You Were Expecting An Exploding Pen? - Codenames Review!

Many games will get a good amount of buzz before their eventual release, whether by demos, advertising or previews by podcasters and the like. Some of those will be legends in the board gaming world and others will be quickly forgotten to fade away into nothing. But whatever happens you will know this game is coming and at least be aware of it. Well here is a game that doesn't just give you a head's up, oh no, this one refuses to leave your subsconscious for even a second. Everywhere I look, listen, touch and probably even taste and smell at this rate, there is a mention or play of Codenames occuring.

You all know that I'm not one to succumb to global hype and at least remain semi-skeptical as no game is ever perfect. And Vlada varies with me in terms of game design. One one hand his best work for me is clearly Through The Ages as even though it's a long affair, it's a very good civilization game. Tash-Kalar would follow second for me for the neat tactical card play even though theme be damned. On the other hand I was underwhelmed by Mage Knight and Dungeon Lords and Galaxy Trucker was just plain frustrating. A hit and miss affair, but one common trait is that when trying his games out, be prepared for a lot of rules as none of his major releases are simple affairs. . . . . until now.

Codenames breaks the mold by dipping into the party game genre, which is unlike his normal style. There's debate as to whether this is a party game, but for reasons that will become apparent, I'm siding with the pro-party argument. And for £12 it's a cheap affair and unlikely to be complicated with unnecessary rules. Maybe this is a turning point?




Designer: Vlaada Chvatil (2015)
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
# of Players: 2-8
Ages: 12+
Time: 15-25 Minutes
Rank/Rating: 316 / 8.07


Code Cracking With Word Association


The concept of Codenames is straightforward. So straightforward I wish I'd thought of it myself and got my name in the designer lists but I digress. It's a team v team affair where a grid of various words from nouns to verbs to adjectives, etc. is laid out for all to see. A secret grid map showing the words attributable to each team is seen only by the Spymasters, one per team, whose job it is to get his teammates to work out which words in the grid correspond to them. The Spymaster will give clues to his team but is restricted to only saying a single word and a number, the former being the clue and the latter usually being the number of words that relate to that clue, but you can be a little creative.

Each team has to use these clues to guess the words that relate to their team, however one word in the grid is an Assassin which will auto-lose the game for any team who mistakenly selects it on their turn. So the Spymaster has to not only get his team to guess their words, but avoid having them guess the opposing teams words and also the Assassin. The team who manages to successfully guess all their words are the victors.

Component wise, there's so little to say here because in the end it's a bunch of words on little cards, a sand timer, some grid map cards for the Spymasters and some red/blue agent cards to show correct guesses alongside grey incorrect ones (that are commonly nicknamed the "derp" or lobotomy cards). That's literally it. And it's pretty basic cardboard at that, with straight, rough edges etc. But to be honest, what were you expecting in a light party game that costs £12? And that's UK Sterling there, we got it expensive when it comes to games usually. It's supposed to be cheap and cheerful and it does the job well. Anything more glossy would just be overkill and at least the publisher was smart about having the text reversed on each card so that you can view it from both sides, a common issue in most games.


Barriers To Entry. . . .  . What Barriers?


Time and time again you will hear the same quote from gamers where they really enjoy a game, but struggle to get it to the table because of its complexity. Either there's too many rules or lots of text on cards to absorb regularly, whatever. The biggest selling point of Codenames and the reason I think it's going to sell like hot cakes over time is just how accessible this is for any human being on the planet. Excluding the setup you have about 3 important rules to learn - how to win, how to give clues and the assassin. That's it. I reckon you could teach this game in 60 seconds if I got a timer going. Everything is just simple and flows smoothly without any convoluted rules queries or un-necessary hold ups and I believe this would make a good teaching tool in the English classroom for teaching creative word association skills.

That's not to say it's always a fast game though. No game of Codenames should take more than 20 minutes ideally, but bare with the Spymaster's because conjuring up decent clues is a lot harder than it looks, believe me. This can generate AP in even the most quick-thinking of us and you will have times where you're sat there unable to do very much because you're waiting for that clue. The game comes with a sand timer that can be used which I wished got used more often really, because when I play other people's copies they never bring it out. Granted this relieves a bit of the tension and stress, but that won't stop players goading the Spymaster on. It's not a major issue as the group is usually chatting with each other during this process, but it can extend the game length a bit too long if you don't time it.

It sounds like the Spymaster is not an enjoyable role to play, but for me it's the most enjoyable by far. I much prefer giving clues than deducing them, but you have to accept that if your team loses, you're getting the blame, even if there's clearly someone on your team you could point the figure at. The tension is a good thing and you really have to get your brain working to come up with good clues. Simply going for one word per round isn't enough, you have to get creative and try to associate multiple words with your clue each round. It's another example of a game having simple concepts, but plenty of depth. Some prefer it the other way round, and if so you're going to get more plays in that role than as the Spymaster so this will be perfect for you. On top of that the constant friendly trash talking from the other team where they try to throw you off results in a lot of good laughs.

As a minor niggle I do wish there were more Assassins in play. One just doesn't seem enough as no word of a lie I've seen it being picked once and once only. A variant where you could have multiple assassins in play would rack up the tension from the agents perspective and also result in some very quick games.


Simplicity has its Limitations


No game is ever perfect and here it's the simplicity that sometimes hurts Codenames depending on your viewpoint. Firstly even though the grid of words is completely different every game, a plus point in itself, it still plays out pretty much the same as previous games, just with a different mindset giving and receiving the clues. Most games are like this though, but here you're going be playing this game A LOT. It's been drilled into my subconscious so much in just the last two months that after 10-15 plays I'm starting to grow a little tired of it. The repetition starts to set in much like how I thought with Splendor and so simply changing the words isn't enough to spark variety. The group makes a big difference as well as quiet groups will make Codenames fall flatter than the cardboard used in the box - banter and jokes and active discussion are encouraged. So this would be a title I would pull out every now and again, play many times and then take a break like I think I'll be doing now.

The above is a nitpick though, my real issue with the game is the random setup itself from the Spymasters perspective. There are a lot of words in the box, but even with that I have had occasions where the grid map selects a group of words that is almost too perfect for one of the teams participating. An example might be where 5 food items turn up and get taken by one team or several country names etc. When Codenames encounters this issue the game can be incredibly one-sided which puts a bit of a downer on the 15 minutes to come as if you end up on the losing end you're pretty much done. Thankfully because the game is relatively short it's easy enough to simply re-deal and go again, that is, if you don't have AP issues holding the game up as mentioned above. It's a common issue that's brought up online, but most people are happy with it and to be honest I can't think of a way you could get around that problem without complicating the game too much and destroying the biggest positive point it has going for it. Also if the opposing team ever ends up with one card left to guess, you HAVE to get all of yours immediately otherwise you will lose because a word by itself is impossible to get wrong so the final round becomes a guess-fest for the losing side.



Verdict


Codenames deserves a lot of respect for being one of those designs that I wish I'd come up with. Disturbingly simple, yet effective for getting a large group of people to enjoy a game together for as long as is necessary given the short length of each game, though make sure you use that egg timer otherwise it's going to drag out a bit. The best thing Codenames has going for it though is the accessibility. I can't think of a single group of people that couldn't be taught this game within minutes and with the right group this will generate a good deal of laughs especially with the trash talking and encourage repeated plays. So I respect Codenames a lot and if I saw it nominated for a Dice Tower award (which I suspect will be a given), I'd be happy to see it there. I like it. .  . . . but . . . . I don't love it.

It is getting played so often to the point where it's getting very repetitive and that makes me wonder how popular this will be in the long term after the hype has died down. It's barely being 2 months since I experienced it for the first time and now after 15+ plays, I'm passing it up for alternatives on a game night. The issue of the game becoming one sided before you've even started playing is also a big bugbear for me, but this might not be even a consideration for others and if that's the case, there's very little here that's going to put you off. The Spymaster can be a stressful experience for some though on a similar level to Spyfall, but I personally enjoy that tension and I know others will as well.

Codenames overall is a solid design and can be very enjoyable, and even with the issues I mentioned that drop it below my favourites in this genre, it's still, for many people, one of the best party games to come out in 2015.



YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF:


You want a very quick filler with the laughs and player capacity that come with traditional party games.

You want to use it as a teaching tool for children - word association is an useful skill to pick up at a young age.

You want it to be accessible for everyone - I can't think of anyone who couldn't understand how to play this game in the first 60 seconds of explaining.



YOU WILL NOT LIKE THIS GAME IF:


You overplay it with the same group - it can become a fairly repetitive affair and I think mixing things up is best.

The balancing issue with the random setup would scupper your experience. Some games will be naturally one sided and this can't be avoided.

You don't like the pressure that comes with being the Spymaster - you're going to be held responsible no matter what!

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