Two Player Games (part 1)

Two-player games are rather unique, and differ greatly from multiplayer games both strategically and in the atmosphere they generate. Why is this, and what are the pros and cons of two-player gaming?

Animals, including humans, are generally pretty unscrupulous. They tend to favour an unfair fight over a fair one. Many predators selectively target the young of their prey species. Chimps will attack and kill chimps from other groups when they encounter them – provided that they outnumber them enough to gang up on them. Humans – well, where to start? However, there is one thing that seems to cause an exception to this behaviour: conflict between animals of the same species over mating.

If you watch male deer fighting, you very rarely see a third animal sneak up behind a duelling pair and stab one of them in the backside with its antlers. Impetuous renaissance-era gentleman, on falling in love with the same woman, would duel eachother with swords or pistols. Very few accounts exist in which the weapon of choice was “three of my brawniest mates with axes” or “this barmaid I know and a vial of poison.” Even kangaroos don’t jump at the chance to box eachother in the back.

So, what is it about this kind of conflict that makes animals so unusually honourable? Well, unlike the rest of the time, the aim is not merely to beat their opponent. Rather, it is to prove that they deserve to beat their opponent – that they are stronger, more capable, and will be a better mate.

This is part of the appeal of a two-player game: winning will definitely cause you to become the alpha male of the group and all the females will definitely want to mate with you. This is particularly true if you explain to them in detail what you did and how clever you were, or if you overextend a metaphor about animal behaviour in a way that implies that all boardgamers are male and women are only of any interest as potential mates.

Er, what I meant to say is that the common ingredient between these animal-kingdom contests and a two player boardgame is that they are a direct, honourable, head-to-head contest. A two player game is a straight battle between two minds, without any other players around who might interfere and tip the balance. It is won by one’s ability to master the game mechanics, not one’s ability to predict and manipulate the behaviour of a third party.

However, there are also downsides to the two player game: trading, diplomacy and cooperative interactions are almost entirely eliminated when the player count drops below three. There can also be problems with the game becoming too predictable. Some games deal with this better than others. Over the next few posts I will write about the games that I think make the best or the worst two player games, and about how to win them.

Let’s start off with a game that doesn’t quite fit either category: Terra Mystica. A two player game of Terra Mystica feels very unsatisfying, and is often quite low-scoring. Why? Because when there are only two players in a competitive scenario there is no incentive to cooperate. Two player Terra Mystica involves an awful lot of “sad trading posts” and very little power leech. And there is no reason why either player feels any particular need to change this – whatever advantage they stand to gain they would also give to their opponent.

For this same reason, you should be less inclined to listen to what your opponent has to say in a two player game than in a game with three or more players. In a multiplayer game it is sometimes worth talking honestly to your opponents, since cooperating with one opponent can give you both an advantage over your other opponent(s). In a two player game however there should be and usually is only one motive for what people are saying – to try to advantage themselves over their opponent in some way. Unless you are confident that you will win the psychological battle it is probably a good idea just to ignore anything your opponent says in a two player game.

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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