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Not Cardboard Children: Two's Company

All A Board

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Last week I said that this week’s Not Cardboard Children was going to be a roundup of great board and card games that work great with just two players (and then I taunted you with a game that needed more friends and a bigger table than you’d need for a respectable wake).

I wasn’t even lying! Come, take my hand. We’re going on a magical cardboard tour. Wait- what are you doing?! Don’t actually take my hand. What are you, eight years old?
Seeing as over the last few decades more fantastic, imaginative two player games have been released than I could even be bothered to name, let alone describe, I’m going to talk you through three relatively new ones and then close with a shortlist of even more relatively new ones you might want to investigate further. If you gents want to share some older ones in the comments, do it! Let’s make this web page the definitive resource for people who wanted to be pointed towards a two-player game and told “s’pretty good!”

I’ll kick things off with The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this is one of those knob promotional games like Babylon V: The Card Game or Twilight: The Card Game. Stop thinking that! In fact, stop thinking in general. This’ll be a lot easier for both of us if you just let your brain go slack for a bit.

Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is actually a co-operative game, making it the obvious choice for those of you who’d rather play nice instead of spend an evening snarling at your friend across a table like the hungry boardgaming beast that you are. Each player takes control of an intrepid (read: doomed) band of up to three heroes, and working together you’ve got to overcome one of the game’s quests. In the base set (which is all that’s been released so far) that means either a journey through the forest of Mirkwood, a trip down the river Anduin or a raid on an evil Necromancer’s tower to rescue an imprisoned friend.

So, a co-operative journey through dangerous territory… that’s not a board game, but a card game? How does that work? The short answer is that no matter how high your expectations are, it works even better than you might be hoping. This game is genius.

The long answer is as follows:

You are and your friend each have a deck of cards that you draw from each turn, allowing you to drop allies, attachments or positive events into play at the cost of resources generated by your heroes. In the same way that Magic: The Gathering lets you build decks based around one of five elements, LoTR: TCG has you building decks around four heroic aspects- leadership, tactics, lore and heart.

Leader players will be helping everybody else out, fighting at the front lines and, more so than anyone else, flinging themselves on the sharpened pikes and into the gaping jaws of monsters. I am saying they die a lot. Tactics, meanwhile, are actually good at fighting and can defend other players. Lore players will be mothering everybody else, healing them and cancelling out horrible events. Then you have heart. My deck of choice. The stout-hearted heroes of these decks push on with the quest no matter what. No, they’re not very good fighters. No, they’re rarely able to help other players. But they… they have a redeeming feature, I think. Hell if I can remember it, though.

But there’s also another deck set in the middle of the table- an encounter deck that contains all the dangers you might face on your journey. Each turn yourself and your friend will have to choose which members of your party to quest with – to push forward with – while keeping other characters in reserve to defend yourself from any enemies that might show up.

It’s all actually pretty complicated, but basically the quest deck is constantly coughing out potentially lethal events, locations that must be travelled to and monsters that’ll sit there on the horizon, and yourself and your friend are expected to deal with all of these horrors while always devoting as much of your party as possible to pushing onwards with the quest.

The one mechanic I will talk about in detail are the Threat meters, which are a set of gorgeous cardboard dials (the presentation of the entire game is stunning, mind) given to each player that show just how much of an interest the dark forces have in you. If you start off with powerful heroes, you dial your threat meter upwards. If you ever fail to quest (meaning your party stays put), you dial your threat meter upwards. If you’re spotted by Mordor’s scouts, you dial your threat meter upwards. If that threat meter ever hits 50, that’s it. Game over. It’s hugely sinister and totally fits the theme- the hostile Big Brother eye of the threat meter is always staring up at you, hungry for your death.

But by far the biggest achievement here is how all the cards you’re playing with fit snugly together to tell a story. You might think a card game would be more lightweight and abstract than a more heavy-duty board game, but it’s isn’t.

When myself and my friend took on the river Anduin quest, we were relieved to find that in the middle stage of the quest, when you’re simply rowing your boats down the river, monsters that emerge from the encounter deck can’t engage you. We were elated. For two entire turns we simply rowed, watching worgs and orcs and swarms of bats mass on the banks of the river, unable to touch us. Bliss.

We must have both been gangsta tripping on fig rolls at that point, because what happened next took us completely by surprise. The final stage of the quest saw us landing on the shore and being ambushed. Not only did we have to fight all the monsters that had been stacking up in the centre of the table, we also had to draw two extra cards and add them to the staging area in the middle of the table.

The following battle was epic, with Aragorn taking wound token after wound taken, and the two of us dropping everything from forest snares to spear walls to keep the creatures at bay. As the dust settled Beravor the ranger lay slain, and we did mourn, but I had the Horn of Gondor attached to someone so I blew that and that gave me an extra resource token so it was all ok in the end.

Other great things about Lord of the Rings: The Card Game include the fact that it scales down to a solo game or all the way up to four players, although you’ll have to argue for a bit about who gets the fancy threat dials and who has to write their threat down on a bit of paper like a loser.

Oh, and on the subject of that “The Card Game” suffix- this isn’t a traditional collectible card game. Like Warhammer Invasion, it’s one of Fantasy Flight’s “Living Card Games”, meaning that rather than releasing randomised booster packs and pre-assembled decks that may or may not be entirely useful to you, Fantasy Flight will be releasing preset packs of cards that all act as miniature expansions that are always entirely relevant, and in this case will each offer an extra quest. A much classier way of doing business.

All in all, a fantastic game. A classy game. Buy it.

Next up is Tannhauser!

Tannhauser, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, although I kind of do, is the single most retarded game in my collection.

Set in a fictional world where WW1 is still raging and the Germans have started meddling in the occult, Tannhauser is “a board game of eldritch horror and heroism in the Great War”. That’s me quoting the game box, but I’d much rather quote our Rab’s own review, so here I go: “It’s an FPS”.

You can play Tannhauser in Story Mode, Deathmatch Mode, King of the Hill or even Capture the Flag, but ultimately you’ll be doing the same thing- swearing moving your little pre-painted miniatures around the board, using their special abilities, taking shots down long long corridors, throwing grenades or hacking apart your foes in hand to hand combat.

Or rather, I should say that you’ll be trying to do all this stuff. Tannhauser is the Ameritrash genre of boardgames personified- it’s pretty to look at, absurdly macho, doesn’t lend itself to thoughtful play and ultimately that big, fat rulebook boils down to the two of you throwing dice around.

Here’s an example of the kind of move that happens in Tannhauser. It’s the second turn of the game. Your opponent runs his demonically augmented super-soldier into a room where you’ve got a guy on overwatch. Cool as a cucumber, you’ll take a shot at him with you submachine gun. You’ll hit. Your opponent will make his shock roll. The demonic guy will get a comedically high number of successes, reducing your attack to nothing. He’ll run this guy up to you and, following another bout of hatefully one-sided luck, cut your brave little man clean open like a big red pepper. The next turn you’ll roll a bundle of dynamite into that same room to get your revenge, and the hateful figure will emerge unscathed again, like a tiny plastic Captain Scarlet, and one-shot one of your troops again. All of this will happen and the word “unfair” will be balanced on the edge of your lips like a pea.

I don’t know why there were so many vegetable similies in that paragraph. The point is, all board games that feature dice have the occasional roll where everyone around the table bursts out laughing at the miserable result. Tannhauser has that every single turn. And it’s not funny.

Watching your plans constantly crumble under a handful of dice might sound miserable, but what you need to remember is that one man’s bad luck is the other player’s fantastic luck. That player actually controlling the demonic super-soldier is having the time of his life. He’ll think back on this game and smile, every single time.

That’s Tannhauser. It’s an FPS. It’s chaotic and full of guns and smarter in theory than in practice. If it weren’t for the game’s price and the fact that it’s now shipping with a “revised edition” of the rules that render the very important reference sheets that still come bundled with the game completely useless, I’d cheerily recommend it. As it is, that’s a lot of money to be asking for a game that’s really about the simple thrill of throwing dice around (or at each other).

Have a think. If you’re a monied individual then there are an absolute ton of expansions that pour even more colour into the game without affecting its incredible, lightning-fast pace.

For our third game, let’s move away from expensive and mad. Let’s go cheap and smart. Let’s go to Summoner Wars.

I adore this game, and you will too. Or else.

No, seriously. It’s an astonishing bit of design.

Summoner Wars is one half tactical battle and one half card game. Each player gets a small deck of cards unique to their chosen race, and in this deck are spells you can cast and servants you can summon onto the board. You play these cards using magic points which you amass either by discarding cards out of your hand or killing cards on the board. The objective is to kill the enemy summoner, a tough card that starts the game on the board.

There are three reasons to love Summoner Wars. The first and least important is its compactness. The rules take perhaps two minutes to explain, the game takes up no space whatsoever and the starter set containing two races will only set you back twenty quid. Note that I said compactness, not size. I’m a guy who likes grand games with a large scope for tactics and imaginative plays, and Summoner Wars scratches that itch like some kind of compact itch-scratching machine. From the future.

The second reason to love it is the vast asymmetry of the races. The Guild Dwarves sit back and erode enemy defenses. The Cave Goblins swarm the enemy with cheap, disposable goblins, but they have no staying power- them taking on the Vanguards, temple knights who are designed to out-last the enemy (by surviving until the enemy deck runs out), is a sight to see. The Fallen Kingdom are all about manipulating the board so that their undead soldiers are pop up like weeds. The Jungle Elves just blitz the board with cards that move the entire length of it, slapping all the way up into the enemy zone like falling Tetris blocks. I hate the Jungle Elves even more than I hate the Cloaks, who are an entire deck of thieving bastards designed to steal cards out of the enemy’s hand and his deck.

It’s not just that each of these races demands different tactics and makes for a different experience for the player. It’s that each pairing of them makes for a completely different game. I don’t even own them all, and I’ve still got a dozen more games of this to play before I’ve explored all the possibilities.

The third and most important reason to love Summoner Wars is that it’s just a beautiful game to play. A side-effect of its simple design and the small deck that you start burning through the moment the match begins is that every decision matters. Every dice roll matters. So you’re watching everything your opponent does, and fascinated by every decision and potential play laid out in front of you.

The design’s also shot through with risk/reward mechanics. By discarding lots of cards into your magic pile each turn you speed up your deck’s depletion and can potentially throw away a card you’ll need next turn, but you can also summon that much more onto the board. Then there’s your summoner himself or herself- the king and queen from chess combined, your summoner can make a big difference in a fight, but as you slide them away from you and towards the enemy, you’re making them more open to attacks.

A beautiful, beautiful game. Did I tell you to buy the Lord of the Rings card game up there? Screw that. Buy this. Or buy the other one. I just don’t know. Summoner Wars does have the solitary disadvantage that the starter set only comes with a sheet of paper to use as a board, with the premium board you can see in the above picture setting you back some extra money, but you could live without it. I couldn’t, clearly, but maybe you’re a stronger human being.

If you can bear waiting for a little while, a Summoner Wars premium box will be arriving in Europe any week now (I think it’s already out in the US) that comes with a whopping six new races as well as a premium board, so that might be the best investment.

Phew! OK. I said I would talk you guys through some runner up 2 player games that also came out recently? Let’s do that.

STRONGHOLD: If you’re looking for a grander, more complex strategy game than anything mentioned here, Stronghold could well be your boy. I haven’t played it, but I’m desperate to. I’ve heard only good things. Course, if you’re looking for something REALLY grand, there’s aways

HORUS HERESY: The big boy. The big cheese. This is a grand wargame that lets you and a friend go head to head in the single most important battle of the Warhammer 40K universe with the single, incredibly annoying flaw that certain section of the board can’t hold all of the plastic troops you’ll be putting down, so you have to pile them on top of one another from time to time. Still, a great game. A huge game. An expensive game. Rab has something to say about it, too.

LABYRINTH: THE WAR ON TERROR: Maybe you want a heavy duty strategy game with a theme that isn’t space marines dueling in the far future. That’s OK. How about a well-researched game that lets one side play the Americans and another fundamentalist Muslims in the war on terror? Would you like that?

RACE FOR THE GALAXY: Or maybe you want a game that’ll let you comprehensively best your friend without playing a game that swallows the entire day like a tic-tac. Race for the Galaxy is a massively deep, yet colourful card game about expanding your holdings in a hostile universe. You can’t interact directly with other players (without buying the expansion, anyway), but anything you decide to do (colonise, explore, develop, trade, etc.), your opponents will get the chance to do to. Sounds simple? Yeah. No. No. Just. No.

As always, Find Your Game Store.co.uk is ready and waiting to help you, ladies and gents. You should always buy from your local game shop, you know. You should. They’re an endangered species. Like the Irrawaddy dolphin. Imagine your local game shop as a beached, sad Irrawaddy dolphin, crying out for help as it chews weakly on a discarded KFC Zinger burger. That’s no kind of a life for a dolphin. So help out your local game shop.

Until next week!

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