SO you want to game with your S.O.?

by Clint Miller on Thursday, January 22, 2015


One of the biggest questions I see on /r/boardgames by far is, "What’s a good two-player game to play with my wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend?" Finding willing participants can be one of the biggest hurdles of our hobby, and we naturally look to the people around us. Unfortunately, many of our significant others aren’t into board games they way we are. What’s a modern hobby gamer to do?

Read on for some tips and suggestions to make both of your lives easier!

Rule Number One: Keep It Simple

The first designer board game you bring to the table should be easy to learn. When I started looking for games to play with my girlfriend, I made the mistake of ramping up the complexity too much. The logic goes like this: "I love Mage Knight, she loves me, so surely we can work something out... right?"


I’m not saying your better half will never play Terra Mystica with you, but throwing someone in the deep end is not how you should teach them to swim.

With its near-zero setup time and simple mechanics, my number one recommendation to start with is Carcassonne. Bonus: it even teaches a few hardcore mechanics, like area control and worker placement! Buy or borrow this one and play it first to whet the appetite. And if your favorite person has a smartphone addiction, Carcassonne has a very nice app. If you can get them hooked on that, you’ll be putting board games firmly on their minds throughout the day!

Need some more suggestions? Let’s break it down and look at what makes a great game for new players, willing and otherwise.

Elements of Good Couples Games:

Plays Great With Two Players

I often see Love Letter recommended because of its theme and complexity -- and it’s certainly a great game! -- but it loses a lot of its appeal with only two players. A great resource for solving this problem is BoardGameGeek itself, where every game has a "User Suggested # of Players." Bonus points if it can handle more players when you have friends or family over, offering a chance for your one-and-only to show off his or her skills.

Suggestions: (in ascending order of complexity) Lost Cities, Jaipur, Morels, Imperial Settlers, Castles Of Burgundy

Avoid Direct Competition: Go Co-op!

You’ve been playing games for some time now. You might even see life as a game, and you probably have for many years. Your brain is hard-wired to see things that the beginner’s mind never will. Don’t use this against your soul mate! Instead, bite of something cooperative and put your heads together. Of course, you still need to avoid quarterbacking: losing together is still a positive experience, and suits your purposes here. Learn to work together, it beats the heck out of couples counseling.

Suggestions: (in ascending order of complexity) Hanabi, Forbidden Desert, Pandemic

Find An Engaging Theme

Picking a game with an agreeable theme goes a long way. War games, direct conflict, "take that" mechanics, and other forms of aggressive play will probably only find purchase with, *at most, *50% of the population. Are you in that 50%? Assume your dearest is not. Go hard in the opposite direction: constructive, non-zero-sum, or even just weird. Finding something that aligns with their interests goes a long way.

Suggestions: (in ascending order of complexity) Takenoko, Suburbia, Viticulture

Available Expansions

So you’ve taught them one game and had some success, but you’re having trouble starting all over and making the jump to the next one? Expansions may be the solution! An expansion lets you extend whatever world you’ve already bought into together. It breathes new life into a waning game experience, and has the potential to introduce some new skills or additional complexity in a lighter way than going all-in on a full game.

Suggestions: (in ascending order of complexity) Carcassonne, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Dominion, Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

Take a Chance; Give a Chance

Most people don’t like to lose, and getting beaten repeatedly in a game can be very demoralizing for new players who need the freedom and safety to learn. I’m not recommending throwing a game to make your partner happy (your mileage may vary with that tactic), but if you choose a game with a fair amount of luck involved, or great catch up mechanisms, then it will be easier for them to win naturally.

Suggestions: (in ascending order of complexity) Roll Through The Ages, Star Realms, San Juan, Yinsh

Teaches Relevant Mechanics

Find a the easiest version you can of deckbuilding, worker placement, or area control. These mechanics are prevalent in the hobby, so try to expose them in a forgiving setting. Once the foundation of these skills is built, they’ll be able to pick up those meatier games much more readily.

Suggestions: Dominion (Deck Building), Lords of Waterdeep (Worker Placement), Sushi Go! (Drafting), Small World (Area Control)

Meeple Love

Play Something They Want To Play

Although gateway games are a great introduction to the hobby, any new game can still be intimidating. Look for games they would like to play. Traditional card games work great for this. The game doesn’t matter, what matters is that it is comfortable to the object of your affection.

My girlfriend and I have played Cribbage, Backgammon and Upwords before, because those are games she knows and likes. As groan-worthy as you may think Monopoly is, if that’s what they want to play, then play it and have fun. Put on your Good Attitude Sneakers, not your Hobby Gamer Criticism Fedora. I bet after playing Monopoly one night and Carcassonne the next, your partner will notice and appreciate the lack of player elimination, shorter playtime, and constructive theme in lieu of predatory rent-seeking.

Just getting something to the table helps establish a rhythm of playing games regularly, making it easier to introduce the games you like. And pay attention! It’s also good research into what they like. My girlfriend loves Scrabble, so I brought Paperback to the table and we both really enjoy playing it.

Get Interested in Their Hobbies

Gaming is your hobby and you are asking the object of your affection to share it with you, but are you sharing their hobbies? You know how you aren’t really into knitting, or baseball, or hiking? That’s probably how they feel about gaming. Offer to learn more about or partake in their hobbies from time to time. Psychologists have studied this, and even made a kind of game mechanic out of it for you: accept their bids. 

By the same token, here’s a game mechanic to avoid: bartering. Saying "I’ll go out dancing for an hour tonight if you game with me an hour tomorrow" is the plea of a desperate person, and will certainly breed resentment. Enjoy your partner and their interests for their own sake, reciprocation has to come naturally and can’t be bargained for.

Hobbies can be a great way for each person in a couple to have their own identity. In the end boardgaming is your thing, and sometimes it may just have to be an activity you go out an do with other people. That’s okay! Be happy they agree to indulge you sometimes. You’ll get to game more and they’ll be happy with the direct social interaction.

What Did We Miss?

In your experience, what game has gotten the most mileage as an ice-breaker for reluctant gamers? What skills have helped you build bridges? Also of value, what tactics have you tried that fell flat (...or worse)? Leave us a comment!

Leave a Comment

Scott Davenport almost 3 years ago said...

Rule Zero: Never pressure your significant other into playing a game. No matter how sure that you have chosen the perfect gateway game for your one and only, pressuring them to give it a try puts them in a negative mood from the start that is hard to overcome. Peer Pressure can be your Friend. My non-gamer spouse had little to know interest in games. So, we organized with mutual friends to have a Wine & Game Night. Those who wanted to play, played. Those who wanted just to socialize and do some wine tasting did that. Eventually, we had everyone playing Viticulture and Ticket to Ride. Wife enjoys the company and has stepped through the gateway into gaming.

Stormy over 2 years ago said...

Get them watching Tabletop and see what games (and their associated mechanics) appeal to them. :) It's helped us grow our collection something approaching decent.

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