It’s a bizarre time for couples right now: Being confined in close quarters with the same person can take its toll on even the strongest bonds. But a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests engaging in recreational activity with your partner can be just the olive branch worth extending when you need some stress relief. The study found that while participating in an art class raised the highest levels of oxytocin — known as the “love hormone” — playing board games as a couple yielded a similar effect. (This is great news for those of us who struggle with even a simple stick figure).
Lincoln Damerst, the director of media at BoardGameGeek, and his wife Nikki Pontius, a project director, are one example of the therapeutic effects of playing board games as a couple. They both host the live online GameNight! series through BoardGameGeek’s YouTube channel to introduce folks to new board games in a relaxed setting, and they use their GameNight! Date Night! offshoot to spotlight two-player games as well as those suitable for two players.
“For us, playing games is a chance for your brain to check out from what’s happening with our daily lives,” said Damerst. “Some are light and some are deep. Some require you to look at your solution versus your opponent and others require you to work together to find the solution.” To optimize your gameplay experience, Pontius suggests getting comfortable — but not too comfortable. “I actually prefer to play at a table with a chair. I have never been happy after choosing to sit on the couch and play on a coffee table,” she said. Listening to music mid-game also allows her and her gaming partners to keep the conversation flowing, too. “After all, gaming is a social event even in this time where we can’t play in person. Thank goodness for video calls,” Pontius added.
Damerst noted that not all board games are for everyone — and, in fact, board games in general aren’t for everyone — but if you’re looking to mix up your isolation routine this winter (given the cold outside or the coronavirus outside), he and Pontius recommend checking out the following popular games that have gotten the two of them through quarantine, along with a note on how long each game may take and how BGG users have weighed it (if you’re new to BGG’s weighting scale — here’s what to know).
Best board games for couples
- Players: 2 | Ages: 10+ | BGG Weight: 1.68/5 | Playtime: 30 minutes
“The stand-out favorite two-player game for Lincoln and me is Odin’s Ravens,” Pontius said. It’s a racing game: Both players race their ravens across different landscapes in order to “survey” the land and report back to Odin. You’re able to advance your raven toward the end of the flight path by matching the land type to the cards in your own deck, or hinder your opponent’s movement. Once you reach the end of your flight path, you win, scoring points equal to the distance separating both ravens. “It’s a very clean, straightforward race game with some cards each player has to affect the flight path,” said Pontius.
- Players: 2 | Ages: 12+ | BGG Weight: 2.26/5 | Playtime: 30-60 minutes
Whether you’re a history buff or simply thrive on stiff competition, Watergate is a great game night bet for anyone — both Pontius and Damerst enjoy playing it together for its strong tug-of-war mechanism. One player plays as the Nixon administration and the other player functions as The Washington Post. While the Nixon administration tries to conceal evidence to stay in office until the end of the term, The Post tries to uncover at least two pieces of evidence to connect the political scandal back to Nixon. Pontius appreciates that the cards are full of real quotes and witnesses from the 1970’s scandal.
- Players: 2-8 | Ages: 8+ | BGG Weight: 1.06/5 | Playtime: 10-15 minutes
In the same vein as Taboo or Codenames, one player provides clues hinting at their character card from an array of 12 characters without saying anything concrete — only whether the target is like or unlike the other character cards. Damerst notes this is a particularly great game to play via Skype or Zoom, making it perfect for long-distance relationships and friendships. There are currently three different themed decks available: Fables, History and Myths.
- Players: 2 | Ages: 12+ | BGG Weight: 2.35/5 | Playtime: 60 minutes
In this card game, you’re playing as part of a nomadic Tuareg tribe establishing trade routes. You do so with cards that you arrange on a game board operating as a tableau, which changes as you remove tribal cards to gain resources or to put into your display. Damerst said placing cards in your display is “really challenging and fun,” and the game is “relatively simple to learn and really deep with tough choices.”
- Players: 2-5 | Ages: 12+ | BGG Weight: 1.8/5 | Playtime: 30-60 minutes
“Ticket to Ride has to be mentioned. I love the game and it’s a great game to teach new board game players,” said Pontius. Start by collecting cards of matching color and playing the number of cards represented by the train cars between the two cities you want to connect in the color displayed on the game board. Place your trains on the board to complete your secret routes, collect points as you connect cities and add up completed tickets at the end of the game. If you manage to have the longest train route at the end of the game, you get points for that as well. “This game has many spin-offs, all of them really good, but if you’re new to the game or the hobby I would start with the original,” she said. If you’re looking for some of those spin-offs, highly-rated options include Ticket to Ride: Amsterdam, Ticket to Ride: Asia, Ticket to Ride: Europe, Ticket to Ride: Japan, Ticket to Ride: New York, Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries and Ticket to Ride: United Kingdom.
- Players: 2-4 | Ages: 10+ | BGG Weight: 1.80/5 | Playtime: 30 minutes
Pontius described this game as great for new board game players, too, because it’s a stripped-down engine-builder game, meaning it requires players to create some sort of revenue-generating machine that allows them to advance to the next milestone or level. Collect precious gems in the form of poker chips to buy cards that generate more gems. These gems help you qualify for better cards that give you points (and gems) until you can afford the best gems. These gems will help you attract rich customers, which can help you win the game. “If you run the other way when someone takes out a heavy game and tells you it’s an engine builder, try Splendor as a way to learn or improve your engine-builder skills,” she said.
- Players: 2-4 | Ages: 8+ | BGG Weight: 1.99/5 | Playtime: 30-45 minutes
There are two prior games in the Azul collection, but Summer Pavilion is Pontius’ favorite. It involves collecting tiles around a central open space to arrange sets on your player board. When a player drafts, they can choose to take all of the tiles of the same color from one of the nine piles or the center collection. “It sounds simple enough, but it’s the drafting mechanism that sets the game apart,” she explained, adding that if you’re not drafting from the center collection, it’s best to move the remaining tiles from that pile into the center. “This can cause some dilemmas as you may be adding to a collection of matching colors that are already in the center, setting up a pretty sweet move for the next player,” she said. If you’re interested in the previous titles, they’re the original Azul and Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra. The latest in the collection, Azul: Crystal Mosaic, launched in 2020.
- Players: 2-6 | Ages: 8+ | BGG Weight: 2.11/5 | Playtime: 45-60 minutes
Start with a single fountain tile and acquire buildings to build around it in order to expand your own Alhambra. There are three scoring phases represented on three cards that are shuffled into the money cards — one in the top half of the deck, one in the middle of the deck, and one at the bottom half of the deck. “This was a first for me as I had never played a game with that mechanism in it,” said Pontius. Alhambra tiles are randomly drawn from a bag and placed in a market next to one of four currency colors. The goal is to win by accumulating the most of each type of building. “If you really want [a certain] tile but haven’t collected the right currency for it, maybe you can try to collect the right color currency and hope one of your co-players doesn’t buy that tile away from you,” said Pontius.
BoardGameGeek and its weight
When choosing the right game for you, it might be worth it to consult BoardGameGeek’s five-point weight scale. It’s used to loosely attribute a complexity level to any given game. Weight levels include:
- Light: 0.1 to 1.0
- Medium Light: 1.1 to 2.0
- Medium: 2.1 to 3.0
- Medium Heavy: 3.1 to 4.0
- Heavy: 4.1 to 5.0
Users vote on a game’s particular weight by factoring in elements like the complexity of a game’s rulebook, how much luck is involved and how long it takes to play the game, so BoardGameGeek notes that weight is a subjective term. Think of it as Yelp for board games.
“I prefer to play at the end of the day to wind down and relax with a light to medium weight game like Azul or Wingspan,” said Pontius. “Of course, if I can set aside time on the weekend or at a con, I love to dive into a heavyweight game like Arkham Horror or Fury of Dracula, something with lots of themes and a story I can escape into.” When choosing a low- or heavy-weight game with your partner, factor in the current stress level in your household — a lightweight game might, for example, work as an ice breaker when tensions are running high. A heavyweight game where the stakes are higher might fuel some playful and friendly competition.