The last few games I have fully reviewed here (i.e., Twilight Struggle and Power Grid) have gone against the grain of the type I usually cover. Both are long, complex, and not immediately accessible to the casual player.
To make amends, here’s my top 10 “two-minute” card games. “Two-minute,” in this instance, alludes not to the length of time they takes to play, but to the fact that the rules to each of these simple (but engrossing) games can be explained in 120-seconds flat.
Many people are reluctant to try new games because they dislike learning rules; as you can get a group up an playing these games in a matter of moments, they are perfect for Converting the Unwilling, Great for bars too, when everyone already has a beer or three under their belt.
Slide 5: Curiously, many of the most enjoyable games are those that provoke the most agony in the players. Slide 5 (previously called Category 5 and, before that, Take 6!) is a prefect example. The deck contains cards numbered from 1 to 104. Every round begins with each person playing a card from his hand face down. After all are revealed simultaneously, the cards are added to rows in the center of the table in ascending numerical order. But if your card winds up as the sixth in a row, you take the other five as points–and you don’t want points. Also: Turn The Tide is a very similar game, with a few more rules and a smidge more strategy. (But note that Turn The Tide is only playable by up to five people, while Slide 5 goes all the way to 11! Well, no. Actually just 10.)
For Sale: Round one: everyone uses chips to purchase a variety of homes, from a cardboard box to an orbiting space mansion. Round two: everyone resells their houses for checks ranging in value from $0 to $15,000, and the mogul with the most money at the end wins. It’s like playing two separate games, but whole thing takes about 15 minutes in total. For Sale was one of the titles that got me hooked on German Games a decade ago; it has recently been reprinted, as is again available to all.
Lost Cities: My default two-player game recommendation is perfectly suited for this list as well. Lost Cities is essentially rummy, but with a specialized deck and the tension-quotation set to overdrive. Despite its simplicity, I routinely cite it as one of my favorite games of all time.
Battleline: First cousin to the aforementioned Lost Cities, Battleline is both a little simpler and a little deeper. Assemble nine three-card poker-hands, while your opponent does the same. Every time one of your hands beats the corresponding hand of your rival, you capture a flag; capture enough in a row, or enough overall, and the battle is won. A full game only takes 10 minutes to complete, but you’ll find it hard not to play two or three in a row.
Coloretto: The cards come in seven different colors; your goal: collect as many of them as you can … in three colors only. All taken cards in suits beyond the third count as negative points, and can accumulate quickly if you are not careful. The central mechanism of Coloretto is so clever that the designer recently built a board game around it (Zooloretto), which earlier this month won the prestigious Game of the Year award.
Loco: On your turn you first play a card from you hand to one of the five piles, and then you take a chip of any color. I have just explained 90% of the rules to this game, honest to God. And it works! And is fun! I don’t understand!
The Bottle Imp: A strongly themed trick-taking game, if you believe it. Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, players vie to collect as many points as possible, without getting stuck with the Bottle Imp at game’s end (as doing so results in everlasting damnation … and also a point penalty). Though the rules to The Bottle Imp can certainly be explained in two minutes, playing well takes a few games. Thankfully, it’s well worth the practice.
The Great Dalmuti: One of the oldest games in my collection, but one that still gets played today. (I just bought my third replacement deck a few months ago.) More of a drinking / party game than a card game, really, but one that will have you playing–and cracking up–for hours. See my discussion of it, and other “Climbing Games,” here.
Guillotine: Okay, I’m going to level with you: I kinda hate this game. But many, many people love it (as half a dozen people in the comments are going to attest). Each round has a dozen nobles lined up for the guillotine; on your turn, the guy at the front of the line gets the axe, and you get his value in points. But wait! First you can play cards to rearrange the queue, perhaps swapping the worthless Piss Boy with the 5-point Marie Antoinette. I don’t like Guillotine because it has lots of luck and a distinctive screw-your-neighbor flavor; others adore it for these very reasons–go figure.
Apples to Apples: Technically a party game, but played with cards and dirt simple so I’m going to cheat and sneak it into slot 11 on this top 10 list. The Judge turns over an adjective card, like “Soft” or “Respectable;” everyone else slaps down Noun cards from their hands as quickly as possible. The Judge then decides which played card best matches his own–if the description is “Slimey,” will he select “Frog,” “Used Car Salesman,” or “Bill Clinton”? Perhaps the most accessible and laughter-inducing party game I’ve ever played–and I don’t even like party games!