Two-player Clue

Clue is one of the best board games ever invented. It’s a game that rewards observation, strategy and deception with only a very small random element. It’s only got one major flaw: you can’t play it with two people.

The object of Clue is to solve a murder mystery. At the beginning of the game three cards are placed in an envelope. These cards are the solution to the mystery; they depict which suspect did the deed, which weapon they used, and where it happened. The rest of the cards are passed out to the players, so each player knows the cards in their hand had nothing to do with the case. Everyone starts off with imperfect information. The game is about deducing what cards the other players are holding; cards you know aren’t in anyone else’s hand are in the solution envelope.

That’s why you need at least three people to play Clue. With two people there is too much free information. You have half the cards in your hand, and anything your opponent shares with you gives the game away. All the logic and detective work is removed from the game, essentially leaving a race around the board. Whoever rolls best wins. You might as well play Candyland.

The Clue set comes with a game board laid out like an opulent mansion with ten rooms, six colored pawns with descriptive and iconic names, six weapon tokens, a card for each individual suspect/weapon/room, an envelope to hide the solution in, and scorecards for players to keep track of what they’ve seen, what they’ve inferred and what they know about the current game. Oh, and one six-sided die. I’m not convinced you can’t create a fun two-player game with these materials that keeps to the spirit of the original Clue, which is to say, a two-player game that rewards observation, strategy and deception.

Some folks have apparently tried. People have tried patching the holes in Clue by introducing house rules, which generally boil down to limiting the amount of cards each player has in their hand and placing the rest of the cards in different rooms on the board. Players can enter a room to look at the card, which gives them some new information but not too much. In a standard two-player game, if your opponent doesn’t show you the Wrench card, and you yourself don’t have it, you know the Wrench must be in the solution. In the revised house-rule version that Wrench card might still be on the board somewhere. So the first player to make the circuit around the board and look at all the cards wins, because once that chore is taken care of the game is reduced to the original game again. Whoever rolls best wins. The board can’t bluff and you can’t fake it out. It’s a poor stand-in for a third player.

I’d like to say I have the perfect two-player ruleset, play-tested and ready-to-go, but I don’t. But I’d like to design one. Like I said, I believe the elements are all there; it’s just a matter of putting them into place. What the rest of this post does contain is maybe some places to start.

The most important element of Clue is the flow of information from one player to another. In standard Clue the goal is to discover information, either by making your opponents show you cards or by making sound logical judgments about what cards each player probably has based on who shows what and when. What isn’t really present is an element of guarding information. You can bluff by asking to see a card you already have, hopefully misleading the other players into believing you don’t have it, but if another player asks to see it you pretty much have to show it to them. In a two-player game I believe these roles must be reversed. There’s not really a mechanism in place for discovery since there are only three places a card can be and you can narrow it down to two places right at the start of the game.

We can give each player information to guard, though. At the start of the game each player draws a suspect, weapon and room card. The goal of the game would involve doing something with the combination of your cards and your opponent’s. So there’d still have to be something in place that allows you to discover your opponent’s cards, but you’d have to do it without also revealing your own. One thought I had was to put all six pawns into play, and give each player the ability to move any pawn. Put the weapons into play as well (each suspect is armed, say) and you have all the suspect/weapon/room combinations there in the game.

The obvious object would be to kill your opponent’s pawn with your weapon in your room. To do that you’d need to know who your opponent’s pawn was, but not necessarily what he’s trying to arm himself with or where he’s trying to get to, although having that information could of course prove valuable. The trick would be fulfilling the conditions on your cards without making too many overt moves.

That’s not perfect of course. If you know your opponent knows who you are, you can stall the game by spending your time keeping your own pawn isolated. It seems there should be some incentive to move the other pieces on the board into some particular configuration, but nothing immediately springs to mind. It seems like this version would quickly devolve into bickering over this pawn or that weapon, even with a rule in place that prevents a player from undoing his opponent’s previous move. On top of it all, the random die rolls become much more pronounced when it’s two people facing off instead of three.

It’s frustrating, because I feel like I’m on the right track but I just can’t see the solution. I’m still certain there’s a good game to be had for two people here, though. It’s just a matter of working out the logistics. I’ll think on it some more and report back if I ever figure it out.

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6 comments to Two-player Clue

  • fanboymaster

    I look forward to seeing the results, the ideas you’ve already got sound quite good.

  • dtsund

    How about a rule saying that if the guess gets at least two details that are in my hand, I have to show a card, but otherwise I can feign ignorance (thus preventing tactics like, oh, I have the Observatory and Mr. Green, I’ll just stay in the Observatory until I suss out the right weapon)? I think the key here is going to be to give your opponent some (predictable) circumstances under which they can refuse to show cards. I’ll probably comment here again once I’ve had a bit more time to think on it, as I don’t think that above rule is perfect by any means.

    Also… have you abandoned GameSpite? I haven’t seen you post there for a while, and I’ve seen someone say he was on the verge of going through Brickdrawal…

  • fanboymaster

    The brickdrawal joke was mine. It totally wasn’t meant to be as creepy as a made up word like brickdrawal would sound.

  • gregbest90

    Keep at it family. You can rest assured that your concept alone kicks Bulletball’s ass.

  • heycoder

    So after playing several versions of two-player clue, I believe we have found a method of playing that keeps some of the mystery and fun of normal clue. Of course, it plays differently, but it works and has some interesting mechanics that don’t always make the last guess straightforward.

    Basically, unlike the phantom hands version, which in my opinion has the same problems of just playing by the original rules, this version involves revolving hands. Perhaps it’s been done before, so I apologize if I’m not giving credit where due.

    How it starts is each of the two players is given 5 (or 4 for a longer game… still experimenting) cards at random. The other 8 (or 10 cards) are put in one piles as a “phantom hand.” Like the phantom hands version, if you make an incorrect guess, you draw from the top of the 3rd pile. However, you are forced to discard one of your cards (with the rule that you can’t discard the same card you picked up) to the BOTTOM of the phantom hand.

    This makes for interesting play, because there is a lot of different strategy to what you want to discard. Do you discard a card you’ve already been forced to show your opponent? Do you discard something they haven’t yet seen? Do you then make suggestions that you’ve seen, but may have wound up in their hand?

    I think this version, more than the others, forces you to more often than not, make true suggestions rather than suggestions you know to be false (which normally allows you to see a card from the phantom hand). An interesting dynamic evolves, where your opponent can know something you don’t, but not be forced to show you (since it’s been discarded). This allows you also to create false trails for your opponent. As the hands revolve, you may or may not pick up the same card again, allowing for some interesting strategy.

    Anyway, I recommend trying it out! My girlfriend and I have played it this way a handful of times, and we have yet to be bored.

  • Ed

    The best rules I can see so far for two players are the simplest. Each player plays either two or three hands instead of one as the “Lawyer” for the two or three “clients” they represent. Other than this the rules are the same as normal with the player able to choose one of the ftwo or three opponents “clients” to ask a question to.

    Ed

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