The Eleven: Two Player Games, part I

Typically, The Eleven is a list of eleven different games that fit into a topic.  However, for this month’s topic, I had a difficult time narrowing it down to eleven.  So, since this is a review of two player games, I thought I’d double the size of the list.  You’ll get part one now, and part two will be next month’s list.

To be clear, this is a list of games that were designed specifically for two players.  There may be variants of the games that allow more players, but the core game is just for two.  Also, my other requirement for the list is that I must have played it in one form or another.  That’s why you won’t see Twilight Struggle, Android: Netrunner, or a whole bunch of other popular two player games here – I haven’t played them.  To preserve some of the mystery, this list has been organized in random order.  So, if you don’t see your favorite two player game, be sure to check back next month. If you still don’t see it, THEN you can get after me.  On with the list!

image by BGG user poppentje
image by BGG user poppentje

Cribbage leads off this list.  Invented by Sir John Suckling sometime in the early 17th century, Cribbage is one of those games that has stood the test of time.  It also happens to be my favorite game of all time.  I don’t get to play it as often as I’d like, but I do love me some Cribbage.

The games is a straight card game that has a signature peg board used to track your score.  It is played in hands – the dealer gives each player six cards, and then each player discards two into the crib.  The crib is essentially an extra hand for the dealer.  After a starter card is cut from the deck (an extra card both players can use when counting points), a pegging phase is played where players alternate playing cards to score points.  The hand ends with each player counting the points in their hands (the dealer also gets to count the crib).  There are five different ways to score points: pairs get two points each; combinations that add up to 15 get two points; sequences of consecutive cards (runs) get as many points as cards in the run; all cards of the same suit (flush) gains you 4-5 points; and having a Jack that’s the same suit as the starter card gets you a bonus point.  The game is over when one player reaches 121 points – they win, even if the other player could get a higher score with the cards in their hand (it’s a race).

I love Cribbage, and I plan to talk about it more at a later date.  I recognize that there are wild swings of luck in the game – an inexperienced player can still win 2-3 games out of 10 against an experienced player.  However, that experience can give you the edge as you can recognize certain situations, predict what your opponent has, and get those extra few points that may win your the game.  It’s virtually unchanged since Suckling invented it nearly 400 years ago, and remains as engaging as ever after many many plays.

I should mention that there are three and four player variants for the game, but I refuse to play them.  Call me a purist – I just feel like they take away a lot of the strategy and make it more of a luck game.  But as a two player game, you can’t go wrong with Cribbage.

image by BGG user Hagrid
image by BGG user Hagrid

Backgammon is one of the oldest games around that people still play.  Sets have been found dating to around 3000 BC, and variations of the game have popped up in ancient civilizations like the Persians, Egyptians, Romans, and Chinese.  It’s the oldest game on this list

Backgammon is played with checkers and dice.  On your turn, you roll the two dice and move up to two of your pieces.  You can move one piece a number of spaces equal to one die, and another the number on the other.  You can also move one piece twice, provided it can stop in a legal space.  Legal spaces are ones that contain no more than one piece belonging to your opponent.  If your piece is landed on by an opponent, it is removed from the game and placed on a center bar.  It must be moved to a legal space in your opponent’s home zone on your next roll, or you lose your turn.  The game ends when one player has removed all of their pieces from the board by going off the edge of their home zone.

I really like Backgammon.  For such an old game, it has really held up well.  It’s basically a roll and move game, but the strategic decisions behind how you move are essential to success.  There’s conflict as you knock pieces off the board, and pressing your luck as you leave pieces unguarded to make a better move.  If you haven’t played Backgammon, seek it out.  It’s a good one.

OK, no more public domain games on this list (that’s right, no Chess or Go – I haven’t played Go, and I’ll be talking about Chess in relation to other games on the list).  On with the games you have to pay for!

image by BGG user binraix
image by BGG user binraix

Jambo is a game from 2004 that was designed by Rüdiger Dorn.  It was released as part of the Kosmos two player series (and you’ll see several others from that series on this list).  It a well-respected and honored game – it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2005, it was nominated for a couple of Golden Geek awards in 2007, and was named THE essential J game on my ABCs of Gaming series (sorry for the shameless self-promotion).

Jambo is an economic game where players are trying to buy and sell goods to make the most cash.  You get five action points, and you can choose to start your turn by spending one to draw a card.  You don’t have to, but if you want to draw, you need to do it first.  You can keep or discard this card for a new one, but if you discard and draw, you’re going to have to spend another action point.  After that, you can start playing cards.  There are five different card type – market stalls give you more space for goods; ware cards allow you to buy and sell goods; utility cards remain in play and can be used over and over (though only once per turn); people cards give you an action before being discarded; and animal cards, which also give you an action before being discarded (these can be blocked).  When one player gets to 60 coins, the other player gets one more turn, and the player with the most points wins.

Jambo is a very interactive and strategic game.  There’s a great variety of cards, and lots of different avenues to explore.  Throw in the two expansions, and it becomes even more variable.  It’s hard to really describe all the aspects of the game, but it’s very much a back and forth, up and down battle.  I really like it, and highly recommend the game.

image by BGG user DrChek
image by BGG user DrChek

Mike Fitzgerald’s Mystery Rummy series currently consists of seven games – four official members of the series, published by US Game Systems (Jack the Ripper, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Jekyll & Hyde, and Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld); a fifth unofficial member by US Game Systems (History’s Mysteries); one by alea (Wyatt Earp); and one by Rio Grande (Bonnie & Clyde).  According to Mike Fitzgerald himself, a fifth official game (Escape from Alcatraz) is coming by February.  But for purposes of this list, I’m only going to be talking about Jekyll & Hyde.  Two reasons for this: a) it’s the only one I’ve played, and b) it’s the only one in the series designed JUST for two players.

I can’t speak for the others, but Jekyll & Hyde is a basic rummy game with some thematic elements.  Basically, you’re trying to make sets of at least three and meld them from your hand to the table.  You want to run out of cards before your opponent, because any cards left in your hand count as negative points to your score (points are all listed on the cards – anywhere from 1-3).  The twists here come from the dual nature of Jekyll and Hyde.  Each card is marked with a J or an H (or, in some cases, both).  You can only play a set, or off of a set, that matches the current face of the Jekyll/Hyde card.  So, you can only play J when Jekyll is up, and H when Hyde is up.  Additionally, if you go out and all of your sets match the current face, your opponent scores zero for the game.  There are potions you can play to flip the face, but they cause you to draw some extra cards.  There are also lab cards that allow you to draw three cards and keep one, or search through the discard pile.  Games are generally played to 100 points.

I like Jekyll & Hyde.  It offers the simplicity of rummy while adding a little more depth in when cards can be played.  Of course, this means that luck plays a big role – if you have a hand full of H cards and can’t get that potion to flip Jekyll to Hyde, you’re stuck.  The extra thematic additions may turn some people off (I know my wife hates the game), but it will also intrigue others.  So check it out, and check out some other games in the series – they’re all multiplayer, but most play pretty well with two (from what I hear).

image by BGG user yayforme
image by BGG user yayforme

Tally Ho! was originally published as Jag und Schlag by designer Rudi Hoffman.  It was picked up and rereleased as part of the Kosmos two player line in 2000 (Rio Grande published it in the US).  It’s not the most well-known or highest-rated game in the line – in fact, it’s #27 out of 57 listed on BGG.  However, it’s one that I really like.

In the game, one player takes control the hunters and lumberjacks while the other player takes control of the bears and foxes (you play two rounds, switching sides after the first).  Tiles are randomly distributed face down on a 7×7 grid, with one tile left out in the center.  Players then take turns flipping tiles up or moving their animals.  Trees don’t move.  However, lumberjacks (who can only move one space at a time) can capture trees for two points each.  Bears, who can also move one space, can eat lumberjacks for five points, or hunters for five points.  Hunters can move as far as they want to in one direction, and can shoot any animal directly in front of their gun – bears are worth 10 points, foxes are worth five, and birds are worth 2-3.  Foxes can move as far as they want in any direction, and eat birds.  Birds can be moved by either player, but are just targets for hunters and foxes.  Once all tiles have been flipped, each player has five turns left.  At this point, they can continue to try to capture tiles, or can move off the board to claim that tiles points for themself.

Tally Ho! is a very good game of strategy.  At first, it seems like it is all luck of the draw, and that’s a big part of it.  However, as the game progresses, you begin to notice that you really have to think ahead or you’re going to end up trapped and out of luck.  You can also lay your own traps – sacrifice a fox to get a hunter, or use a bird to lure a fox into your sights.  The hunters are the only ones where positioning matters, and it can be maddening when you flip a hunter that would be perfect had he only been facing the other way!

I learned this game online at Yucata.de before getting a physical copy, and I suggest you try it out there if interested.  It’s one of my favorite two player games for sure.

image by BGG user nello
image by BGG user nello

Six is a pure abstract game, first published in 2003 and designed by Steffen Mülhäuser.  FoxMind publishes the English edition of the game, though language is absolutely NOT an issue.  The game is very basic – you’re alternating play of hexagonal tiles, attempting to make one of three shapes: a straight line consisting of six tiles, a triangle made up of six tiles, or a hexagon made of six tiles.  Each player begins the game with 21 tiles, and when you run out, you start moving them around.  If any tile gets separated from the rest when moving tiles, that tile is out of the game.

Six is a really simple game to learn, but it’s one of those “minutes to play, a lifetime to master” experience.  The simplicity is quite deceptive, however – as the board grows, you have to be looking everywhere at once, trying to make sure that your opponent doesn’t trap you.  The mechanism of trying to make one of three different shapes also helps the depth of this game – unlike something like Connect Four or GoMoku, you have to think in several directions to make sure your opponent isn’t going to sneak in and beat you.

I like Six a lot, primarily because it is just so easy to learn and play.  This is another one I learned on Yucata.de before playing the physical version, but it’s on my list of games I want to own.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Ninja versus Ninja is a 2008 game designed by Tushar Gheewala and published by Out of the Box.  It’s based on Gheewala’s earlier game Foray!, which was more of an abstract game.  Ninja versus Ninja is a very light strategy game, mostly aimed at kids, but with some really cool bits.  The general theme is that you are trying to a) infiltrate your opponent’s dojo, and b) take out as many of their ninjas as possible.

The game is played on what amounts to a 15×6 grid.  On each side, you have a 6×6 dojo belonging to one of the players.  These dojos are separated by a 3×6 neutral zone.  On your turn, you roll two d4s (long dice with a katana sticking through them), and then move one of your ninjas that many spaces.  You can move in a straight line and may make ONE 90 degree turn.  If you land on an opponent’s ninja, you capture it.  If you leave the safety of your dojo, you have three turns to get back or you lose your ninja (the turn you move out is turn #1).  If you do make it back, you earn points based on how far into your opponent’s dojo you were able to penetrate.  The game ends when one player scores 7 points from going into their opponent’s dojo, or when one player loses all of their ninja.

As I said, Ninja versus Ninja is pretty light.  What you can do is largely determined by your die rolls, but there is strategy in how you move your ninjas.  There is a strong push-your-luck element as you try to see how far you can get into the other dojo, and there are some different ways to try to deploy your pieces.  But mostly, the ninja pieces are AWESOME.  If the game wasn’t any good, I’d still recommend it just so you could have the little rubber ninjas included.  But the game is good, particularly if you have kids.  Adults might find it a little lacking in depth, but it’s fast enough that you can knock out a game in 10 minutes while waiting for something else to play.  And make ninja sounds.  You HAVE to do that.

image by BGG user Debate
image by BGG user Debate

Odin’s Ravens is another Kosmos two player game, this one designed by Thorsten Gimmler and published in 2002.  The game has had a kind of unfortunate history, particularly lately.  It’s been out of print for a while, so people were excited when, earlier this year, a second edition went up on Kickstarter.  The campaign ended March 5, and then the guy in charge disappeared.  Completely.  No communication with backers, no money to the artist, nothing.  He took the money and ran.  It’s very sad, particularly for the 679 backers that gave him over $22,000 and will never see anything for it.

The game itself is a simple racing game.  Each player gets a deck of flight cards, and nine land cards are laid out in a row.  Land cards have two sides, each showing a type of terrain.  You’re trying to get your raven from one end to the other quicker than your opponent.  On your turn, you can play up to three cards from your hand, and up to three cards from your auxiliary stack.  The auxiliary stack is one that can be added to from your hand, and cards are left face down.  The order of this stack is fixed, and you can review what they are – you’re storing up for later.

When you play from your hand or the aux stack, you’ll move your raven forward.  The terrain on the flight card must match the next land type, and the raven can move across all of it.  You can use two matching flight cards as a joker.  You can also add cards to the magic way stack, or play an Odin card to take a special action.  At the end of your turn, you can choose to lengthen the flight path by drawing a card and orienting it how you want.  Once a raven reaches the end, it scores 1 point per space in front of the other.  3 points are awarded to the player with the most magic way cards.  You keep playing until someone has 12 points.

I like Odin’s Ravens as a novel racing game.  It can be tough to get your head around it, but it’s not too difficult once you know what you’re doing.  There’s some good interaction as you try to mess up the other player’s plans, and it’s interesting trying to set up your path to get you there quickly.  It’s a shame that the Kickstarter was such a disaster – hopefully, this game will get a reprint someday.

image by BGG user Astinex
image by BGG user Astinex

Hive is a 2001 game from deisgner John Yianni and his company, Gen42 Games.  This game is one of my go-to games when I need something portable that can be played outside.  The tiles are made of bakelite, and it comes in a handy carrying case.  And besides that, the game is really good.

Each player begins the game with eleven pieces of their color – one queen bee, three ants, two beetles, three grasshoppers, and two spiders.  On your turn, you can either place a tile (there’s no board) or move a tile (but only after the queen has been placed, which must happen sometime in your first four turns).  Initially, a tile can only be placed next to your own color tile, but later can be moved next to tiles of your opponent’s color.  The other big rule of movement is that you can never break the hive – the whole board must remain in one piece, or that bug can’t move.

Each bug has its own special movement.  The queen bee can only move one space at a time.  Spiders must move exactly three spaces.  Beetles can only move one space, but can climb on top of the hive and move across it (changing the color of the tile beneath for placement purposes).  Grasshoppers can jump over a straight line of bugs.  Ants can move as far as you want them to around the exterior of the hive.  The game ends when one player’s queen is surrounded.  The other player wins.

I love Hive.  I often compare it to Chess, calling it Chess with bugs.  But the fact is that this game is a lot simpler, much quicker, and much less threatening.  The shadow of Chess scares a lot of people, me included.  But Hive gives the same kind of variable feel while not constricting the board size or shape.  Expansions add new pieces to the system that have different powers, but even if you just have the base set, you’ll have a lot of fun with a lot of people.

image by BGG user SpiderOne
image by BGG user SpiderOne

I would be remiss if I did not include Lost Cities somewhere on this list.  Reiner Knizia’s 1999 classic is THE game most people talk about when they bring up two player games that they can play with their spouse (not me – my wife hates it).  It’s another Kosmos game, and this one is the second highest rated in the two player line (behind Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, which I haven’t played).

In Lost Cities, you’re going on expeditions, but the theme doesn’t matter (it is Knizia, after all).  On your turn, you play a card, either into one of five colored expeditions or into one of five colored discard piles.  If you play a card into an expedition, you have to play a card that is sequentially greater than the card before it (cards are numbered 2-10).  So if there’s a 4 there, you can play a 5-10, but you can’t play a 2 or 3.  Additionally, there are handshake cards that can double, triple, or quadruple your points for that expedition, but they must be played at the beginning of the expedition.

After you’ve played a card, you draw a card, either from the draw pile or one of the discard piles.  The game ends when the draw pile is empty, at which time you score expeditions where you have cards (you get zero points for any expedition you did not begin).  Your base score for each expedition is -20 points, and each numbered card adds points to that.  Handshakes double-triple-quadruple the points from cards, but also double-triple-quadruple the negative base score.  The player with the highest score wins.

Lost Cities is very simple to play – you’re just putting cards in order.  That simplicity is what attracts a lot of people, particularly non-gamers.  The scoring is the wonkiest part (again, it’s a Knizia game), and the math may be a turnoff for some players (like my wife).  As I noted the game’s entry in the ABCs of Gaming, I’m not a huge fan of the game, but I do appreciate it for its simplicity of play.

image by BGG user samoan_jo
image by BGG user samoan_jo

YINSH was the fifth game released in the GIPF project, in 2003.  Designed by Kris Burm, YINSH (and all games in the series) is an abstract strategy game.  Players take turns at the beginning placing five rings on the board.  On your turn, you move a ring as far as you want (or can) in one direction.  Before you move the ring, you place a marker of your color in the center and leave it behind.  If you move over a marker, you flip it over to the opposite color side.  When a player has five markers of their color in a line, they score a point by removing one of their rings from the board (essentially handicapping themselves).  The first player to three points wins.

YINSH is one of two games in the GIPF series that I’ve played.  I’ve actually only played this one online (at Boardspace.net), but I really like it.  There’s some really complex strategies at work in a game with no luck.  It’s also very interesting that you lose possibilities on the board as you score points – definitely a good catch-up mechanism at play there.

If you’re interested, I’d also recommend checking out the entire series.  There’s a series of potentials relating to the other games that can be used in GIPF itself, but I don’t really understand how it works, having not really studied it.  But the games are all quite beautiful to look at, and have some very unique styles.

———-

And that does it for part one. Let me hear what you think about these choices – and if you want to make some wild specualtions about what will be on part two, let me know that as well. Thanks for reading!

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