I love the idea of an epic game. I long to hunker down, grab a beverage or six and a thick rule book, gather around a table with like-minded strategists, and compete for nerd supremacy. Twilight Imperium is a game that’s on my epic bucket list. I say bucket list because finding 3-6 adult players who are willing (and allowed) to spend eight hours playing a board game has been, to date, impossible for me. Often, I envision making the weighty decisions that, several hours later, will determine the fate of the universe, leaving me, alone, to sit upon its imperial throne. (No more rhymes and I mean it.)
If you’re like me, a more likely scenario is a 30 minute dice game with a child or a semi-reluctant significant other. Well, through trial, error, and necessity, I have found a few two-player games that feel more epic than they should. If you haven’t checked them out yet, maybe these games will scratch a tiny bit of that epic itch until you can finally assume your proper place as Supreme Nerd Leader.
1) Star Wars: Empire Vs. Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2 Players, 30-60 minutes)
This is one of my favorite two-player games. I have always thought that Fantasy Flight is probably the best at intertwining theme and mechanics in such a way that fans of the subject matter are rewarded for investing their time and money. FFG is like the Beethoven of board gaming – it takes a few plays before you fully realize the genius of their work. Empire Vs. Rebellion is another one of those games, with a deceptive depth that lies beneath a simple surface.
The game play sort of feels feels like a combination of the card games War and Blackjack. Each player chooses a side in the epic struggle we’re all familiar with from Episodes IV-VI. Each player gets a deck of cards that is identical in mechanical content (same number of cards and powers) but with different flavor text and photos. On your turn you can only take one of four actions: play a card blindly from the top your deck, use the power on a card you’ve already played, refresh a card’s power by spending an influence token, or pass. Players are trying to win a series of events and battles from the movies until someone gets to seven victory points. Each event/battle indicates the total number of cards players can play, and a target sum that those cards can total without going over. For instance, in “Escape From Tatooine” players are trying to have 11 total points without having more than three cards in their respective play area. Pretty simple concept, but the strategy gets deep, fast.
Each card has a power that can change the tide of battle. Some cards allow you to remove a card from yours or your opponent’s play area. So, when you think you are sitting pretty with 11 total points on the three cards you played and your opponent has three cards and only 8 points showing, your opponent uses a card’s “Military” power and destroys one of your played cards, leaving you with two cards and 7 points. Now what do you do? Your opponent will win if you pass (8-7) so you play a card from your deck, blindly drawing from the top – let’s say it’s a “Diplomacy” card with a numerical power of 5. Now you are at 12 points and over the 11 point target. Now you have three cards in front of you (the max) and will be disqualified if the battle ends because you’re over the limit. Your opponent passes on his turn. He wins? Not so fast. It’s your turn again, and you aren’t passing, you are using Diplomacy’s power, which allows you to discard it or another one of the cards you have already played. You discard a “Force” card worth 2 points, so now you have 2 cards in front of you and 10 total points to your opponent’s 8. Now it’s his turn again, and he’ll have to keep playing if he wants to win. Play continues until both players pass on their turns. Then the player who wins the event/battle gets a number of victory points and possibly some more influence tokens she can spend to refresh card powers in future battles.
This just scratches the surface of the depth of strategy in this game. While there are only a few card powers – Diplomacy, Force, Military, Recon – the interplay between the cards makes for interesting decisions. Add in the fact that each player can secretly shuffle in 4 of 8 possible character cards (each with their own special power) and now you have even more decisions to make. Adding even more depth, each side gets to secretly designate one of their 5 strategy cards (both sides have the same 5 mechanics) which will be revealed at the end of the battle. This can seriously alter the result.
Empire Vs. Rebellion retails at $12.99 and comes in a small package, so it’s inexpensive and easily portable. But “your eyes can deceive you” and this game contains more fun than “you could possibly imagine.” Once you have played a few times and become familiar with what types of strategy, character, and resource cards are available, you will be able to try and guess what your opponent might do next, and vice versa. At that point the game elevates to a more calculated type of strategy that should keep you coming back for more. Whether you are a Star Wars fan or not, Empire Vs. Rebellion shines as a two-player game.
2) Lord Of The Rings: Confrontation (Fantasy Flight Games, 2 Players, 30 Minutes)
LOTR: Confrontation has been around for a few years, but I just recently discovered it. And as two player games go, this one will corrupt you with its power to provide loads of fun. Played on a board with only 16 spaces, with each player getting 9 characters/minions to accomplish his goal, LOTR: Confrontation looks simple. But, just like other FFG games, it packs a lot of depth below the surface. The game plays a lot like Stratego in that you can’t see an opponent’s character until you enter that piece’s space. Once that occurs, a piece will automatically be destroyed (Nazgul dies if it finds Legolas), or a battle will ensue (unless an automatic retreat is allowed – nasty Hobbitses!) Battles consist of each player secretly playing a card from 9 card decks. Once revealed, the card’s power will be compared to the other card and once the dust clears, someone’s going to lose a character or be forced to retreat. Since there are only nine combat cards for each side, you know what the other player has in his combat deck, so there is a real cat and mouse strategy in each of the battles. It is quick, nasty, and fun.
The Fellowship player wins if he moves Frodo into the Mordor space. Sauron wins if he captures Frodo or gets 3 of his 9 minions into the Shire space. That’s it. The games are tense and only take about 30 minutes, maybe less if you’ve played a few times. There are some variant rules and characters that advanced players can swap into the game to enhance the already high level of replay-ability. The best part about the game, though, is how it makes you feel like you are fighting the epic struggle to save or rule Middle Earth. The character abilities make perfect sense in terms of the books and movies. Sauron’s minions are better for quick movement and fighting. The Fellowship characters are less powerful on the whole when it comes to fighting (though Aragorn and Gandalf are still bad-asses) but have shifty movement and retreat rules that make them harder to kill. Even the board, with so few spaces, still captures the magnitude and beauty of Middle Earth. There are special movement rules for mountain spaces, Moria, and the three spaces containing the river Anduin that add to the immersion.
I was skeptical the first time I saw the components of LOTR: Confrontation. There are so few pieces and the square board is turned so it plays as a diamond! But after one play I was easily under its influence. If you are a Lord Of The Rings fan looking for an epic feeling, though not epicly time consuming fix, get LOTR: Confrontation. Try not to wear it, though. They’ll get you.
3) Eminent Domain: Microcosm (Tasty Minstrel Games, 2 Players, 15-20 minutes)
Ever heard of the card game Star Realms? If so, you know that as two player space-themed games go, it is loads of fun. You basically are just trying to defeat your opponent in head to head fashion, using ships and bases to do your bidding. Throw in some deck building, Dominion-style, and as two-player games go, Star Realms definitely rocks.
But Eminent Domain: Microcosm is a game you may not have heard of. It is a much smaller and quicker adaptation of Eminent Domain, the card game by the same creator, Seth Jaffee. It makes my list here because Eminent Domain: Microcosm gives you that epic feel of building your own galactic civilization, yet it plays in under 30 minutes. The entire game deck consists of 18 cards. Each player gets only 9 turns. A turn consists of drawing a card and then either playing a card from your hand, or taking your discard pile back in your hand. That’s it. Again, simple. But during your 9 turns you will have many difficult decisions to make. – Do you go research heavy and grab one of the 5 tech cards? Do you go military and start nuking planets for spoils? Do you colonize and assimilate planets and their bonuses into your civ’s abilities?
I’m not pretending that Microcosm will make you throw away your copy of Sid Meier’s Civilization, but in a two player table-top game, it gets that itch scratched in a pinch. (Almost a rhyme there). Because there are only 18 cards, once you have played a few times, you will begin to learn exactly what each card does, and exactly what icons are contained on those cards. You can explore different strategies – more peaceful or cutthroat – and play off your opponent’s tendencies. The games are usually pretty close, and oftentimes you are not quite sure if you’ve done enough to eek out a win until the very end. These close finishes leave you second guessing a turn here and there, because with 9 turns the margin of error is small. You can’t afford to make too many bonehead moves.
Well, there you have it. There are several more games that could be on this list, obviously. I realize that. These are just 3 that I find myself wanting to play right this minute, definitely in a pub – me, my opponent, and a nice dark stout. I mean, Winter is coming, after all. What are some of your favorite two player games that give you an epic feel without the epic time frame? Make a comment below. For these and other awesomely geeky games, check out my store, www.dicedropgames.com.
Nerd on, people!