Game Design

Why Create a 2-Player Game

Following on from the previous articles on Why Create a Micro Game, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned developing a two-player game.

Two-player games have a unique dynamic not often found in higher (or lower) player counts. Though a lot of games support 2-6 players, the two-player version of those games feels like quite a different experience than with 3+ (and in my experience, is usually a bit disappointing). I believe that games that are designed exclusively for two-players deliver a much better two-player experience, and it’s those games that I’m focusing on here. Though two-player cooperative games exist, I’m looking primarily at head-to-head two player games.

Why create a two-player game?

Accessibility. Getting together with a group of people for board game night is great, but the higher the (optimal) player count the more challenging actually getting your game to the table becomes. Two-player games are far more likely to come off the shelf for an evening in playing games with a partner, friend, or housemate. At busier board game nights the same is also true, where two-player games can be played as ‘fillers’ (just watch the length) whilst waiting for a group game to start.

Rewards Skill. One of the things I love about well designed two player games is that they tend to reward the person that played better. Simple. You may think that is true of all games, but larger and more interactive games can allow players much less individual agency over the end result (for example, the Kingmaker effect). Whilst taking advantage of these the social elements might be considered part of ‘playing well’ in larger games, in a two-player game this is stripped down to the purest form of competition against your opponent.

Competitive Environment. Some of the most popular long running games (or franchises) are those that are played competitively. Card games like Magic: The Gathering or wargames like Warhammer are great examples. Their primary mode of (competitive) play is one-on-one. A game that supports competitive play, with an active tournament or organised play scene, can have huge longevity through regular updates and content-tweaks. This scene tends to promote lots of online discussion and social communities, as well as in-store presence, that drives more growth for your game.

Easier Playtesting. For higher player count games it can be a real challenge to find enough people to test (or even play) the game, and gets exponentially harder the higher up the numbers you go. With two-player games you only need to find one other person at least (and only one more after that at most) and you have a game! I’d be willing to bet that there’s a pretty strong link between the number of playtests completed and the final quality of a game, and so the easier you can get the playtesting sessions the quicker you can bring a higher quality game to market.

Why (not to) create a two-player game?

Creating a two-player game also comes with some challenges you’ll need to overcome:

Balance. In multi-player games the players themselves will provide a good amount of balance. This is much stronger when the level of interaction in the game is very high, or when the players are closely matched in skill. In two-player games, all of the balance has to be provided by your game. More interactivity doesn’t necessarily add balance like it does with higher player count games since the game is effectively zero-sum – a gain of one point is the same as the loss of one point for the opponent.
Solution: Playtesting over and over is good advice for any game designer, but especially so with lower player count games. Luckily, see above how much easier it is to playtest two-player games. A good exercise for balancing, and understanding, a two-player game is to change the perspective of the actions you have and see how it affects the game (e.g. instead of ‘Gain 1 item’ what if your opponent loses 1 item?).

Value for Money. Simply put, a game that only plays two players provides less value for money than a similarly priced game that seats more players. That’s not to say that you can’t provide great value, but you’ll find fewer customers willing to invest in a $100 game that will only provide entertainment for themselves and one other.
Solution: Starting with the end goal in mind can help focus your design, if you plan to create a sub-$40 instead of a $100+ game from the outset. If your design is already large, it could potentially be grown to accommodate extra players in a way that doesn’t disrupt the two-player dynamic (Cerebria by Mindclash Games does an excellent job of this and is a favourite of mine from a design perspective). A final option is to increase the player count but create a separate, smaller two-player version that captures the spirit of the original (such as Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small).

Timing. A counter to the point above about accessibility is that, though it is much easier to get a two-player game to the table, a lengthier (60min+) two-player game is likely to be less successful than a shorter one. Two-player games are great as ‘fillers’ at group game nights whilst waiting for the next game, with a companion whilst travelling, or for spending an evening in at home. Though lengthier two-player games do exist, it is more common for a small group to commit time to a lengthy game than it is for two individuals to do so. Like the Value for Money challenge above, a lengthy two-player game will have to be that much better to attract a large audience.
Solution: Again, starting with the end in mind consider whether your game can be 1 hour or less. If your epic two-player game clocks in at 2-3+ hours and can’t be shortened without compromising the design, it may be worth examining the player count and turning it into a multiplayer game.

Games to check out

Two-player games offer a unique experience to higher player count games. Designing a good one also has some unique challenges, but when a game does this right it is extremely satisfying to play. If you’d like to check out some of what I think are great examples of two-player game design check out the following:

Onitama – Pure elegance of design. When I hear ‘easy to learn but hard to master’ I think of this.
Province– A micro game that was a big inspiration to Micro Dojo
Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small – Captures the spirit of Agricola in a two-player package
Android: Netrunner – Asymmetric game that incorporates multiple facets of play, and a good competitive format CCG to look at that isn’t Magic: The Gathering.
Cerebria (honorable mention) – Not strictly a two-player game, but increasing the count to 4 players adds more bodies at the table without changing the two-player dynamic


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