Board Game Review: Codenames – a Word Game Delight | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Codenames – a Word Game Delight

Without exception, I dislike word games. And, also without exception, I’ve loved every Vlaada Chvatil game that I’ve played. So when he designed Codenames, it was like the unstoppable force hitting the immovable object. Which won out in the end?

The Basics. In Codenames, players of any number (though at least four) separate into two equal teams. There are 200 double-sided cards each with a single word on either side. Twenty-five are randomly selected and arranged in a five by five grid.

One member of each team becomes the Spymaster. The spymasters select a key card and places it in a holder so that they can see it but their teams cannot. The key card shows a pattern which designates some of the cards on the 5×5 as belonging to the red team, some belonging to blue, a few neutral cards, and one deadly assassin.

Both teams have a hit, and some neutral person has no idea what you’re talking about

The first team’s spymaster can give a clue about the cards he has – but he can only say one word. No more, no less. Then, once the clue is given, he can say a number – referencing the number of cards that relate to that clue. So, if his words included “fighter” and “knight”, he might say “Combat, 2.”

Once the clue is given, the team then selects which words it believes were referenced. After a word is selected, the spymasters put a card on top. If they guessed correctly, they put their team’s color and they can continue guessing up to the indicated number plus one. If they guess incorrectly, then their turn is over.

An incorrect guess on a neutral card just reveals the card as neutral. An incorrect guess that actually belongs to the opposing team allows that team to cover it, but an incorrect guess on the single assassin card ends the game immediately with the picking team losing. Don’t pick the assassin.

You picked the assassin? Game over, you lose

The Feel. Codenames is a delicious challenge. Whether you are acting as the spymaster or one of the guessers, you have very little to work with. But if you have the right amount of ingenuity, inventiveness, and (somewhat) outside the box thinking, you can get a victory.

The spymaster role is a challenge. Sure, you know the identities of all the word cards on the table, but you are strictly limited in what you can tell your team. One word, and one number. That’s it. There are a couple of other prohibitions – the word can’t be one on the table, for example – but within that strict confine, the spymaster has total freedom.

Scan everything. You don’t want to inadvertently give a clue for your opponents’ words

The spymaster must think creatively. Maybe his words include “Agent” and “bond.” Perhaps the clue “Spy, 2” would be helpful. Everyone knows the famous 007. So the spymaster must look at disparate and often unrelated words and try to think of a codeword that could touch as many of them as possible.

Getting two words with a clue is not difficult, but two at a time likely won’t win you the game. Giving a clue for three or four words is more likely to put your team on the path toward victory, but doing so means that your key word is more attenuated. Can a clue for four words really hit all of them and avoid distractors?

And those distractors can be critical. A spymaster that overlooks a word and gives a clue that could pertain to it, risks his team missing. And, speaking of the team, their job is just as interesting and important in Codenames.

The neutrals seem really confused

If you’re guessing the clues from your spymaster, the game is just as tense. Your spymaster says, “Ecosystem, 3.” What in the what? Now it is up to you to scan the words on the table and find the three that best correlate to that codeword. And you do it knowing that you could erroneously pick the other team’s card or, worse yet, hit the assassin and end the game in an instant loss.

The nice thing is that teammates (other than the spymaster) can discuss their choices. Plus, you have information from previous turns. Perhaps the spymaster said “Physics 3” and you got two before hitting a neutral. You know there is one more physics card out there. But the opponents say “Ship 4.” If they don’t get all four, and you look around for that missing physics card, you might see, “Space.” Is that a physics clue? Or a type of ship? Answering that question correctly is key to victory.

If there is one down side to Codenames it’s that the spymaster must keep a total poker face. The whole conceit of the game is that the spymaster knows all, but his communication is severely restricted. If a spymaster nods their head, smiles as players discuss a particular word, or even prefaces a clue with “This might be a stretch, but…” they are giving away too much information. Even celebrating after players get a word right can convey the message that the word referred to the given clue and wasn’t just a random lucky guess. So Spymasters must be disciplined to avoid this or the game will turn into subtle and uninteresting charades.

200 cards is a lot. Sand timer for scale.

Components: 4 of 5. With 200 double-sided word cards, you will realistically never see the same board twice. In fact, you could play sixteen times without reusing a single word. They keycards are a great, low-tech way of adding replay value by tying the “right” answer to something other than the cards themselves. Prior plays won’t provide any insight into future ones. I wish they had gone with Standard size (or even Standard euro) rather than mini cards, but it’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Luck sometimes rears its head. If you have Turtle, Penguin, Giraffe, and Mole amongst your words, it might be easy to say “Animal 4” and get great mileage. Those coincidences are rather rare, though. And strategy is subtle, but present. Sometimes, you hold off on a clue until some distractors are gone. Or you save one of your words that might be related to a word on the opposing team hoping that it serves as a good distractor for them.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Codenames is fantastic. It’s a party game and the rules are simple, easy to understand, and allow anyone to jump right into the game. Someone comes by mid-game? They can join (as long as their team helps them out with past clues). Despite the simple rules, it fosters interesting and creative decisions from the spymaster, and contemplative thought from the team. While the spymasters must be disciplined – a trait that doesn’t always jive with a party game – it otherwise is a fabulous blend of party and thinking games.

Replayability: 5 of 5. Codenames is a hard game to stop playing. The numerous word cards allow for limitless replay value. There is no risk that canned responses or go-to tactics will make the game stale. Further, the whole thing plays in about 20 minutes. This allows it to come off the shelf when you’d normally pull down a filler, but encourages repeat plays as more and more teammates want to take a crack at being spymaster.

Spite: 0 of 5. Trash talk aside, there are no methods of spite in this game – highly unusual for competitive games. There are no discard powers, no wasting turns.

Red team, blue team, and the double agent on top. He works for whichever side has the larger word count

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Codenames is phenomenal. It takes the party game format and injects careful thought, substance, and interesting decisions into the genre. In fact, it can really only be described as a “party game” because it easily accommodates two teams of basically any size. It is otherwise a smart, fun, and challenging experience that should stimulate the seasoned gamer while remaining inviting newcomers.

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