2-player games inhabit a weird space in the tabletop world. In one sense, it is the most popular gaming format: collectible card games, living card games and miniature war games are all predominantly 2-player, and, when combined, certainly bring in the majority of sales in the industry.
However, for any other category of tabletop game, 2 players isn't as popular. In many cases, games that support 3 or more players may include a 2-player option, but it requires special rules, a dummy player or other modifications. In addition, when a group of friends gets together to play games, chances are they'd rather play a game as a group instead of splitting into pairs.
But there are definitely ways to design a successful 2 player game, if you keep a few things in mind.
- Balance is more important than ever. In a multiplayer game, a lot of factors can give someone an advantage. Players can gang up on one person. Someone might have a better position. Sometimes one person might just get lucky. With all these factors in play, issues with balance might not be apparent in the first play or few plays.
In a two-player game, however, issues with balance will be clear very quickly. Because both players only have one opponent to compete with and to observe, it is easy to see if someone is having an easier time of things. Some historical war games embrace this asymmetry by having players play a scenario twice, switching sides in between. But unless a game is specifically designed with this in mind, it's not an ideal solution.
- Consider team play. If you want to increase market share for a game, think about if it could work with two teams instead of just two players. Again, this should be baked into the design early on – you don't just want players making decisions as if they were one über-person. This can be a difficult middle-ground to reach, but if your game could support 4 or 6 players versus just 2, then you have a lot more opportunity for play.
- Tournament play. Another way to expand reach and engagement is with tournament play. 2-player or 2-team games lend themselves naturally to a number of tournament formats. Indeed, they're part of what have made many card games and war games so popular. Balance becomes even more important in these situations, but tournaments can be a great way to entice players and build loyalty to your game.
- There's a relatively untapped market for 2-player games. While a 2-player game isn't the most-sought after at a well-attended game night, there are many situations where people reach for a 2-player game. Couples are a huge audience for this sort of play, along with roommates or friends hanging out, but not in a group setting. Think about these audiences when designing your game. It may help you decide how casual or heavy you want your game to be, along with considerations like time and footprint.
Some of the oldest and most renowned games in history are for 2 players, including backgammon, chess and go. What are some of your favorite 2-player games and why?