Reviewed by Larry Levy
(Czech Games Edition, 2 to 12 players, ages 14 and up, 15 minutes; $20)
Many of us may tend to think of game designers as having specialties—things like card games, children’s games, and the like. But while that’s occasionally true, most designers are pretty versatile. Obviously, it’s to their benefit to have more than one arrow in their quiver. That’s certainly true of the fellow who put the Czech Republic on the gaming map, Vlaada Chvátil. He’s best known for his longer, more complex games, such as Mage Knight, Dungeon Lords, and, of course, his masterpiece, Through the Ages (featured in the Fall 2007 issue of Gamers Alliance Report). But he’s also had success with lighter fare, including Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, and Pictomania. So it’s really not that surprising for him to come up with a party-style word game called Codenames. It’s equally unsurprising, given Chvátil’s ability, that the game is excellent.
The elevator pitch for Codenames would be “Password on steroids”. It’s played between two teams of players, the Blue team and the Red team. There are rules provided for 2 and 3 players, but to get the real gaming experience, you need at least 4. The stated maximum is 8 players, but there’s really no reason why it couldn’t accommodate more. The game also handles an odd number of players well.
Each team selects one member to be their spymaster. The other players on the team are called the field operatives. The two spymasters sit next to each other on one side of the table; the other players sit on the opposite side.
The main components of the game are 200 double-sided cards, each side of which contains a single word. At the beginning of each game, 25 of these are dealt out in a 5 x 5 array. The two spymasters then draw a Key card, making sure the other players can’t see it. Each Key card includes the identity of the starting team, as well as a 5 x 5 matrix, with each cell showing (through color-coding) the status of the word at that position. If, for example, the Blue team is going first, the card shows which 9 words have to be guessed by the Blue team in order to win. The card also shows which 8 words have to be guessed by the Red team, which 7 words are neutral, and which word is associated with the dreaded Assassin.
The two teams alternate turns. A turn consists of that team’s spymaster giving a one word clue, together with a number. The number is how many of the team’s words the spymaster feels is associated with the clue. Let me illustrate this with a manufactured example. Suppose the Blue team’s words include “river”, “warrior”, and “website”. Their spymaster might then give the clue “Amazon, 3”. Her reasoning is as follows: the Amazon is a famous river; the Amazons were mythical female warriors; and, of course, amazon.com is one of the best known websites in the world.
Once the clue is given, the other members of the team have to respond. At least one answer must be provided. The operatives agree on a response and point to the card. The spymaster then places a tile on the card, based on what the Key card says. If the card is one of her team’s words, she puts a tile of that color on the card. The team is now one word closer to winning the game and the operatives have the option of choosing another word. If, instead, the operatives pointed to one of the neutral words, the spymaster will put a gray tile on the card. That means that no progress has been made and the operatives’ turn comes to an end (even if they had more words they wanted to guess), but at least they’re no worse off than before the guess. If, though, the word guessed is one of the opponent’s words, then a tile of that color is placed on the card, the operatives’ turn is over, and the opposing team is now one word closer to their goal. Ouch! But the worst result is if the guessed card is the Assassin’s word. In that case, the team loses immediately and the game is over!
Obviously, these results can affect the kind of clues a spymaster will give. For example, in the example previously given, suppose another one of the words in the display is “Archery”. This might cause the spymaster to hesitate before giving the Amazon clue. After all, the mythical Amazon warriors were renowned for their ability with the bow and arrow and her teammates might be thinking in those terms. If Archery is a Neutral word, she’ll probably risk it; after all, the other words seem more closely aligned with the clue and the worst that can happen is a wasted turn. On the other hand, if Archery is an opponent’s word, she might be reluctant to use that clue. And if it’s the Assassin word, she’ll probably avoid it—no sense risking an immediate loss!
If the first guess is correct, the operatives can either stop or keep guessing. As long as they point to their team’s words, that option continues. The maximum number of guesses that can be made is one more than the number the spymaster stated. The reason for this rule is to allow a team which guessed incorrectly or stopped early during a previous turn to catch up by pointing to a word that they think fit that earlier clue.
The game ends either when one side has all of their words guessed (either by themselves or with the “help” of the other team), in which case they win, or when a team points to the Assassin’s word, in which case the other team wins. The starting team has to guess one more word than their opponents, which effectively nullifies the advantage of going first.
I played the prototype for Codenames for the first time at the Gathering of Friends this April. No one knew anything about it before the event, but it was probably the hit of the con and was in constant play. The reception for the game since its publication has been equally strong. I completely agree with all those opinions; I think it’s a terrific design, one of Chvátil’s best, and that’s saying something.
I love games that let clever people be clever and Codenames fits that description to a T. Being a successful spymaster is a very enjoyable challenge that requires a variety of skills. A good vocabulary is useful, of course, but so is a good imagination and sufficient empathy to predict what clues your teammates are most likely to guess. You obviously want to target as many words as possible with your clues, but even coming up with a 3 word clue can be tough. The other unguessed words are often a barrier for some potentially rewarding clues; as a result, things sometimes get easier once more opposing words have been guessed. Being an operative might be a little easier, but trying to think along with your spymaster while viewing a couple of dozen words still requires a good deal of skill.
The game plays quite differently depending on the number of players. With just 4, and therefore only one operative per team, it tends to be a quieter and more studious affair. Each spymaster gives his clue, his teammate ponders and then points to her guessed words one at a time; the response is a wordless placement of a colored tile. It feels like a battle of wits and it is. While with two and three player teams of operatives, even though the mental challenge is just as great, the guessing team must now discuss which choices are the best ones and what order to ask them in. With a boisterous group, or teammates with different thought processes, this can get pretty rowdy and is a lot of fun for all involved. These games can feel more like a party game, but a thinking person’s party game, which is great.
The replayability of the game is terrific. With 400 words and only 25 appearing in each game, you’d have to play this for a long time before it got stale. More to the point, each game will play very differently because it’s so dependent on the imaginations of the spymasters and the abilities of the operatives. We always play multiple games of this in a row and have a great time doing it. It’s quite an addictive game and the challenge of coming up with (or guessing) that perfect clue keeps players coming back for more.
The components add to the enjoyment. The stars, of course, are the codename cards and Chvátil has done a fine job of selecting a nice variety of words that, nevertheless, always seem to have enough relationships to make each game fun. One very nice touch is that each word is printed in bold on one edge of the card and grayed out and facing the other direction on the other edge. Consequently, each side of the table has all the words facing them, but because of the way this is done, there isn’t a cacophony of letters—very clever. The key cards are clearly colored (along with symbols in each cell, for the color blind) and a small holder is provided so that the two spymasters can study it with their hands free. This is not a game that required an elaborate physical design, but CGE made sure that what they provided was solid.
I love most of Chvátil’s demanding games, each of which is very detailed, with many moving parts. But it also takes real talent to be able to come up with a truly simple concept and then execute it perfectly. I think that’s what he’s done withCodenames. Another nice feature is that it can be played at many levels: thoughtfully, with a small group of gamers; casually, in a family setting with adults and older children; or raucously, with a big crowd. It’s a brain-burning party game that’s a ton of fun to play. And it makes a perfect opener for an evening of game playing. So the next time you get a group together that wants to stretch their brain cells a bit, I bet you won’t need more than one word to figure out what to put on the table. – – – – – – – – – Larry Levy
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