As you learn and grow together with a significant other, you eventually find that you turn your affection towards things you never would have otherwise. For example, I had not predicted my life would involve repeatedly watching every season of Gilmore Girls, but now I have a “babette ate oatmeal!” T-shirt in my closet. Likewise, board games might be something you do with your S.O. or spouse for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s how you met, through shared enjoyment of the hobby. Perhaps you’re the gamer, and your spouse loves you enough to game with you (and has even come to enjoy aspects of it). Or perhaps you’re reading this so you can find a game you will actually like, because your spouse is constantly asking you to play games you agree to simply out of love.
I’ve seen many lists of games for couples, and these always end up with widespread disagreement. Typically, they involve games with very low interaction or cooperative games, to avoid couples “getting in fights” while playing games. While that’s perhaps a common occurrence, not every couple operates this way, so these games are organized by your “gaming relationship,” and will be written under the assumption that you’re the one in the relationship eager to get a board game to the table. That being said, here are our top suggestions!
Let’s Play On the Same Team
In this category, players don’t compete at all but work together to beat the game, much like a team mode in a video game campaign. (Or picture Dungeons & Dragons with the DM automated.) Cooperative board games are still somewhat of a novelty, despite video games providing such modes since the heyday of Double Dragon. In recent years, though, their popularity has skyrocketed, largely thanks to the disease-curing, world-saving Pandemic. In Pandemic, players are scientists on a global trip to stop an epidemic from destroying the world. The game has a unique theme, clever card-based mechanisms, and unique special powers for each player. It’s a great team exercise for you and your S.O., although beware of the “alpha gamer” problem: it’s easy for one player to insist they have the optimal solution and to tell everyone what to do.
If you’re afraid of alpha-gaming being an issue, I recommend a strange little card game, Hanabi. While Hanabi has a theme of building firework displays, it’s really about putting cards in rows carefully. The trick of the game is that each player holds their hand away from themselves, so that everyone except them can see their hand. Much of the game is about giving clues to other players so they can deduce which cards to play and which to discard. Since no players have full information, no one can really take over and boss others around. It also has a high deduction element that will appeal to fans of Clue, but you can actually play this one with two players!
You Do Your Thing, I’ll Do My Thing
Often called “mutiplayer solitaire,” this category involves games where players compete for victory, but interact very little (think of a running a race versus playing basketball). The game Rolling America, for example, is multiplayer solitaire in its purest form—you and your opponents play with exactly the same die rolls, using them to mark the United States with a particular number pattern, and then check who did better at the end. This makes a great couples game for a variety of reasons. First, of course, is that you aren’t bossing each other around, and you aren’t blowing up each other’s stuff. Second, though the game can be tense, the difficulty is brought on by poor dice rolls—so rather than feeling antagonism towards each other, you can bond over your common enemy: the dice rolls, or the game itself. It also makes a great solitaire game, although it’s far more fun to play together, simply for the company.
Multiplayer solitaire can be a bit of a misnomer at times, however. For example, though the game Karuba doesn’t allow for players to interact with each other, you might change your decisions based on what you see your opponents doing. Karuba is a tile-laying game where the tiles are used to either create paths for your adventurers or discarded to move them along said paths, attempting to get to temples of various colors. Karuba has a race element: whoever gets to each temple first gets more points! So while you cannot directly affect your opponent’s moves, you might change your mind about heading for the blue temple once you realize you can’t possibly get there first. It’s a great game to play side-by-side on the couch; you can lean over to investigate your S.O.’s board and sneak a kiss while you snoop.
We Can Bump Into Each Other, But Don’t Touch My Stuff
There are two things my wife absolutely hates in my games: negative points, and when someone blows up her stuff. In recent years, the advent of “European” games have brought in a whole slew of games that allow for interaction that isn’t quite so mean, but instead quite passive-aggressive. You won’t directly attack the other players, but you’ll grab a tile you know they wanted, or sell some goods and lower the price just before they were intending to do so. Perhaps the most classic example of this genre is Carcassonne, a game where players “work together” to build a landscape, but vie for control of the features of the landscape. You also end up with a beautiful map of puzzle pieces laid out by the end, and that aesthetic can be a bonding moment: “Look what we made!”
There are a variety of games made for specifically two players. Many of them fall into the “duel” style brought on by the success of Magic: the Gathering, but many of the European-style games (such as the famous KOSMOS two-player line) fall into this category. One of the most popular is Jaipur, a game with a somewhat unexciting theme, I admit (selling goods at an Indian market). The theme’s detriments are overshadowed, however, by the bright, gorgeous artwork and the simple-but-tense gameplay. Jaipur is a game all about timing: trying to give your opponent no good options, or sell goods at a high price just before you think they will, and navigating the end of each round to make sure it happens when you’re ahead. It’s by no means a nasty game, but certainly one where you’ll be thinking intently about your opponent’s options and their most likely decisions. The compact package, low price point, and cute camels make it a very easy sell.
Some Aggression Is Okay, I Guess
There’s a step between passive aggression and all-out war. Some games might have a few options for directly slowing down or harming your opponents, while overall maintaining the passive-aggressive framework. The most well-known example of this is probably the Robber in Catan. (My wife and I, when we first obsessed with Catan, spent several nights trying to make it work two-player. If only!) I find that the two-player spinoff of 7 Wonders and 7 Wonders: Duel, fits this category. Its rules are simpler than its older brother, but it is very in-your-face as players constantly vie for the best cards and try to stick their opponents into bad decisions. There are also a few ways to directly attack your opponent, primarily by making them discard resources or coins. It is a truly excellent game—but not one I personally would play with the spouse as there are too many “ha-ha, I just got you good” type moments. But perhaps your relationship is different!
For a slightly lighter game, I recommend Schotten Totten from IELLO. This game sounds aggressive, as players are trying to take stones by playing higher cards than their opponent. You can certainly come over the top of your opponent and contest a stone they thought they had locked up, and that can be an “attack” in a sense. But for the most part, this game is more about logic and deduction than about aggressively attacking your opponent. It generally has that passive-aggressive feel: keeping an eye on your opponent, waiting for the right time for that clever move that renders one of theirs ineffective, while trying not to telegraph your own plans.
Bring It On, We Should Cardboard-Fight So Hard We Get Nosebleeds
This category is for those couples who love to go head-to-head, whether it’s Chess, thumb war, video games, or rock-paper-scissors. The best example for this category would be Magic: the Gathering, but for your own financial solvency, I won’t recommend that. Instead, I’d be remiss not to recommend Star Realms as a great alternative to Magic. It’s only ten dollars for the basic game, and players always begin on equal footing as they build their deck mid-game and attempt to defeat their opponent. It’s also not quite as nasty as it seems since destroyed bases eventually go back to a player’s deck. The biggest drawback here is the theme, but if you’re both sci-fi nerds, I can’t recommend this game enough.
There are a variety of heads-up games with sci-fi or fantasy themes, beyond the aforementioned Summoner Wars, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, Star Wars Rebellion, and many more. However, here I’d like to recommend an abstract game. A complaint I’ve heard many times from someone in a relationship is that their S.O. plays Chess frequently, and they don’t know anything about it. They try to learn, but the skill gap is too great and they have no fun getting stomped at it. Onitama is a wonderful abstract game from Arcane Wonders that has been a huge hit with every chess player I’ve taught it to. Furthermore, the game is played on a small 5 x 5 and is much shorter than Chess, making it easier to jump in for new players. But the real twist is this: each game, five different cards are used, and these are how pieces move during that game. In fact, how your pieces move changes from turn to turn as you have to give those cards up to your opponent! It makes for a hugely re-playable game, and it also keeps the game from having aspects of it “memorized,” unlike Chess. Each game is a whole new setup, and that can even the playing field and get both players excited to play.
There you go, ten suggestions for game night on the couch with your loved one. However, before you go buy all these on Amazon, I’ll conclude with some general advice on gaming with your S.O.:
If you’re the one who’s already read the rules, you have a head start. Don’t seek to trounce your opponent in the first game, but don’t “throw it” either, which can be insulting. Just try an unorthodox or unintuitive strategy, and see where it goes.
On the same note, it’s often easier to teach in groups, perhaps as a double-date. That gives your S.O. some “breathing room”: it’s not just you against them, and having others around to ask rules questions and clarifications may embolden them and make them feel more comfortable.
If your S.O. is not as gung-ho about board games as you are, start with lighter fare. (Our contributor Chris got lucky; he’s an anomaly.)
Pay attention to what your S.O. likes and dislikes, and don’t push for games that you know aren’t their play-style. If they’re playing with you because they love you, you owe it to love them back by making it a pleasant experience. (Yes, I know that game they’ll hate is all new and shiny. Leave it there in the corner.)