Like many people, we are Settlers of Catan fans. A few year a game store clerk advised me that while he was not a fan of Seafarers of Catan or Starfarers of Catan, somehow their elements combined to make an make a great two player game called Starship Catan.
This is a classic Eurogame: the production values are good, you're vying for victory points, and most of the competition is indirect. Specifically, you can forcibly buy resources off each other and compete to get to upgrades or missions first but your ship's beam weapons are just aimed at space pirates. As a Catan game, your main path to victory is accumulating colonies that can net you resources, but buying unique upgrades to your ship, getting trading colonies, and meeting the objectives at adventure planets all offer alternate paths to winning. I'll leave additional summary to the experts over at BoardGameGeek.
Leading with the bad news, the game does take a bit of time to set up each time. There's cards to organize, the two shipboards to setup, and enough rules that you'll probably want to refresh yourself if it's been a while since you last played. I will note that the game provides a great tutorial to ease you into the first play through. Our games tend to play over an hour or two, although we may be slow. So there's a bit of time investment for a two player game for each match and the way the cards work you'll have to re-sort when done. Happily, I think the time is well worth it for three reasons.
First, the game has many of the benefits of randomness without feeling too swingy based on luck. Each game is different because instead of having a game board to explore, there are four quadrants of 10 cards each. After each trip through a quadrant the 10 cards are reshuffled and any removed cards, such as newly acquired colonies, are replaced. As a result, you learn most of the make up of a quadrant over time, but you don't know which planets you'll get to in a given turn. For example, in our most recent game one of the quadrants had two mission planets and another was known for being a good place to buy cheap resources. The roll to determine your speed also determines economic production. The die ranges from 1-3. As in Catan, you can have multiple colonies producing when a 2 is rolled, but you only get resources from one of them each turn. Thus, unlike Catan, there's not much room for attributing the outcome of a game to the unusual number of 4s that came up. The small value on both the engine and the pirate fighting die also mean that the attributes of your ship, which starts with two blasters and two engines, are more important than the roll of the dice.
Those ship attributes are also what I really like about the game. The ship boards are well put together and have excellent labeling making it easy to tell what various options cost. More importantly, the six different modules allow players to pursue markedly different strategies. I tend to go for sensors that let you look at and reject the first two cards in a given quadrant. Kate likes going for logistics first which allows her ship to carry three of each resources type rather than the default two. The other four modules are similarly useful and while the level 1 version of each component is available to both players there is only one version each of the upgraded modules. As a result your ships differentiate themselves fast and stay different. Happily,different strategies seem robust; both Kate and I have won two matches and despite my faith in my approach I never really got my economy going and lost our most recent match.
Finally, I just like the theme. While more mercantile in feel, the game is probably going to appeal to Star Trek fans. There's fighting with space pirates, but exploring different parts of the galaxy and solving problems is a big part of the game. Science is a resource that becomes more valuable as the game progresses as it helps with key missions and is necessary to upgrade your blasters or engines to their second level form. My only objection with the theme is that they don't quite manage to provide a solid technobabble exploration for the randomized navigation. It's a critical part of the gameplay, but it still is a bit odd. Perhaps instead of being so planet-oriented there could also be other ships you are encountering who thus would not stay still between visits. The shipboards add a great visceral element that's really handy when playing without a game board. In theory, the game could benefit by taking that physical feel of modifying your ship even further, but most any ideas I can come up with would unnecessarily add to the cost.
On the whole, if you want a two player game that's challenging without being highly confrontational and has a great space theme, I'd definitely recommend Starship Catan.
Origin: Bought it myself thanks to good game store advice. Sadly, I'm not sure which store. Side note, the nice thing about losing to one's spouse is that it's a reminder that you found a smart person to marry. Box art grabbed from BoardGameGeek.