Two Player Games (part 2)

Three’s Company

Sometimes, I really think that boardgame designers have a better understanding of human nature than anyone else. Take Catan, for example. You are a group of bedraggled settlers, just arrived on an uninhabited island and desperately in need of food and shelter. You want not only to survive but to build a new Utopia – a place that others will some day look to and say “This, truly, is civilization!” And how do players go about enacting this magnificent vision? By faffing around for ages doing very little apart from occasionally robbing each other, and eventually getting so bored that trying to compress four sheep until they turn into a brick seems like a good way to pass the time…

In the spirit of this classic boardgame, this week’s post will focus on the ill-conceived, unsuitable and generally ridiculous end of two-player gaming. Which games really don’t work without at least three players?


No trading. No reason to cooperate. No difficult strategic decisions about how best to keep out of the way of other players, because so long as they’re in your way you’re also in their way! Just two people rolling lots of dice, each trying to get as much wood as possible so that they can prove that their road is longer than their opponent’s…

That said, I do think that two-player Catan has something interesting to tell us about real life. Conventional wisdom has it that getting anything done is harder with more different parties involved. For example, it is generally assumed that political systems with fewer parties achieving non-negligible representation tend to form stronger, more effective governments. Two-player Catan illustrates why this is not always true.

When you have two parties in an oppositional scenario, they have no motivation to cooperate. If your opponent didn’t think they were going to gain more out of a deal than you were then they wouldn’t be making it. In Catan this manifests as a complete unwillingness for the players to trade with each other. Add a third party and the situation changes – suddenly player A wants to cooperate with player B to gain an advantage over player C, and with player C to gain an advantage over player B. In fact, everyone pretty much wants to cooperate with everyone else.

Of course, this is a massive simplification of most real-world scenarios. Nevertheless, I think that sometimes having a few extra players involved in a situation can help to provide a motive to at least consider cooperating, and maybe remind people who aren’t really enemies, but have perhaps fallen into the habit of thinking of each other like that, that sometimes their interests might actually align…

No Risk

Attack, attack, attack! Why would you do anything else? That said, games with no decision making have actually been pretty popular historically – Snakes and Ladders, Bingo, King of Tokyo…

In my opinion, if you have a copy of Risk and can’t realistically see yourself playing it with more than two players then there is only one appropriate response: attic, attic, attic!

Happiness is in Arle?

One might naturally expect a game that was specifically designed for two players to do well. Indeed, I do think that the principle is sound – a customised tool usually will be better for a specific job. Unfortunately, Fields of Arle does not, in my arrogant opinion, do particularly well.

It’s not that it’s a bad game, but it’s no Agricola. If it had come from any other designer I suppose I would quite like it, but the contrast is too much for me. There’s just so little inter-game variation, in sharp contrast with the brilliant and endless replayability of Agricola. If I wanted a two-player Uwe Rosenberg game, I wouldn’t play Fields of Arle or even Patchwork, I would just play two player Agricola. I mean, there isn’t even a family growth action…

There is an important lesson to take from this, which is not to read too much into any individual example of something. If you really want to understand what works and what doesn’t, you either need to understand the causal mechanisms at work or to collect a lot of data and analyse it properly – preferably both. There are many examples of games designed specifically to be two-player games that do work well, some of which I will talk about in the next post. The fact that Agricola is better than Fields of Arle is pure coincidence. Obviously something that’s specifically designed with two-player gaming in mind will, on average, work better with two players.

I’m sorry that this is neither funny nor really about boardgames, but I’ve heard that an important skill when blogging is to occasionally go off on a massive rant about something that bothers you for no apparent reason. Well, apparently I’m learning. The abuse given to proper statistical analysis is a personal dislike of mine. People only get away with tricking people using statistics because the people they are tricking haven’t bothered to learn how statistics work. Just as someone who knows how a car engine works can’t be taken for a ride by an unscrupulous mechanic, someone who paid attention in maths A-level can’t be lied to with statistics.

So, I will conclude by re-iterating that you shouldn’t read too much into just one instance of anything – say, for example, a blog that you otherwise might have liked degenerating into a long and boring rant about the lack of respect for statistical analysis.

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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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