Alex: Good games are easy to find. They’re everywhere. We’re in a gaming boom right now, and no, I don’t think it’s a bubble. But while good games are easy to find; good, longer, competitive, two player games can be harder to find.
If you're playing cooperatively it can get easier, there are a ton of fun experiences out there. If you’re playing a shorter game, there are dozens if not hundreds. Small back and forth games abound from Lost Cities, Hanamikoji, Patchwork, Mr. Jack and tons more. But a decent head to head longer game is tough. A two player game doesn't leave room to self balance through the other players, which means that longer games can very quickly suck the life out of you if one player has a clear edge. You can be stuck in a 4 hour game of Twilight Struggle where someone is clearly winning the whole time. You can be 3 hours into Through the Ages and its been 2 hours since you felt you had a chance of winning. You can be halfway through War of the Ring before you feel you understand how to play, let alone win.
Now don’t get me wrong, I just listed 3 amazing games. But I don’t own any of those. War of the Ring I haven’t tried, but the other two stayed in my collection for years before I got rid of them. All 3, and many more I can list, suffer from being longer games, with complicated rulesets, and are unforgiving for new players. When you’re playing Kemet, or any multiplayer game, with someone new. The players at the table can self balance. Playing a game with multiple experienced players? They’ll focus on each other more and let the “new guy” do his own thing until/unless he’s a threat. Playing with one veteran and multiple new players? They can all focus on the veteran adding an element of balance to the game.
I find, and I’m speaking only for myself here, that 2 player competitive games that are longer than 2 hours don’t end up staying in my collection. But I also find that games in the 15-45 minute range you can only play so many times before you crave something more. Which is why I love finding those two player experiences that fall in the 60-120 minute range. As many of you know, one of my favorites is Rum & Bones. One of my others, and I apologize for the lengthy ramble here, is Antike Duellum.
Antike Duellum is an incredible game from designer Mac Gerdts, designer of Concordia and many others. I would never have believed how incredible this game is with 2 players if not for experiencing it. Antike Duellum is a 2 player competitive dudes on a map/civ building game, a genre I would imagine couldn’t work well with 2 players but wow does it work. Games like these often suffer terribly from the two player dynamic, where one player through the process of “winning” only pushes the other player further behind, causing a rich get richer dynamic without other players to balance. And yet it doesn’t seem to happen in this game. Every time I’ve played as soon as one player gets ahead, the other player manages to pivot to a different strategy and do incredibly well or even win. This has happened with old and new alike. Plus the game plays in 60-120 minutes, putting it perfectly in that slot of two player experiences I’m lacking in.
The basic idea of Antike Duellum involves an action selection rondel. Each turn you can choose from a few available actions, involving resource production, civ building, army building and a small tech tree. You constantly have to choose where you want to put your energy. Do you specialize in one resource or attempt for a balance? Do you build your own empire or attack your opponent? Do you build up your fleet to counter your opponent or build up an army to force the pressure on him from a different angle? Do you attempt to gain victory points through tech, civ building, destruction or more? And these decisions are hardly in a vacuum, every decision your opponent makes tips the scales to a small degree on the benefits and downsides of what you should do. And I love that. The most satisfying win is the one where you were the losing player 30 minutes ago, and that happens in this game all the time.
I love Antike Duellum, I highly recommend it for your collection.
Dan: I’ve been playing Gerdts’ games for more than 10 years - Imperial is a Top 10 title for me. Although I’m no expert on the mechanism of the rondel, Gerdts has made it his ‘signature’: I think it was an evolution/improvement from the Puerto Rico ‘choose your role’ concept, and I find it to be a terrific way to provide both choice and tension (ie usually when you make a gaming choice the opportunity cost - ie what you ‘pass by’ - isn’t as graphically apparent).
I too give Antike Duellum a strong thumbs up. It is about as satisfyingly deep as a 2-player Euro can be.
~Alex & Dan