As you get older, finding people to play games with can be challenging. Some people are fortunate enough to be part of a group that meets on a regular basis but it's not a typical scenario. Having a family and/or demanding job can interfere with your ability to get together with a bunch of friends, read through a long instruction manual, and play a 5-hour epic of galactic conquest. This is something my friends and I used to do fairly regularly when we were kids (Axis & Allies, Heroquest, Dark Tower, etc.) but now we're all over 30 and it just doesn't feel right heading to your local comic & games store to play miniatures with a bunch of pimpled, obnoxious pre-teens. So what do you do? Well, as I mentioned in my previous post on Colossus, most turn to video games. But it's a solitary experience and I spend enough time in front of my damn computer. The other option is a good 2-player game that you can convince your partner to play with you. Surprisingly, there aren't a ton out there - most of the best boardgames really benefit from 3 or more people. But there are some gems that I've discovered over the years. This will be my first entry in a series on 2-player games that I think are relatively simple to learn yet deep enough to offer a challenge, and chock full of character and style.
Eurogames vs. Ameritrash
I first should discuss a distinction that's often utilized by boardgame enthusiasts. It's the difference between a Eurogame and Ameritrash. Eurogames, as you might expect, are developed by European, often German, game designers. They are characterized by relatively short and simple rules that interact to create strategic complexity, minimized randomness (dice are bad), and themes that often feel "pasted on." For example, Tikal is a classic Eurogame. If you look at the box and read the official description, you might think it's about searching for treasure in a Mayan temple, a la Indiana Jones. But the fact of the matter is that the theme (archaeological exploration) is tacked on - the heart of the game are the rules, which focus on laying tiles, using action points effectively, and exerting control over certain areas. In fact, you can pick up these rules and plop them into a different theme (which is basically what the designers did, by releasing the sequels Java and Mexica). Chess is perhaps the ultimate Eurogame. The theme (a battle between military units) is inconsequential compared to the rules. There is no randomness whatsoever. It is fairly easy to learn (the rules dictating movement of pieces can be taught to a child in under an hour), but winning versus a solid opponent requires intense cognitive processing.
(Nexus Ops: venerable Ameritrash)
Ameritrash games are heavy on style, there are usually lots of cool (possibly glow-in-the-dark) components, and mucho dice-rolling. These are the games most Americans are familiar with, like Monopoly and Risk (but visit this link for a great list of solid Ameritrash games). In general, I love Ameritrash. They've got character. But they also tend to be very boy-focused, probably because the vast majority have to do with conquest, slaughter, world-domination, smashing cars, or something involving mutants. They also can have rulebooks that are too long to read in one sitting (for an extreme example of this, see Advanced Squad Leader).
Most of the two-player games I'll be reviewing will be Eurogames, in part because they're the current fad but also because I tend to think that their style is more appealing to a broader audience.
Settlers of Catan Card Game
This 2-player game is actually a spin-off of the most popular Eurogame yet produced: the Settlers of Catan. If you get a chance to play the original Settlers, please do. It's a great example of an elegant Eurogame, with deceptively simple rules that bely intriguing and complex gameplay. I played it for the first time with RAW and his wife, and I'm sure they could speak to how great a game it is.
This version is a card game so there's no actual board in play. The theme is civilization-building in an ostensibly medieval time period. In fact, if you've played any of the Civilization or SimCity computer games, you'll feel right at home. Each player starts with a layout of cards that represents their two settlements, linked by a road, and their resource stockpiles:
There is a common pool of cards that you stack between the players. You will draw cards from these stacks to fill your hand. Most of the cards will be buildings that you can put into play around your settlements, like garrisons, churches, universities, and breweries. To play these cards, you will need to pay a certain number of resources (wood, ore, brick, etc.) - better buildings cost more. Resources are accumulated by rolling a die each turn and adding one resource to the matched stockpile. This is actually more randomness than you'll usually see in a Eurogame, but both Aili and I like it since it forces you to deal with resource shortages on a regular basis. Buildings usually come into play with text that allows you to "bend" the rules of the game - for example, the Abbey allows to hold an extra card in your hand. This is a very typical Eurogame mechanic, and also one that defines most collectible card games (like Magic: TG). Some buildings will also provide you with victory points, and once you've accumulated enough victory points you win the game. Settlements can only hold 2 buildings, so in order to get the necessary cards in play you'll need to 1) evolve your settlements into cities (building vertically, if you will) and 2) expand your civilization by building more roads and settlements (building horizontally). This image shows a player civilization that has grown significantly:
Of course, your opponent will also be building and it's a race to see who can get those victory points first. It all comes down to resource management. Knowing what to spend your money on and when, as well as knowing when to trade. You can exchange 3 of one resource for 1 that you need, and can improve this ratio with trade fleets. You're also battling over a military dominance token (achieved by playing knight cards) and an economic dominance token (achieved by playing buildings with commerce points). These many facets mean that you can pursue multiple strategic pathways towards victory, a key feature to any good game.
There are also random events which spice things up and add historical flavor to the game. Some turns, you'll get a "Year of Plenty" when there's extra resources for both players. Some turns, you'll get the Plague and your people will suffer. There are barbarian invasions, inquisitions, and pirate fleets. I recently read a blog entry by a fantastic game designer, Vic Davis, on the function of random events in games. You can read it here.
You may be wondering about player interaction. Many have criticized Settlers for basically being two-player solitaire. While I can see the point, it's unfair. You'll be chatting with your partner about the various cards and you can even help each other with strategic decisions. Players can trade resources as much or as little as they want. Finally, there are "action cards" that you can draw which allow you to mess with your opponent's civilization. For example, you can send over an Arsonist card to burn down one of their buildings (in our last game, Aili tried to burn down my docks with this card). This reminds me of RAW sending over Rebels to my perfect island in the Intellivision game Utopia. Bastard.
Hope you enjoyed this excessively long entry. The Settlers of Catan Card Game is probably my favorite 2-player game, and Aili has given it a strong endorsement as well. I just find it very relaxing. It takes about 1-2 hours to finish a game; I suggest a good stout to drink while you play, and some Nick Cave on the hi-fi.