Top 10 Games: Very Portable 2-player

Posted by James (admin) on December 16th, 2009

Taking lots of games away whether on holiday or business trips  can often be a problem due the size and weight of games; yet, many small games don’t deliver enough punch to warrant being carried.  Over the years I have assembled a bag of excellent 2-player games which has been updated as new games have appeared.  I usually have 5  or 6 of the following games fitted neatly into a single cloth bag.

Note that these portable (easy to transport) games aren’t to be confused with travel games (easy to play on-the-move/whilst travelling.  (Check out my Top Games for a Family Christmas too.)

Lost Cities
The classic card game of explorers.  Players play cards to develop up to 5 different explorations to score points; however, starting an exploration comes with a -20 score so if you start an exploration you better hope you get enough points to make it worthwhile.  Instead of playing a card, you could discard it but your opponent may take and use it.  Lost Cities is a great game with more tactics than you may think when you start.  It comes with a board but it really isn’t needed – just take the cards.
Items: Cards

Balloon Cup
In between the players are 4 hot air balloon tiles with 1 to 4 coloured cubes placed on each.  Players play numbered coloured cards against these four balloons and they can be played on your side (to help you) or your opponent’s side (to hinder them).  Both players can only play cards that match the coloured cubes on the balloon tile, i.e. a tile with 2 red and 1 yellow cube can have a total of 2 red cards and 1 yellow card played onto them by each player.  The goal is to get a total score on your cards which is lower (or higher, depending upon the balloon) than your opponent’s total.  When all cards are played on a tile, the tile is assessed and the winner takes the cubes on the tile.  More cubes are added to the tile and the battle for the cubes starts a new.  When a player has enough cubes of one colour, they win that colour trophy –  the first player to get 3 of the 5 trophies wins.  It’s a superb game with some enjoyable difficult decisions – help yourself or hinder your opponent – and some deduction by looking at what cards have been played already.
Items: 4 small tiles, some small cubes, cards

Battle Line
Another classic game.  Nine flags lay in a row and a player wins the game if they win 3 neighbouring flags or any 5 flags in total.  Players use warrior cards (in 6 different colours numbered 1 to 10) and leader cards (which have special effects).  Players take turns placing cards next to a flag – only 3 cards can be placed next to any flag on each side.  Players with a better set of cards than their opponent (using a poker-esque system, i.e. 3 cards with the same number beats 3 cards of the same colour) win a flag.  The game always contains some excruciating decisions as you decide (or are forced) to commit to starting a set of cards or try to keep your options open, especially as once layed cards can not be moved.  The leader cards have excellent effects too that can shake things up.  I always have a great time playing Battle Line – good thinking but simple game.  If you play it, use the advanced way of claiming flags – it’s a subtle change but it’s even better.
Items: Cards, 9 small wooden pawns (flags)

Jaipur (Read the full review)
In between the players are  5 face-up cards and next to those are the goods tiles which are discs with points values on them.  Players collect goods cards which can be exchanged for goods tiles (points).  Camel cards are used to claim multiple goods cards at once.  Importantly, players need to time when they claim goods tiles because the more cards they cash in at once, the more points they will score; however, they musn’t leave it too long because their opponent may have claimed the best tiles already.  Jaipur is a simple but clever, card management game with good interaction and nice push-your-luck gameplay too.  It has more depth than it first appears but remains light & tactical.
Items: Cards, tiles

Cold War: CIA v KGB
One of my most favourite 2-player games.  Each round a mission is revealed which sets a target number and states the maximum number of cards the players can use to reach it.  To make their total number, players will use cards numbered 1 to 6, plus every card has one of 4 different special powers too.  The player closest to the target number will claim the mission and score the points – first to 100 points wins.  On their turn, players can either draw a card and add it to their total, or they use the power of a card already in front of them.  A card’s power can only be used once each round.  The powers can allow a player to steal an opponent’s card, discard an opponent’s card, look at the next card of the deck without having to take it, or allow a card’s special power to be used again.  One of the main fun aspects of the game is working out how to combine your cards’ powers to get the best result, and ensure your opponent doesn’t do the same.  Plus, drawing a new card adds it to your total no matter if it oputs you over the total so there is a push-your-luck element too.

In addition, each player secretly chooses an agent for the mission – each agent has a special ability that may occur when the round is scored (depending upon who won).  For example, the Assassin kills off the opponent’s agent; the Director lets the winner claim (and score) an extra mission card; the Master Spy is the most fun as it turns a loss into a win.  It’s very entertaining to try and lose a round (when you are using the Master Spy) without your opponent realise you are doing so.  Working out what agent your opponent will pick, or has picked, is important too.   If you exceed the misssion’s target number, not only do you lose the mission but your agent will be killed.

Cold War has a real feel of cut-and-thrust.  It may be abstract under the surface but the agents work really well and games are usually quite intense.  You need a little bit of maths to keep re-assessing the totals but it’s only addition.  It really is a superb game.
Items: Cards, agent cards, 2 score markers

Odin’s Ravens
Players race their ravens by playing terrain cards from their hand that match the landscape cards ahead of them.  A raven moves to the end of a landscape type they move onto, so one card can sometimes go a long way.  Each turn, a player can play 3 cards from their hand plus 3 cards from their reserve pile too (built-up during the game).  Players also use Odin cards for special effects like lengthening the race and blocking their opponents.  Each landscape card shows two terrain types and players only move their raven along their side, so each player’s race is different to their opponent’s.  When one player reaches the end of the landscape they score 1 point for each card they are ahead of their opponent – some bonus points are also available each race too – then a new race starts.  First player to 12 points wins.

Odin’s Ravens requires constant juggling the cards to get their best effects.  Also, you can definitely annoy the other player by using  Odin cards at the right moment which is always humorously satisfying.
Items: Cards, two raven and one Odin maker

Caylus: Magna Carta
Players earn resources and build buildings in order to score victory points.  Resources are very tight during the game so planning is very important.  Using a building will earn you resources or offer you a special ability.  One clever mechanic is that if you use a building built by another player, they will get a secondary benefit too so you need to balance your gain against your opponent’s.  Other nice mechanics are that the first player to pass (which ends their actions that round) gets a bonus, plus turn order next round is based on the order that players passed in the previous turn.

Caylus Magna Carta is a superb game which is very well-balanced and very tight.  Tactics are required and I don’t usually find any moments when I’m not actively planning or thinking.  Also, Caylus Magna Carta plays up to 4 so is useful for trips with more people.
Items: Cards, wooden cubes, card counters (cash)

Burgen Land (read the full review)
Develop your 3 castles to earn more points than your opponent.  The core mechanic is a rondel – players roll dice to move a crown marker around the rondel which determines what a player can add to one of their castles and determines when scoring occurs.  Also, players can earn bonus dice which can be rolled with the main dice to offer more options when moving the crown around the rondel.  A player can keep taking turns so long as the crown doesn’t end in a different coloured section from where it first landed.

There’re a  lot of subtle tactics to discover in Burgen Land such as timing the end of your turn, gaining bonus dice, stealing castle sections from your opponent, and controlling when scoring does (and doesn’t) happen.  It feels different to other games and is an enjoyable, light tactical game.
Items: Tiles, small board, 7 dice

Players place their hexagon pieces (which represent different insects) to try and surround the opponent’s queen.  There is no board so the pieces constitute the playing area – all pieces must always form a single contiguous group.  During a turn, a player either adds one of their pieces to the board (if they have any remaining) or moves a piece.  Different insects move in different ways – some jump in a straight line, some move a fixed number of spaces around the edge, some can even sit on others to fix them in place.  It’s an abstract game but that doesn’t detract from this very tactical game.
Items: Wooden pieces

San Juan
The card game version of Puerto Rico has players trying to earn victory points by building buildings and monuments.  Players earn goods using their buildings which can then be sold for cash.  Each turn, players pick one of the 5 roles – both players carry out the relevant action (creating goods, selling goods, etc.) and the player that picked the role gets an extra benefit.  Some buildings give the player special benefits such as producing an extra good, building for lower cost, and so on.  The game ends when a player builds their 12th building and the one with the most victory points wins.  One clever feature of this game is that rather than use counters for money, cards are used to represent resources and money too.
Items: Cards


4 Responses to “Top 10 Games: Very Portable 2-player”

  1. David Says:

    A very good list, many of which have made it into my compact travel kit, too!

    Since I have not played a few of these (Jaipur, Cold War: CIA v. KGB and Hive), I would mention a few that I tend to take with me: Shanghaien, Animal upon Animal (Tier auf Tier), Los Banditos, and the the new pocket version of Pickomino are all excellent travel games.

  2. Mark Says:

    Have you checked out Nestor games yet? They have a whole bunch of very portable games, many of them 2-player.

    I’d also recommend Richelieu, great 2-player game.

  3. Eisley Says:

    I shall have to check out some of those. Thanks.

  4. Eisley Says:

    Richelieu looks cool. I’ve not seen much of the Nestor games line – I shall check it out. Thanks.

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