Monday, 1 February 2016


Plays: 4Px1, 5Px1.

The Game

Codenames by Vlaada Chvatil is one of the hit games of 2015. There was a period when almost every game from Chvatil was a hit with me - Through the Ages, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Petz. There was always an innovation, a twist or a special hook. There is still innovation in his games, just that there are fewer heavy games of the type l like in recent years. I have not been following his newer games much. I have played Pictomania, a party game, which I found quite good. Codenames is a party game too.

Players are divided into two teams, red and blue. One representative from each team is to be the spymaster. His job is to give clues to his teammates to help them identify all spies on their side. Whichever team identifies all its spies first wins.

When a game starts, 25 cards are drawn from the deck and laid out this way. The words are codenames for 25 people. Some of them are spies of the red team, some are spies of the blue team. Some are innocent bystanders, and there is one assassin. The words are all common words, and many of them have more than one meaning. The two spymasters sit on one side of the table. Their teams sit on the other side.

This is one of the solution cards. It tells you which names belong to the red spies, the blue spies, bystanders, and the assassin. The blue lights along the edges mean blue team starts. The team which goes first needs to identify 9 spies, while the other team only needs to identify 8. On a spymaster's turn, he can only say one word and one number. The word is meant to hint to his teammates the codenames of their spies. Ideally he wants to guide them to more than one spy per turn, so the challenge is trying to think of a word which can be associated with two or more codenames on the table. That's not all. In order to not mislead his teammates to guess spies of the other team or, heaven forbid, the assassin, he needs to make sure the word given won't be linked to other codenames. If his teammates pick a spy belonging to the other team, it is treated as a correct guess done by the other team, which means the other team is earning one point at his expense. If his teammates pick the assassin, his team loses immediately. Thus you see the importance of not just scoring, but also preventing costly mistakes.

The number which the spymaster says determines how many guesses his teammates can make. Usually he uses this number to indicate how many codenames the current clue is linked to. However sometimes he can say a higher number simply to give his team more guesses, e.g. there may have been failed guesses in previous turns, and the team needs to catch up.

The team gets multiple guesses only if every guess is correct. The moment you make a mistake, your turn ends.

This is what an early game looks like. Two red spies identified, and one blue spy. There is one bystander incorrectly identified. There is no penalty in catching a bystander, other than having to end your turn immediately.

Blue is leading 7:6. In Codenames both teams are under constant pressure to identify more than one spy per turn.

The Play

I have played Codenames twice. It is very simple to teach and easy to understand. The key strategy is identifying two or more spies every turn. The challenge is in trying to think of a word which can be associated with two or more codenames, and at the same time will not be associated with codenames from the other team or the assassin. The spymaster has a tough job. During our games, he would often be mulling over the cards and cracking his head searching for the right word. This doesn't mean the team members have an easy time. Often they will be debating over what exactly the spymaster's cryptic clue means. There was a lot of taunting in our games. When the opponent spymaster was cooking up a word, we helpfully suggested "Easy! Rabbit, One!" (when there was a "Carrot"), or "Bomb, One!" (when there was a "Boom"). When the opponent team was trying to make guesses, we kept teasing, "It's so obvious!", or "Don't overthink it! Just do it!".

The spymaster always has to face the dilemma of how to give the clue. Should you pick a vague clue which can be associated with three codenames, or should you give a more straightforward one to help your team safely identify two codenames? When the team fails in guessing, the clue given is not wasted. They still need to remember it and take it into account on future turns. The spymaster can sometimes state a higher number, hoping his team will understand it is to allow for additional guesses based on clues from previous turns. However this can be tricky because the team members may not have the same interpretation. Sometimes you simply have to make wild guesses. If you are falling behind and your opponents are poised to win next turn, you might as well gamble. Paying attention to your opponents' clues is important too. They tell you what to avoid.

The Thoughts

Codenames is simple yet clever. It can be easily taught to casual gamers. It works very well as a party game and a family game. It can be played as a filler on game nights, a change of pace for hardcore gamers. What is interesting about it is the fun and satisfaction come from both common understandings among players, as well as cultural differences. When you as a spymaster make some obscure reference which your team members totally get and they make all the right guesses, it is exhilarating. Yet when you give a simple straightforward clue but your team members completely bungle their guess, that is hilarious too. Many a game ends with the teams doing internal post mortems on why such a stupid clue was given or why such an ingenious clue was misunderstood. Even observers of a game will be having fun, sometimes from simply seeing how tough a time the spymasters have, and sometimes from trying to think of clues which would have helped the teams more than the spymaster's clues. Codenames is a game that sparks creativity, not just in the spymasters in trying to come up with good clues, but also in the team members who are trying to make sense of the clues given.

I'm not a party game person. Codenames is not my type. However I do think it is quite clever and innovative. There are many cards in the game, both the codename cards and the solution cards. I think it will take a long while before it starts to feel repetitive because there are many combinations of cards drawn, positions placed and solution card. You don't normally worry about single words. It is the combination of words that matter.

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