Work hard. Play hard. All work and no play makes Jesse a dull boy.
In that spirit, we're going to put some ‘memento mori' logic to work and focus on the play-hard aspect today. While dice games and board games have their place in the spectrum of play, there's something special about sitting across the table to compete in two-player card games.
We're going to break down everything from Go Fish! to Magic: the Gathering. This is your ultimate guide to 2 player card games.
Conventional 52-Card Playing Cards
Hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Ace, two through ten, jack, queen, and king. Such a simple deck of cards, but so many games.
Below you'll find some of the best two-player playing card games categorized into three groups: Simple, Speed, and Memory. And then I even throw in a bonus 4-player game because I think it's the best card game of all!
Simple 2 Player Card Games
Are you looking for something to play with your child, or perhaps an easy icebreaker to whip out on a first date? You want something that takes two minutes to learn but contains hours of fun play. These simple two-player card games will do the trick.
This classic game sees the two (or more) players attempting to form pairs of cards. The easiest way to create these pairs is by directly asking the other player for their cards.
“Do you have any…kings?” If a player is asked for a card—e.g., kings—then they must give all of those cards to their opponent. Otherwise, they tell their opponent to “Go fish,” at which point the opponent gets to draw a random card from the deck.
Whenever a player forms a pair of matching cards in their hand, they must play that pair in front of them. The game ends when all the cards have been laid out. The player with the most pairs wins.
The goal of Crazy 8's is to get rid of all the cards in your hand. It's a shedding game. That can happen in a few different ways. But first, let's talk about the start of the game.
In the two-player version, each player gets seven cards. The top card of the remaining deck starts the discard pile. Let's say that the top card is the 5 of clubs. The first player now has a few different choices:
- Play any other club onto the discard pile
- Play one of the other 5's onto the discard pile
- Play any eight (they're crazy!) onto the discard pile. This player then gets to pick any of the four suits—hearts, diamonds, clubs, or spades. The game continues as if that eight was the chosen suit.
- Draw cards from the remaining stockpile until they draw a card that's eligible to play.
And that's it! The game continues until one player runs out of all their cards.
Old Maid is another simple game that works for two players or many players. It bears similarity to Go Fish in that the game sees players forming pairs of cards and discarding them.
But Old Maid differentiates itself in that one card is removed from the deck at the beginning of the game. Only 51 cards remain. In this example, let's say a queen is removed.
The entire 51-card deck gets dealt. Right away, players can play any pairs of cards they are dealt. Some variants have a rule that pairs can only be made with same-color cards—spades with clubs, and hearts with diamonds. Either way, players play the pairs that they are dealt.
During each player's turn, they take a random card from the opponent to their left. If that new card forms a pair in their hand, they play that pair. Hand sizes will dwindle throughout the game until there is only one card left. In our example, that one card will be a queen. The player who gets stuck with that queen —the Old Maid—loses.
In one version of the game, the Old Maid is chosen openly. All players are aware of which card is removed from the deck. For example, all players would know that queens are dangerous cards.
But in another version of the game—which I think is much more fun!— the single card is removed blindly. Players play the game, unsure what the Old Maid is. They can make calculated guesses as they play, but likely won't find the Old Maid's true identity until the very end of the game. Surprise!
Speed-based Two-player Card Games
Speed games combine mental acuity with fast reflexes. Slapping the cards is a common trope. If you enjoy games where you race against the clock—or your opponents—then these speed games might be for you. Just make sure you don't slap the cards too hard.
Egyptian Rat Screw
I played a lot of this in my freshman year of college, and I swear…the improvements to my fast-twitch brain response made me a better athlete.
Egyptian Rat Screw is a slapping game. You slap the cards, not each other!
It's fun with two players, but any number of players can play so long as they all can reach the central pile. The full deck of cards gets dealt evenly, or as close to evenly as math allows.
Play progresses to the left, each player playing one card onto the central pile. This next detail is important. The point of the game is that all players get to see the played card at the same time. Slow flips aren't allowed. Neither are flips where the player flips the card towards them, allowing them to see the card first.
When a face card or ace is played, regular play pauses. The next player gets a certain number of chances to play an equal or higher card. If they cannot, then the player who played the original card gets to pick up the pile. Collecting all cards is the goal of the game.
But of course, the game is not quite that simple.
The game involves slaps. Anyone can slap, even if it's not their turn, and their cards aren't involved. A successful slap wins the pile of cards. Well, what allows one to slap? There are many answers, but some common situations are:
- Two cards of the same rank are played in a row. E.g., an eight is played on top of an eight. SLAP!
- A “sandwich” is where a single card splits up two cards of the same rank. E.g., an eight is played, then a four, then another eight. The two eights constitute a sandwich. SLAP!
- Other rules include “double sandwich” (8, 4, 5, 8), “marriage” (King & Queen played consecutively), and “runs” of a certain number (a four-run might be 2, 3, 4, 5)
Remember…all cards are played from the top of players' hands, and players don't look at their hands! It's all random. Nobody knows what the next card is or if it might form a double sandwich with a buried card. But if you're paying close attention and you're quick, you'll slap your way to victory.
If Egyptian Rat Screw sounds a little too crazy, then just start with Slapjack.
Slapjack starts precisely the same as the Egyptian Rat Screw. Players can play so long as they can reach the central pile. The full deck is dealt. And the goal is to collect every card in the deck.
When can a player slap! in Slapjack? Well, only when a Jack is played. The player who slaps the jack wins the pile. There are a few other small rules and variations, but that's all you need to know to play! One card at a time, play passes to the left, no dubious flips, and slap when you see a jack.
Spit is a tableau game and a shedding game. Tableau should remind you of solitaire. It refers to the idea that playing one card allows you to turn over the card underneath it. And shedding is the idea that a player is trying to get rid of all her cards.
In Spit, both players start with half the deck—26 cards—and then build a tableau of 15 cards. The tableau has piles of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 cards. The top card in each pile is turned over. They have 11 cards remaining on the side.
To begin the game, both players typically yell, “SPIT!” and then turn over the top card in their 11 card side pile. These two turned-over cards form two spit piles in the center of the game. The players can play off of either spit pile.
Cards can be played from the tableaus onto the spit piles, but only when the tableau card is one rank from the spit card. For example, the two top spit cards are six and Jack; then the players can play a 5 or 7 onto the 6, or a ten or queen onto the jack.
There are no turns. The players shed their cards as fast as they can. If the two players realize that they're stuck, they can agree to turn over the top card of their side piles onto the spit piles.
When a player has shed all of their tableaus, they slap the spit pile that they think is smaller. They collect the pile they slap, and their opponent collects the other pile. They shuffle those piles into their side pile and start the process over.
Over time, a good player will dwindle until they start a round with fewer than fifteen cards. At that point, only one spit pile will be created in the center. If that same good player wins that round, they'll get to “slap an empty pile,” and thus start the next round with zero cards. They win!
Memory-based Two-player Card Games
Yes, the first memory game is called Memory. It seems like a good name to me.
You've probably played this before. The 52 cards are all laid face down. A player chooses two cards to flip over. If the two cards match rank and color (e.g., 6 of spades and 6 of clubs), then they keep that pair and go again. If they don't get a match, then play passes to the left.
Of course, only the luckiest players will get a blind match. Blind matches don't lead to victory. Instead, the skilled player will do their best to remember the locations of cards. Eventually, they will realize, “Ahh! The five of diamonds are there, and the five of hearts are here, next round I'll pick those two and secure myself a match.”
With all cards on the table, this is a slow process. But as the game continues, the rate of matches will pick up, and the intensity rises!
Ready to graduate from kindergarten to Harvard School of Law? Duel takes Memory to that level.
Each player starts with their 52-card deck laid out in front of them. Player 1 reveals one of their cards, and then Player 2 shows one of their cards. If the cards are a pair, Player 2 gets the pair. Next round, the roles are reversed; Player 2 reveals first, then Player 1 reveals second. The game goes on until one player wins the majority (27) of the pairs.
Let's think about this. You have to remember your card locations and your opponent's card locations. And then you have to strategize. If you know where both queen of hearts are, then your opponent might know too. So you do not want to select your queen of hearts as a first card, since your opponent will likely scoop that pair up. Instead, you have to hope they make this same mistake so that you can capitalize.
It's brutal, complicated, and challenging. But if you're into out-smarting your opponent, the Duel is for you.
Bonus: Euchre (Fine – It's Actually for Four Players)
Euchre (yoo-ker) is a dedicated four-player game—the only one in this article—but it places the four players onto two teams of two players each. So it's kind of like a two-player card game. You sit across from your partner, and table talk is strictly frowned upon. You can't offer up any hints on the contents of your hand.
As I've always played it, euchre only involves 24 of the 52 playing cards—nines, tens, jacks, queens, kings, and aces. Only 20 of those cards are dealt per round—five cards to each player.
The rounds are pretty fast—usually 3-5 minutes each. Each round ends with one team scoring anywhere from 1 to 4 points. The first team to 10 points wins the game.
It's a bidding game, a ‘trump' game, a hidden information game, a deduction game. One team plays offense and the other defense. Somehow the jack of trump is the best card, and the same-colored jack is the second best card. It's a unique game, and therefore an excellent game. You'll learn the basics in one session, but the strategy is ever-evolving.
If you want to play, I suggest pulling up a good YouTube video. There are dozens of great explanations.
I encourage you to also add this one “house rule” to your euchre games. When you and your teammate win, you have to perform a unique victor's dance. If you're looking for inspiration, I highly recommend the “chicken dances” from Arrested Development.
Other 2 Player Card Games
Non-traditional Card Games
There are tons of two-player card games that don't involve the classic 52-card decks. The examples below are just a few of these games.
Uno is a well-known shedding game played with a custom set of cards. The deck consists of 4 colors (like the four suits), ranks zero through nine, and various “action” cards. Those actions cards can force your opponents to skip their turn, draw extra cards, reverse turn order, etc.
Like many shedding games, the goal is to get rid of all your cards first. It's fun with kids and the family, or it's fun with friends and a stiff drink. Uno is an excellent game for all ages.
Splendor is a game played with cards, but it doesn't fit into the other archetypes described in this article. It's an engine-building and resource allocation game. It's more similar to a strategy computer game then to a classic card game.
The goal of Splendor is to reach 15 “prestige points.” But there are many different strategies for achieving that threshold. Should a player focus on their economy (i.e., building their “engine”)? Or maybe they use their resources to buy prestige points? Should they save enough of a particular color resource to win the loyalty of a prestigious patron?
The game reminds me of retirement planning and the 4% rule, and the Trinity Study. How much preparation do you need before you can finally execute your plan? How can you be sure you won't run out of steam, or money, or imaginary game resources? How do you best accumulate? And how do you best spend?
Sushi Go is a drafting game. Players are given a certain number of cards, but they don't get to keep them. Instead, a player selects only one of those cards to keep (i.e., they draft the card), and then they pass the remaining cards to their neighbor (it could be one-on-one, but is better with more people). The process continues; players receive cards from their neighbor, draft one to keep, and then pass the remaining cards.
Each card represents a different type of sushi or sushi-adjacent food. Throughout the draft, each player is attempting to create certain card combinations in their hand. For example, drafting 3 Sashimi cards will earn a player 10 points. But ending the draft with only 1 or 2 Sashimi cards earns zero points. So if you're trying to draft sashimi, you better make sure you get three of them!
Like many other drafting games, the optimal strategy involves “reading signals” based on what your neighbors are passing you. Fighting over cards—e.g., all players trying to assembly a triple Sashimi combo—will result in no players assembling that combo. But the one smart player who realizes that nobody is drafting wasabi will end up a happy diner.
Magic: The Gathering
With Uno and Splendor and Sushi Go, you can buy everything you need to play the game in one fell swoop. That's not how Magic: the Gathering works.
Instead, Magic encourages the player to build a collection of cards over time. Some players have been building their collection since the game's inception in 1993. Huge percentages of their net worth are tied up in these cards— it's wild! The player will then build their actual playing deck from a subset of the cards they own.
This diversity means that no two games are ever the same. It also means that players can be creative not only during the gameplay but also during the game creation. They can exercise creative muscles by merely building their unique deck.
Magic combines aspects of poker and chess, with a high-fantasy flavor. The players draw cards at random from their deck. Some cards create a resource called “mana,” while other cards represent spells that utilize “mana” to affect the game-state. Throughout the game, players summon creatures to fight on their behalf and kill their opponent's creatures.
Fun, nerdy, and the cards can be worth some serious dough! The most famous card of all-time—Black Lotus—has sold for over $100,000 on eBay!
Alright, geeks! Those are some of my favorite two-player card games. Whether you're looking to amuse your kids or slay some dragons, there's a two-player card game that's right for you.
Now go off and play!