A good two player game pits you against an opponent in a battle of cunning and wits. A great two player game is one I can grasp in a few minutes, and feel competent at after a game or two. So that's chess right out then.
Starting out at the top, Quoridor is my all-time favourite two player game, and easily one of my top board games ever. I've played it with other hard core gamers, and six year olds, and it's great every time. That's not because there's a high element of randomness or something. In fact, it's pure strategy, with zero randomness. Instead, it's so simple to teach and learn, anyone can play. I find that older gamers will over think a series of turns, planning well ahead, while younger gamers just spot the weak link and destroy all those plans. At least, that's what happens to me.
Quoridor is played on a 9x9 grid. Players have to get from the their side of the board to the opponents, either moving one space, or placing one of their ten wall pieces anywhere on the board. You can never corner in your opponent, so the trick is to make their journey to your side longer than your journey to theirs. It's wonderfully simple, elegant and fun. I highly, highly recommended trying it. Gigamic publishes a beautiful wooden edition of the game that might seem a bit pricey, but based on play value, it's worth every cent.
There is a four player varient for Quoridor, which I didn't like for the longest time. But playing it with the school age kids I work with, I saw the value in it as well. It's a completely different strategy, and fun in it's own right, but I still mostly love this game for the one-on-one version.
I picked up RESISTOR_ from Cardboard Fortress through Kickstarter based entirely on the visual design. Luckily, it plays as wonderfully as it looks. RESISTOR_ is about two Cold War supercomputers battling each other, atempting to lull the opposition into a false sense of security, dropping its DEFCON level before launching a nuclear attack without the chance of retaliation. The game is played with cards lined up, each one looking like a big microchip. You have to connect to the opponents computer to drop its security level, which dealing with resistor chips that dramatically reduce the playing field. It's a crazy fast, fun, and funny game, that is easy to play and beautifully presented.
Kickstarter is a godsend for two player games, it seems. I guess big publishers are hesitant to finance games that are restricted to such a small number of players. I've been told that even games designed for four players see pressure to expand to six players for retail. But thanks to Kickstarter, I have two more two-player games coming to me, hopefully by the end of the year, if things go according to plan.
Santorini is a stunningly beautiful game that has been under development since 1986 by designer and mathematician Dr. Gordon Hamilton. This is merely the most recent edition, and looks stunning, adding in a whole bunch of new player powers and a few new elements thanks to the massive success of the Kickstarter campaign. The game is a two player abstract strategy game, building the town of Santorini and trying to reach the top of a tower while blocking your opponent from doing the same.
I can't wait to get my hands on this game. The rules are all online, and it would be easy to replicate with Lego, blocks or other components, so hopefully I can play it before this beautiful edition arrives. It's still available to back on Kickstarter for a few more days if you're interested.
Also on Kickstarter right now, but with more time left on the clock at time of writing is Tak, a game from James Ernest and Cheapass Games, based on a game described in the fantasy novel series, The Kingkiller Chronicles, written by Patrick Rothfuss. In Tak, you place pieces on a square gridded board, attempting to build a continuous, straight road from one side of the board to the other. It looks lovely, with wooden components and the promise of a wooden board coming soon as part of a stretch goal add-on, which I will definitely be getting.
I haven't even mentioned Patchwork here, which I have but haven't gotten to play yet. Do you have any two player games you enjoy? I'd love to hear about them! Let me know in the comments to this post.