Czech Games Edition, 2015
It’s no surprise that given our previous coverage of Vlaada Chvatil’s games that we love his designs—and it’s rightfully so. Vlaada has a knack for building brain-burners that are fun and hold up on multiple plays. His games tend to be both thematic and mechanically robust, so when the buzz about Codenames began I knew I had to play it.
Codenames is a party game, which is nothing new for Vlaada (both Pictomania and Bunny Bunny Moose Moose are fan favorites), but it does add a level of tension and theme to a subgenre of tabletop gaming that was underdeveloped previously. In the game, players are pretending to be spies who are trying to make contact in the field with their organization’s field operatives while avoiding civilians, spies from the other team, and a deadly assassin.
The game starts with a five by five grid of cards on the table. Each card has a single word printed along the top and the bottom of the card like “cashew” or “octopus.” Players divide into red and blue teams and elect spymasters who sit together on one side of the play area behind a key which shows which cards the red team must guess and which cards the blue team must guess while everyone else sits on the other side of the table.
On a team’s turn, the spymaster announces a one-word clue and a number of cards that fit that clue, like “Slippery: 3.” Team members must then scan the grid of cards to determine which cards are likely to belong to them based off of the clue, while not accidentally choosing a card belonging to the other team or a neutral card. If the players choose correctly, they can keep guessing until they’ve chosen one card over the given number in the clue, but if they choose a wrong card their turn is over and they could potentially give the other team a point.
A winning team is determined in one of two ways: if all of a team’s cards or uncovered, or if the other team reveals the assassin card. This assassin, a single word in the grid, if chosen “kills” the team and ends the game immediately. This adds a great level of stress and thematic tension to the game because it raises the stakes from simply helping out the team to completely ruining a team’s chance at winning.
Perhaps the best part of the game is the process of choosing/decoding a spymaster’s clue. “A whale is huge, but New York is, too. We better guess whale first.” This reasoning through the game’s lexicon, alongside the ever-present risk of choosing the wrong word is the meat of the game, and is a pure treat for the word obsessed gamers out there. Fortunately, the game isn’t just for dictionary nerds.
The game, like any good social-based game, is all about navigating teamwork and figuring out how to communicate most successfully with your group. This is what I love the most about tabletop gaming—this system that encourages face to face interaction and understanding of everyone sitting in the room. The fact that words are involved is just lagniappe for me.
Sadly, as is the case with many hobby games, it can be hard to find a copy right now. Listings on Amazon are marked up significantly and other online retailers have already sold out since the game’s release last month. Hopefully, a reprint will be in the works soon.