Don’t skip past this article. It’s a game changer — get it?!
The other day, one of my clients said to me, “You know, of all the things I thought I would get from couples counseling, I had no idea one of them would be a tutorial and review of board games.”
Almost every couple I work with will, at some point in our work, talk about wanting new things to do together. We spend some time brainstorming ways they can create more fun in their relationship and learning how to break out of their autopilot habits.
After these conversations, I used to email an excel document to clients listing my favorite board games for couples. I found myself sending this list at least once or twice every week (definitely more during the 2020 year of COVID) and finally decided it was time to make the process simpler.
So even if you aren’t one of my clients, you’re in luck! You’re about to read my list of best board games for couples that will improve your relationship.
Hold on, you might be thinking. How will board games improve my relationship?
Don’t worry. I know that last part might have confused you.
You see, I’m a huge advocate for board games. I believe this hobby has saved my relationship countless times.
How Board Games Improved My Relationship
It all started during my first pregnancy. We had just bought our first house, my partner was newly sober, and our friendships had started to fizzle away as we stepped further into preparing for parenthood.
In the last weeks before baby arrived (and the first few weeks of baby’s presence), we played many hours of a game called Seasons. We had a few other games but this one seemed to hold the most variety and we spent hours on the floor (usually with a baby on our laps) laying cards and rolling dice.
That first early board gaming kept us connected and engaged during some of the hardest weeks of our relationship and lives. As literally everything about our identities and our lives changed, we found stability and familiarity through our frequent gaming.
Board games also saved us when we moved into our second house — this time pregnant with our second baby. We had decided to live without a TV after discovering that we had slumped into a routine of TV addiction and too little quality time together.
In our new home, learning how to live without a TV looked like many things — and in the evenings, that thing was board games. We played an embarrassing number of hours of a game called Too Many Bones. Almost every night, settled on pillows on the floor around our coffee table, we battled “baddies” and took our geek level up a notch.
In the years since then, we’ve built up our board game collection, invested in a lot of terrific individuals and companies through Kickstarter as they launched their dreams in game form, and have rediscovered time-and-time-again how helpful and healing board games have been to our relationship.
You might be wondering what is so different about playing hours of board games and watching hours of TV.
Board games give us a few benefits that I don’t believe exist in many other types of activities that we can do with our partner — or at least not as efficiently.
Unfortunately, this article isn’t about that! Here we’re just talking about the games themselves. To learn more about how board games can save your marriage, you’ll have to sign up for the newsletter to catch my next article.
Forget about Scrabble, Monopoly, and Catan
This is pretty important. When I say that playing board games has saved my marriage, I am not referring to any of the games you grew up with.
Yes, we can play a mean game of Backgammon and we find Words With Friends sometimes appealing. Uno and Skipbo are also decent ways to pass the time.
But no, I’m not talking about these.
I’m talking about games you’ve never heard of.
Maybe you think you know where I’m headed here. Everyone is talking about Ticket to Ride lately (a recent politician even mentioned that it was his favorite game to play with his husband), or maybe you’ve heard of Catan, Carcassonne, or Splendor. And while these games are decent (and definitely more interesting than Monopoly), they don’t play well with two-players.
As a working parent, and especially in the time of pandemic, I’ve discovered just how important a good two-player game is. They’re better in replayability, competition, interaction, and therefore even a better investment.
So here’s my BETTER list of best board games for couples. Enjoy!
Actually, this is only half of the list. Another article lists my favorite competitive board games for couples (and games for other avid tabletop gamers).
And if you’re interested in purchasing or reading more about them, links for Amazon or the game company themselves are linked for you — but if you live near Kalamazoo, please support Fanfare instead of ordering online. They keep a great selection of games in stock, can order many more, and have curbside pickup available. Shop local!
Best Board Games for Couples
Many of my top picks are also good “gateway games,” meaning not so hard to learn and can help you get comfortable in the board game world. Keep in mind that “not so hard to learn” is also relative.
If you want to learn more about how “hard” a game is, check out each game’s “complexity score” on BoardGameGeek.com — this is a terrific resource for all things board gaming. It will also tell you an overall ranking (out of all the games in the world!) and an average rating (basically, how good the game is).
For many of the games below, I’ve also included links to YouTube videos that will help you learn more about them or even how to play! Watching these videos before reading the rulebook is always my preferred way to learn a new game.
These games are fun “puzzles” with interesting themes but they do not offer a ton of engaging interaction. With what I call “parallel play” games, you’re mostly each building your own board (near each other) with some interaction based on what each of you is doing.
Of course there is scoring at the end that adds some friendly competition. But for the most part, you’re working on your own little puzzles close to each other.
If these aren’t exactly what you’re looking for, sign up for the newsletter to catch the next article about best two-player board games that are more competitive or strategic. With that said, these are still pretty awesome (and some of their themes are really fun). In no particular order:
This game really took the world by storm in 2019 when it was first released because it was such a terrific gateway game, gently introducing people into the board game world through beautiful art and an enticing theme. It is now ranked #20 worldwide on BoardGameGeek.com. Basically it’s bird watching in a box. Through the game, you’re building your own collection of birds as you’re placing them into their appropriate habitats, feeding them, laying eggs, and hatching more birds. My favorite part of this game is that every single card in the game is a completely unique and beautifully illustrated real bird. Game play is very short and the game is super easy to learn — as well as very pleasing to the touch with cards, cute little eggs, and tokens representing different food types. It works very well as a two player game, even better with more players, and on those lonely nights you can even play a solo variant.
Watch how to play Wingspan
Watch an entertaining review of Wingspan that will make you chuckle
This is a Tetris-style game (think Blokus) where you are trying to find the perfect-fitting pieces to build your own quilt. It’s a cute, simple, short game that uses buttons as currency and races you against each other (with slight competition) to try to create as much of your quilt as possible before you run out of time.
We first heard of this game by browsing at our local game store and noticing it was always on the wall of fame — meaning the best of the best, ranked #87 worldwide. Looking into it further, we discovered it was often referred to as “the wife’s favorite” because it was one of the gateway games that helped geeky guys get their ladies into board gaming. There are no video tutorials for this one because it’s so easy to learn that you won’t need it! It’s also exclusively a two-player game!
- Above and Below
This is a unique worker placement game where you have a city with workers and you’re building dwellings above ground (as we normally live) and below ground in cool little caves. My favorite part of this one is the awesome storybook and beautiful art. As you go exploring, you get to read parts from the storybook (preferably in fun voices) and really transport yourself into the game. While it might be a little challenging to grasp for newbie gamers, I think it’s still a pretty good gateway game and teaches some important game mechanics you’ll need for other games down the road. This one is a good two player but also works terrifically with more players.
Watch how to play Above and Below
- Isle of Cats
We found this one on Kickstarter at first and just had to go for it. Nothing is more adorable than saving a bunch of fun colored cats by picking them up in baskets and placing them strategically (Tetris-style again) on your boat. Fish is your currency, different cards will give you cool end-of-game bonuses, and looking at your boat full of cats is always pretty rewarding. Just like Above and Below, this one is a good two-player game and also works well (or even better) with more.
Watch how to play Isle of Cats
If you’re looking for other parallel play board games for couples, here are some suggestions:
- 7 Wonders Duel
While this doesn’t make my top favorite game list because I don’t find the theme as interesting, it actually ranks #17 in the world on BoardGameGeek.com. Very impressive and definitely worth a play.
This is the game I mentioned earlier. It was one of our very first games and still holds a special place in my heart as most of our times playing also included a newborn baby snuggled in our laps. I really like the changes of the season and change in availability in resources/currency as the seasons and years progress through the game. It feels like a cool theme.
- Space Base
This is one of our go-to movie-night games. We play on the coffee table while we watch a movie because it doesn’t require too much of our attention. But don’t tune out too much! You’ll lose out on some benefits and points if you aren’t noticing what’s going on with your partner’s dice rolls.
This was one of our favorite games to take on lunch dates. We would head to a local bar or restaurant, grab some food, and play a quick game. Portable, easy set up, and interesting gameplay that feels a little more interactive than some of the other parallel play games I’m mentioning here.
This card game is a decent gateway game and has some interesting set collection to it. It’s not one of my favorites because I didn’t find the theme necessarily enchanting and I wish it had more interaction between players. But I can definitely give this game credit for one thing: the solo variant is extremely challenging — or maybe I keep playing it wrong.
These games will get you working together collaboratively — or at least they aren’t very competitive in the traditional sense. They also have some interesting and unique (or culturally relevant) themes. All of these are pretty easy to learn and play. They have a little less replayability (in my opinion) but are still well worth the time and money.
- Fog of Love
The story of this game is actually pretty funny. You see, I’ve gone through a few phases of creating my own games. The first game I spent weeks creating turned out to be pretty much a variant of Blue Moon Legends, a game we often played earlier in our gaming relationship. Blue Moon Legends doesn’t actually have much strategy (or intrigue) to it — although I still found it pretty fun and loved claiming my dragons. But since the game I was creating was clearly not a new concept, I scratched it. In searching for a link to Blue Moon Legends for this article, I discovered it must be out of print and is now worth a ridiculous amount of money. (Maybe I should go back to creating my game after all.)
My next game creation adventure was essentially an attempt to combine my love for board games and my professional experience as a couples therapist. I got farther into this one… until my partner one day showed me a video (see the review below) that looked exactly like the game I was currently creating. Of course, my combined disappointment and excitement were both through the roof so we ordered the game, I stopped working on mine, and I’m sure I will one day start drafting yet another fun game idea… that probably already exists in the world.
But none of that is actually relevant to you. In Fog of Love, you’re presented with an extremely unique theme where you are two people (whatever genders you would like) going on your first date and beginning your relationship. The game was created by a psychologist and encourages you to make choices while dating to match your character’s personality as well as work towards relationship goals. There are three things I love about this game:
a.) You each select your own “relationship goals” for your characters, meaning you might have different destinies you are aspiring to — and some of these are not to be together at all!
b.) There is a creative story-telling part of this game. Similar to Above and Below, it pulls you into the theme through narrative but you are actually the one writing and telling the story! I’ve suggested this one for couples who enjoy creative writing or role playing and they really like this part.
c.) This game has hands down the best tutorial of any game I have ever seen. It’s wildly impressive and beautifully orchestrated so that you don’t actually have to learn anything at all about the game before playing. With most games, there is a rule book to read and potentially some videos to watch (to make it easier). But with Fog of Love, you literally just sit down to play, read the first cards, and the game teaches you everything you need to know.
Watch an entertaining review of Fog of Love
Watch how to play Fog of Love (even though you don’t need to because the game teaches you how to play)
- The Crew
This is hearts, spades, or euchre with a twist. It is actually a collaborative game where you are working together on a mission in space. The twist? You can’t communicate. No talking. This game is actually more fun with more players (as many games are) but in a two-player variant, you collaborate with an AI (a fake player) to simulate a three-player game. It actually works pretty well. This one is ranked #44 worldwide on BoardGameGeek.com.
- The Game of Real Life
I discovered this one after reading It’s All a Game, which is a terrific book about the history of board games. The book told the creation story of the Game of Real Life (created by Chris Pender) and after reading about it, I just had to see this game. I ordered it directly from Chris himself (as will you if you click on the link above) and was amazed and enthralled to discover that he makes every game by hand. This is essentially a twist on the Game of Life that we all remember, but with a unique 70s–feel (think Forrest Gump with war, pregnancy, and drugs). It also has a story-telling element similar to Fog of Love. Pre-pandemic, I played it with a couple girlfriends and we hadn’t laughed that much in a long time. Oh, and my favorite part of the game? The focus is on being happy. But if you want to really understand how cool this game and it’s creation story is, you’ll maybe just have to read It’s All a Game.
Oh, and speaking of pandemics, I can’t forget this honorable mention…
While I’ve never actually played it as a two-player game (and I firmly believe it plays best with three or four players), we can’t end this article without mentioning Pandemic. Ranked #99 on BoardGameGeek.com, Pandemic is a collaborative game where you are working together (with different roles, professions, and abilities) to eradicate a worldwide pandemic.
But if we’re going to mention Pandemic, we definitely need to mention Pandemic Legacy, which has multiple seasons. Season 2 is currently ranked #35! I’m sure part of this must be cultural (we actually purchased it on March 11, 2020, as a partial joke because we didn’t realize exactly what was about to happen with COVID). Either way, the Legacy version is way more fun because you actually play through 12 months of a campaign (meaning 12 games) and completely alter and change the game as you play. This means you can really only play it 12 times total (limiting replayability over the long term), but it’s well worth it.
There you have it! Go pick up a new board game that can improve your relationship, create a connection, and start showing off all those amazing qualities about yourselves that first made you fall in love.