022 10:14
For years my wife was also my primary two-player opponent. She's always enjoyed multiplayer stuff more than two-player games against me, unless it's Patchwork, which she can beat me at pretty regularly. So for a long time two-player games were a big ol' waste of money for me.

But lately my eldest son has become my primary two-player opponent, and he's far more on my wavelength. We play everything from War of the Ring to 7 Wonders Duel, to Mystery Rummy, and he's good at most of them. With him direct interaction and complex rules are much more in the mix. It's been pretty rewarding for a lot of these games I've bought to finally see some action.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #335908 03 Oct 2022 11:39
Completely aside from my "don't need more games" current mentality (John Company, 2nd Ed just came in the door!), I so want to pick up Prospero Hall's The Rocketeer. I was friends with Dave Stevens, back in the day, as his work had really (ahem) taken off around the time we were running our studio and he'd show up at all the small press shows. But I just don't have a regular 2-player opponent these days. (And I don't need anymore games-!)