Party games still have that curious stigma about them, despite the leaps and bounds that the genre has taken over the past few years. Even with the rise of the juggernaut that is Cards Against Humanity (as well as the insane amount of copycat rip-offs that are still being released some three years after CAH first debuted) the vast majority of people, especially those who wouldn’t refer to themselves as gamers, will still harken back to to the dark era of Trivial Pursuit when it comes to playing something in a group that is deemed accessible by all. For many games companies out there, managing to tap into that market is something of a dream, but with the right alignment of stars, Czech Games Edition could well be in with the best chance of making the leap to mainstream success.
There’s already a lot of love out there for Vlaada Chvatil’s latest game, Codenames, and frankly you’re not going to hear much dissent from The Little Metal Dog Show on this one. I first got to check it out at this year’s UK Games Expo where the game immediately was the subject of a fair amount of buzz – while not many people got to actually play it over the weekend, those who did manage to get around the table with the prototype were quick to extol its merits. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long for the actual release as copies were released at Gen Con 2015 and – of course – I was there to grab one on day one.
It is certainly something of a departure from Vlaada’s usual output. Codenames doesn’t have the complexity of Dungeon Lords or Space Alert, but for those who complain about its straightforward nature (and there’s been a small but vocal minority who have criticised the game’s simplicity), I’d say that they should remember that designers who stick with doing the same old stuff every time – medium to heavy eurogames in the case of Chvatil – generally end up seeing a marked drop in the quality of their output unless they start switching things up a bit. And don’t forget, he’s got previous experience with working on lighter material – the rather lovely Pictomania was released only four years ago, so the guy’s able to create interesting gameplay experiences without having to put together a usable 32-page rulebook as well.
Two groups are required to play Codenames, with a minimum of two per side – there are rules for a single-side, two player game, but two folks sat at a table really doesn’t constitute a party, does it? In the middle of the table sits a five-by-five grid of hobbit sized cards, each of which have a unique single word upon them – the codenames that give the game its title. These cards represent the agents that must be found by the teams, as well as unsuspecting members of the public and [dun-dun-duuunnnnnnn] an assasin that will ruin your day if they’re discovered (or at least this round of the game). From these two groups, each must elect a Spymaster who will lead the play; everyone else are the Spies who will be guessing at the codenames that are being alluded to.
Before play starts, the two Spymasters secretly check out a square Key Card that shows the positions of each team’s agents in the field of play. Flashes of either red or blue are dotted around the outside of this card, determining the side that will go first – both teams are looking for eight agents, but the team that goes first have their advantage somewhat nullified by the fact they’re also seeking a ninth double-agent.
Agents are hunted down by the Spymaster for the active team saying exactly two things – a word and a number. The word must refer to at least one of your agents’ codenames, as shown on the positional Key Card, and the number is the amount of cards you’re looking your team to ‘contact’. So, let’s have some examples!
You could have an agent in play called Honey, which you could signal by saying “Sweet: One”. With that clue, you’re hoping that your team will make the mental connection and touch the card with Honey written upon it – that physical action must happen, by the way, or else the call isn’t official – but the trick to Codenames is to combine your clues to include more than a single agent. For example, if you happened to also have an agent called Hive, your clue could be “Bees: Two” – that single word can be linked to both Honey and Hive, and your teammates can contact each agent one by one, hopefully swinging the game in your favour.
If your team have successfully made contact with an agent on your side, the Spymaster takes one of the slightly-larger-than-hobbit-sized tiles of their colour and covers the correctly chosen name. This success allows the team to choose again, with up to one more attempt than the number uttered by the Spymaster for that side – so, that “Bees: Two” clue could lead to up to three selections by a team, assuming they get each choice correct.
An incorrect choice, resulting in either of a member of the public or – even worse – an agent from the opposing side getting picked, means that those cards must be covered by the necessary tiles and the team’s turn ends immediately, with play switching to the other side. Worst of all, if the Assassin is somehow selected, the team who chose it loses straight away and the Spymaster kicks themselves for giving a clue daft enough to include a cold-blooded killer in their midst. This little wrinkle in the game really does add an element of danger to playing Codenames, especially when both sides have made a few correct calls and the amount of options on the table grow fewer and fewer.
As you can see, rules-wise this is very simple little affair, but like all good party games there are a couple of elements that make things shine. There’s a delightful agony when you’re stuck watching your team consider your clue, then go in the completely different direction to what you thought you were on about; the Spymaster must not say ANYTHING apart from their single word clue and the number of cards, and even pulling anguished faces is frowned upon by the rulebook. You must remain stony faced, even if the other folks at the table are wandering down some ludicrous mental cul-de-sac and are getting dangerously close to tapping the Assassin’s name, throwing the game away despite your hard work.
From the opposite side, playing as one of the selectors is equally as entertaining; constantly trying to remember previous clues, making links between the slowly decreasing words on the table in front of you… it’s a lot of fun. There’s also the fantastic feeling of managing to correctly choose a set of names from a particularly good clue that links three or more cards in play – it’s a rarity but man, when your entire team is working perfectly in tandem, it’s utterly glorious.
Now, there’s always going to be a section of the population who simply won’t get on with how the game works. Links can end up being very tenuous and I’ve been involved in a couple of games where players simply don’t understand the Spymaster’s thought processes, but I find this to honestly be part of the fun. Codenames‘ scalability works very well – you can dumb down your clues a low as you need to, picking off agents on your side one by one, and there’ll always be a tipping point where the options have been pared back so much that you should (should!) be able to make a link between a couple of those still remaining in play. Managing to have your side pick up on this and choose two or more correct agents on one turn really does swing things your way quite drastically, and after a couple of games of relatively simplistic play to feel your way around how the whole thing works, you’ll soon find the Spymasters really striving to call out bigger and braver clues.
Production is relatively simple, but CGE have really pushed the boat out on the amount of included content to ensure plenty of replayability. With two-hundred double-sided codename cards in the box, the potential available combinations are huge. Expansions are surely being planned, and will hopefully be as inexpensive as this initial release – copies are available for a mere $20, making Codenames one of the real bargains of 2015. Even if your regular group maxes out at four players, I can’t recommend this one highly enough, but if you manage to get together with larger amounts of players once in a while, you won’t regret adding Codenames to your collection. I’ve found that more players means more confusion, and that leads to some truly entertaining discussions about what the Spymasters could be thinking about. It’s part Password, part Minesweeper, part mental torture, and you need to get yourself a copy of what will inevitably be one of the Games of the Year – you’ll honestly have a blast.