Buzzworthiness: Codenames

It took me a long time to play this next game, but I’ve played it a few times now, so here’s a review of

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Codenames is a 2015 game from Czech Games Edition and designer Vlaada Chvátil.  The game is for 2-8 players and takes about 15 minutes to play a round.  This is a party word game, kind of in the vein of Password, where a designated Spymaster is trying to get their team to guess a series of words without guessing the wrong thing.

The game comes with 8 Red Agent cards, 8 Blue Agent cards, 1 Double Agent card, 7 Innocent Bystander cards, an Assassin card, 40 Key cards, 200 Code cards (double sided), and a sand timer.  To set up the game, draw 25 Code cards and deal them into a 5×5 grid.  Split into two teams and choose a Spymaster for each.  The Spymasters then draw one Key card (not each – just one) and place it between then so no one else can see it.  The Key cards look like this:

image by BGG user MyParadox
image by BGG user MyParadox

Each Key card, which will be in a random orientation, will tell the Spymasters which positions in the grid are the location of their team’s words (blue or red), as well as the other team’s words.  The beige spaces are Innocent Bystanders that belong to no team, and the black space is the Assassin.  You don’t want to hit the Assassin.  On the outer edge is a light that tells you which team goes first.  This team will also have an extra word to guess (9 instead of 8).

On a team’s turn, the Spymaster looks at the words that belong to their team and tries to find a common thread between them.  Let’s say your team is looking for the words FACE, TIME, BELL, SCORPION, HORN, SWITCH, PENGUIN, and BEACH.  You as the Spymaster must give a one word clue to lead them to the words you want them to say.  Like ANIMAL.  Or CLOCK.  Or INSTRUMENT.  The restrictions are that you can only say one word, and you can’t say a word that’s on the board.

In addition to your one word, you can also give a number that leads your team to the number of words your clue refers to.  Like CLOCK 3.  Or ANIMAL 2.  Or VACATION 1 (though you should really TRY to lead them to more than one clue at a time).

Your team then must try to guess the words you want them to.  They have up to one more guess than the number you said.  So if you said ANIMAL 2, they’ll be able to guess up to three words.  A guess is official when you touch the word in question, so no touching unless that’s your guess.  There are several possible outcomes for your guess:

  • You choose a word that belongs to your team.  It is marked with a card matching your team’s color, and you can take another guess (unless you’ve already hit the limit).
  • You choose a word that belongs to the other team.  It is marked with a card matching the other team’s color, and you lose any remaining guesses.
  • You choose an Innocent Bystander.  It is marked with an Innocent Bystander card and you lose any remaining guesses.
  • You choose the Assassin.  Your team loses.

Your team call also choose to pass any remaining guesses so as to not make an error.  The team that find all of their words first wins.

image by BGG user JanaZemankova
image by BGG user JanaZemankova

COMPONENTS: CGE has long been known for really high quality components, and this game is no exception.  For a (relatively) small game, there is a lot of care to detail here and lots of quality.  The cards are printed with the words in two directions so people on opposite sides of the table can read them.  The team/neutral/assassin cards are all well illustrated and very easy to differentiate, complete with different illustrations if you happen to be color blind.  The Key cards are pretty easy to read, with an indicator of who goes first each round on the border.  The only extraneous component in the game is a sand timer, which is really only necessary if you’re playing with someone that is taking too long.  Overall, another great job on the components by CGE.

THEME: This is a party game, so if you’re looking for theme, look elsewhere.  I mean, you’ve got a kind of spy thing going, but it’s very abstracted and doesn’t make much sense.  Still, it’s a good framing device and might be enough to interest people.

MECHANICS: This is a word game with some deduction elements to it.  The closest match mechanically that I know about is Password.  In Password, you give a one word clue to someone in an effort to get them to guess a special Password.  If that doesn’t work, the other team has a chance, and it goes back and forth until someone gets it.  This differs because you’re trying to get your team to guess multiple words, and you’ve also got a different set than the other team.  However, the basic idea of giving one word clues is similar.

There really isn’t much more than that going on mechanically speaking.  BGG lists the mechanics as Memory, Partnerships, Pattern Recognition, and Press Your Luck.  Partnerships is an easy one because it’s a team game.  Memory mostly comes into play with you trying to remember clues given in previous rounds.  Press Your Luck can be present in that you can make an extra guess beyond the clue given (ANIMAL 2 means you have up to three guesses).  Pattern Recognition is not a strong part of the game, though I guess it’s present in the Spymasters reading the Key cards.

STRATEGY LEVEL: I don’t think I’d call it strategy, but there are a lot of good gamely things to keep in mind during Codenames.  Mostly, it comes in being clever at how you construct your clues.  DEATH 2 might be a good clue if UNDERTAKER and DISEASE are out there, but what if GUN is also out there?  It’s also very import to remember all clues that have been given.  As Spymaster, you don’t want your team to inadvertently guess clues belonging to the other team.  As the team, you want to remember what the other team missed so you can try to stay away from those clues, as well as build off of previous clues.  There’s a lot to think about – this is a very intellectual game.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is a game that I think anyone will be able to understand, even your non-gamer family members who always look at you cross-eyed when you try to explain even the simplest gateway game.  However, there are two barriers that I see.  The first is the “party game” classification, which will undoubtedly turn off some more serious gamers who don’t like party games (of which I am a proud member).  The second is the “party game” classification, because this is very unlike a traditional party game.  It’s not loud or raucous – it’s very thought provoking, which means it’s probably not the best choice for actual parties.

SCALABILITY: The box says this is a 2-8 player game.  I can’t speak to the player count under six as I have not played that low.  However, my understanding that the two player game is a cooperative version.  Might be interesting, but I have no experience with it.  A four player game would be more like Password, with one Spymaster and one guesser per team.  I think six is a good number because then you can have some team discussions.  Eight probably is a good limit, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t play with more if you wanted, other than the discussions might take a little longer.

REPLAYABILITY: This is one of those games that is going to be just about infinitely replayable.  With 40 different Key cards, each that can be oriented one of four ways (so 160 possible layouts) and 200 clue cards, each double sided (so 400 possible words), there are going to be…oh, I don’t even want to do the math there.  No two games are ever going to be the same, let’s just say that.  And even if you would happen to have the same layout twice, people are going to think of new connections, so it should always stay interesting.

INTERACTION: There’s a high level of interaction in this game.  The Spymaster can’t say or do anything other than give their clue, but the other players can discuss, try to dissuade, and of course trash talk.

FOOTPRINT: This game doesn’t take up a whole lot of table space.  You just need room for the 5×5 grid (and the cards are fairly small).  You also need enough space to accommodate the people around the table.

WHAT ARE OTHERS SAYING? When I review games that have been out for a little while, I’m going to start looking at some opposing opinions and presenting them here.  Of course, this game has been getting a lot of hype and praise, and I’m definitely on that bandwagon, so I want to see what people who dislike the game have to say.  I generally ignore people who rate a game a 1 on BGG – they’re usually just malcontents and people who are trying to offset higher ratings for some weird reason – but occasionally, they’re good for some entertainment (like the person who said this was less fun than Battleship).  But there are well-reasoned arguments against the game.  Like BGG user mermuse, who rated the game a 3 and said “I just can’t get past how random and unbalanced it is! 90% of the games I’ve played have been total blowouts because one side just got better sets of words to work with.”  That’s a valid issue, but that’s also why you should play several rounds.  Another user, Savory Oliver, also rated the game as a 3 and said “I dislike gamey party games. If I”m playing a party game, I want it to be silly, fast, loud, fun, with acting, and revealing of people. Gamey party games seem like frankensteins to me. If I want deduction I’ll play a euro.”  This is another valid point – this game is not going to be an outrageous zany laugh fest.  But I tend to hate that kind of party game, so I guess that’s why this one appeals to me more.  The most common complaint I’ve seen is that AP can be an issue, and I can understand that.  But I think that’s more a problem with the players than with the game.  Despite these valid criticisms, this game is overwhelmingly respected (already #20 on the BGG ranking charts, and the #1 party game).  I do think it’s important to know all opinions.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  The hype is for real.  This is a great game.  And this is coming from someone who doesn’t generally care for party games OR word games.  But I am a Vlaada Chvátil fanboy, so there’s that.  I do think the game is extremely clever, and quite fun.  I look forward to playing more in the future.  Thanks for reading!

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