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CODENAMES DUET

Reviewed by Herb Levy

CODENAMES DUET (Czech Games Edition, 2 or more players, ages 11 and up, 15-30 minutes; $19.95)

 

The way the gaming industry works these days is that when a game has been successful, that game gets rethemed or reworked in some way so that the success can be, in some manner, replicated. And so it goes with the award winning Codenames (featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Gamers Alliance Report) where the latest member of that family, Codenames Duet, does more than just change the color of the box.

Codenames Duet, credited to Vlaada Chvatil and Scot Eaton, follows the basic outline of the original game with a few interesting differences. First of all, the game shifts from competitive to cooperative mode as two players (or teams of players) take on the roles of covert operatives in a crowded city. Both sides are seeking to connect with 15 contacts with each side only knowing the identities of 9 of them. To win, players need to convey information to their counterparts in “coded messages” to successfully identify all 15 contacts, avoid the hidden assassins lurking among them and do it all in a limited amount of turns. 

Anyone who has played the original game will recognize the basics of play. A 5 x 5 card grid is laid out with the players sitting on opposite sides. These cards show one word. A “key” card is pulled and set up so players on either side of the table only see one side of the card. The key card duplicates the 5 x 5 grid with green spaces indicating the agents you wish your opposite number to identify. Tan spaces are neutral (so-called “innocent bystanders”) but the three black spaces are assassins! Two notable twists here: players are given a supply of “time tokens”. (The standard amount is 9 tokens.) If the tokens run out, the game is over and players lose! Also, the sides of the key card are NOT identical; there are 15 contacts that must be found but only 9 of them appear on each side of the key card! This means that some of the words overlap or do not match so words can be good for one side and bad for the other!

On a turn, the active player(s) gives a one word clue that somehow, in some way, connects one or more of the words on the table and indicates how many words are connected to that clue. For example, if the words “storm” and “rainbow” appear in the display, then “weather -2” might be an excellent clue to help your partners guess both words. If a correct guess is made, a green Agent card is placed on the word, indicating that that contact has been found. The team may continue to guess and “make contact” with other words, continuing to place green Agent cards on successful choices. Or a side may stop choosing, content with the picks already made, saving picks for another turn, hoping that a future clue will narrow the possibilities. In that case, a “time token” is placed on its green side, indicating that a turn is over. If an innocent bystander is chosen, then that turn ends immediately. (A time token is placed on the bystander to indicate which side gave the clue and that, for the other side, that word does not represent a contact. That word is still in play, however, as it might still be a contact for the other team!) In the standard game, you have 9 time tokens. If you run out of them but there are still contacts to be found, you may go into “Sudden Death” and makes guesses until you guess wrong. If an assassin is chosen, during regular play or in Sudden Death, the game is over and EVERYONE loses!!!

Finding all 15 contacts is a win and that is generally enough for most players. However, the rules also provide a scoring system for evaluating just how well you did, earning 3 points for each unused timer token, 1 point for each turn ending on a correct guess but losing 1 point if you needed to use the Sudden Death ending. If you are scoring high enough (let’s say 9 or 10 points or more, you might want to use the enclosed mission map.)

In keeping with the theme of international spies making clandestine contacts, the game provides a map of the world where players may go on “missions” using more or fewer time tokens with more or fewer “mistakes” (i.e. choosing an innocent bystander rather than a contact). This gives you a reason to change the basic parameters of play without changing the game play itself. 

While Codenames Duet was designed with two players in mind, the game really comes to life with teams. In the original game, there is always the danger of the game grinding to a halt as fewer and fewer words remain to be chosen. It can be difficult to find the right clue to link two or three very disparate words and the tempo of the game slows down to the most ineffective clue giver. When playing in team mode with Codenames Duet, however, everyone can pitch in and you are not at the mercy of a momentary brain freeze; your fellow teammates can come to the rescue. But the very overlap of words offers some clues to the clue givers as well.

Each side of the key card shows 9 contacts but you are looking for 15. Three “contacts” overlap which means one matches identically with what your fellow agents see on their side of the key card but two do not as one contact matches up with an “innocent bystander” and one an assassin! As more contacts are revealed, a little deductive reasoning can help narrow down the remaining choices and make your late-in-the-game guesses a bit more confident and less a “shot in the dark”. Although the rules suggest using paper and pencil to write down clues, none is provided in the box. The use of paper and pencil is a must however (unless, you wish to your your smart phone to jot down notes and suggestions for clues which is a viable alternative).

In the ever expanding line of Codenames games, Codenames Duet occupies a solid spot as its cooperative nature works well for 2 players or teams of players without missing a beat, rivaling (and maybe surpassing) the original in its considerable appeal. – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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