Games bring people together. Whether it’s a cooperative experience or a competitive one, playing a game with friends or strangers is a bonding experience. Especially in times like these, it’s important to have friends that you can spend time with. And sometimes, that time includes crushing your friend’s army like the pathetic set of cards that they are. And that’s what we’re looking at today; some of the best head-to-head dueling games that aren’t Magic the Gathering. I get it, Magic: The Gathering is great and has stood the test of time. But it’s also a lifestyle game. Sometimes you don’t want to have to deal with “keeping up with the meta” or having to buy blind booster packs. So for those that want some options in the dueling genre, we are here to help.
Finally, dueling games are often more abstracted than tactical skirmish games so don’t expect to see map-based games like Batman Gotham City Chronicles or Memoir ‘44 below (unless Chris won his argument with Tony about Unmatched) as we dive into worlds of direct conflict, and just possibly, the perfect games to induce table-flipping rage.
Dice Throne (review)
Chosen by Jason
When Dice Throne was first introduced to me, I was told to expect a sort of mash up between Magic The Gathering, King of Tokyo, and a dash of Poker. I thought sure, I like all that so why not. It did not disappoint. Players pick a character, their prebuilt decks, and get going. Using smart card play, resource management, and lucky dice rolls, players beat on each other until one person is left standing. During one satisfying game against a friend, I managed to pull off my character’s ultimate attack, which essentially is rolling all 6’s. This usually gets the opponent close to death’s door. We went back and forth, like an eighth-round boxing match, trading parries and body blows. I thought, surely he’s gotta go down soon. But he fought back and managed to win. I lost, but who cares. The game was so satisfying and fun that we scheduled a rematch.
Chosen by Tony
My favorite dueling game is still Allegiance: A Realm Divided. It provides a comparable M:TG experience with nothing else to buy, has amazing artwork, and has really fun gameplay. However it was published by an indie company as a one-and-done project, and it’s long since been out of print. Best of luck if you want to try and find a copy. So I figured I’d choose my second favorite, which is Bushido from Grey Fox Games. This underrated title has two players facing off as Samurai Warriors. What’s interesting is that you start the game with a draft of five cards that provide your techniques for the game. There are a few different ones you can choose from that each focus on a different area of combat. Do you want to specialize or be a jack of all trades? Do you want to go heavy on offence, or maybe concentrate on being a rock on defense? The game uses dice rolls for combat, yet employs a delayed resolution mechanic that gives your opponent a chance on their turn to react to your attacks. It’s a great back and forth system that I’ve not seen in another game. This one is worth picking up a copy for fans of the genre.
Chosen by Dylan
There are many things that make Ortus Regni stand out among the dueling genre. The obvious item is that there is no text on cards. Instead of having text on half of the cards, the medieval art takes the focus with the cards’ abilities listed on a fabric player aid. Speaking of the fabric, the production is the next item to mention. Cards are stored in wooden blocks, the cube bag is made of leather, even the rules come printed on textured paper for every page. It’s a marvel, and honestly a little unnecessary. But let’s discuss gameplay, because that may even outdo the prior mentions. The game is fully contained, with expansions only adding more copies of cards for extra players. You construct a deck prior to playing, and each game represents the lifespan of a fiefdom with you as the ruler. You can attack in multiple ways, even jousting for properties. Players are looking to declare an eire to the throne, which can be stopped through having control of the church. Every card has at least three uses, which makes turns thought-provoking as you juggle options. Really, there isn’t much like Ortus Regni, which is one of its novelties.
Chosen by Jacob
In the grand tradition of Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line, Riftforce sees two players playing numbered cards to columns, duking it out over a shared divide. But that’s more or less where the similarities end. In Riftforce, each player drafts 4 of 10 different types of elementals, each with their own unique method for doling out damage. Players may play up to three cards of the same type (ie. element type, or suit, if you will) or number (the numbers range from 5-7) to any one column or one card each to up to three adjacent columns. To activate the cards and issue damage to their nearby foes, players discard a card, activating up to three placed elementals of the same type or number of the discarded card. Any time an opponent’s elemental is destroyed, you score one “Riftforce” (aka point, but it’s fun to say “RIFTFORCE”). First to 12 Riftforce wins. It’s really so simple, I just explained all the rules to you, but it’s a very swingy and compelling game, where multiple plays start to reveal interesting synergies between the elemental powers. Also, the game is absolutely rife for expansion, with the flexibility to add new elementals with new powers basically a no-brainer for publisher Capstone Games. While the theme really could have been anything, the actual nuts-and-bolts card-play presents an engrossing puzzle worth diving into.
Chosen by Tahsin
Most dueling games feature cards or dice, something to throw at an opponent physically. My weapon of choice for games sometimes comes down to tiny cardboard tokens placed gingerly on a board, moves innocent in appearance but with tremendous consequences. That’s what Blitzkrieg feels like. It’s a recreation of World War II in one the most abstract forms. Just like Air, Land, and Sea boils down the global conflict into a battle of cards for control of areas, Blitzkrieg’s recipe focuses on control markers on tracks as players take turns placing units into conflict zones. The tension of what to place and when never lets up from beginning to end making for a true duel of wits. For someone who grew up with World War II combat planes on his wall, that’s the best kind of duel.
Android: Netrunner (review)
Chosen by Michelle
I can’t believe this game turns ten this year! Android: Netrunner is actually one of the first card games I played after taking a break from Magic: The Gathering so it’s fitting that the BGQ Staff wanted to share their favorite dueling games that aren’t MTG. Dystopian futures and cyberpunk settings have always appealed to me in the media and very few tabletop games are immersive enough to let those themes shine, with the exception of this one. One player is the Corporation and the other is the Netrunner (hacker), both with different abilities but the same objective of seven agenda points. Even within the corporations and the Netrunners there are different companies and groups to try out to match your play style and encourage asymmetry. The cards have fabulous art and snarky flavor text, all the while being straightforward to use and deploy. I personally love playing the Corporations since they are mostly on the defense in the game and setting up traps for netrunners gives me the chance to trip up the other player in satisfying ways. Though I suppose one side benefit of playing the hacker role is being able to say “Hack the Planet!” with your whole being? Android: Netrunner is considered a Living Card Game but it looks like they haven’t released any new cards or errata since 2018, and if you’re looking to get into the game for the first time there are really only second-hand copies of the base game available.
2 Players • Ages 12+ • 45 minutes • Out of Print
Battlecon: Devastation of Indines
Chosen by Spencer
Battlecon came scarily close to consuming my gaming life for years. If I had the time/attention span for a lifestyle game, this would be mine. In fact, my first hobby game group started off as a Battlecon group and evolved from there. Battlecon attempts to simulate a 2D fighter video game with just some cards, character standees, and a small board… and nails it. This game has an absurdly simple ruleset relative to the seemingly infinite depth you can explore while playing. You only need to choose two cards on your turn. The simultaneous selection and reveal mechanic creates a ton of agonizing tension. The wide-variety of characters that play in vastly different ways is a known hallmark for Level99 games. This allows you to replicate the feeling of mastering one or two fighters as you might in Street Fighter et al. While I did sell this game recently, it was only due to limited time and brain capacity. I’m sure I’ll buy back in someday. Maybe after I’m retired. Can’t wait.
Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War (review)
Chosen by Chris
When I informed Board Game Quest’s power-mad publisher Tony Mastrangeli that I wanted to select Unmatched for this list, he quickly informed me that the game didn’t qualify. “It’s a skirmish game,” he proclaimed, stroking the cat on his lap to punctuate his point. Stunned, I immediately rallied the other members of the BGQ staff to aid me in my mission to change his mind. Factions formed in the office and the ensuing debates were fierce, but (mostly) cordial. Everyone made valid points. There were heroes on both sides. And when the dust had settled in the cafeteria at BGQ Headquarters, the outcome of the disagreement was clear: I had lost the argument before it even began. So, after picking the scraps of my ego off the floor, I decided to select Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War, which is somehow eligible for this list even though Unmatched isn’t. Both versions of Air, Land, and Sea are identical, but I prefer this one because cartoon pigs are fun. It’s a nifty little card game that has players positioning themselves at three different locations in an effort to control two of them by round’s end. The highlight of the game is the inventive withdrawal mechanism, which adds an interesting decision space. Tactical retreat? Or stay in the fight until the bitter end?