Codenames

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Codenames

codenames

Player Count

The Box says 2-8. It should be 4-How Many Friends Do You Have

Game Length

15 minutes per round

Designer

Vlaada Chivatil (Galaxy Trucker, Through the Ages, Space Alert)

Publisher

Czech Games Edition (Galaxy Trucker, Through the Ages, Space Alert)

Mechanics

Deduction

Tutorial

How to play codenames

Popularity, Unlimited

The year 2016 was a special one for board gaming, particularly in the Spiel des Jahres awards. I had first played Codenames in February of that year at the Raleigh Playthrough local convention, and within just a few minutes I felt like it would win game of the year. Even as I waited for the nominees to be announced, even after I researched its competitors Karuba and Imhotep, both of which are excellent games and in my collection, I never doubted that Codenames would win. To date, I have introduced that game to over 300 people, nearly ever friend, family member, game night attendee and coworker that will listen; there has been only one acquaintance who did not enjoy it, and that person likely does not enjoy fun. I do know of some other critics, such as Sam Healey and Zee Garcia of the Dice Tower, who find the game boring, but Codenames has undoubtedly been a smashing success for CGE, spawning a Pictures spinoff, Deep Uncover adult version, Cooperative Duet and thematic Disney and Marvel editions. Codenames as well as some of its variants are sold in mass market stores for general consumption extremely quickly after release.

So why has Codenames become so popular in such a short time?

Codenames is simple – really, really simple

Unless you are the Spymaster, which only affects two players, players in Codenames have very little to do and very few rules to remember. Given a one-word clue or proper noun and a number indicating the number of correlations, all players need to do is figure out which words belong your team. Some words are yours; others belong to your opponent; some words are neutral and one means you’ve lost. That is all that you need to know in order to play. This simplicity allows the game to reach a near universal audience, blurring the line between party game and strategy game and bridging the best of both worlds.

Codenames can be played casually or it can be cutthroat. Regardless, the rules and core concept do not change, and many will find that appealing.

There is no watching Codenames

One of my pet peeves is when someone will say “I’m just going to watch.” There are generally plenty of games from which to choose at game nights, and there exists some mathematical permutation that satisfies the given player count and games available. Yet, inevitably, either someone will just watch a game because they’d rather have everyone else play a game together, or they just want to casually observe because they want to learn the game without commitment. Codenames does not have either of these problems. First, ignoring what the box indicates as the player count, the upper boundary of players Codenames can reasonably support is determined by the space available. At some point, players will have difficulty seeing the words and will feel detached from the game. I have solved this problem by creating my own Codenames software application and casting it to a TV or a projector and it works extremely well. Everyone can see the board at all times and it greatly increases the amount of supported players. For the second problem, that of the casual observer, there is no reason to merely watch this game. Watching is equivalent to joining a team and merely not saying anything; doing this will not negatively affect the team in any way. However, given its simplicity, when you do have an observation, you can provide it, so all casual players are in direct control of how much or how little input they want to offer.

It's infinitely replayable

Any game that can get members of my family to debate the mathematical permutations of the game deserves to win an award merely for doing so. My parents greatly enjoy this game and even they were drawn into the discussion as to how many times it can be played. Although the word supply is limited, it is by no means limiting. I know there are at least one hundred cards, all of which are double sided. Assume there are two hundred words, 25 of which are chosen at random; the number of unique combinations alone is a staggering 30 plus zeroes. Furthermore, the layout of the map adds additional variation for each combination, as each selection can make it easier or more challenging depending on which words fall to each time. So even if you see the same words on occasion, what words they pair with and, more frustratingly, what words of your opponents they match will keep the game refreshing. And, if you really got tired of the current word pack, it would not be difficult for CGE to print an expansion pack with new words. Speaking of which …

It lends itself to themes quite well

I am proud to say that I was ahead of the curve on this. I discovered this game in February 13 of 2016 and within a month I had created two word packs: one for a baby shower for my niece (baby words) and one for Pie Day (all about Pie). I have since created packs for engineering words (used at work), Christmas, Religion and Sports; my wife even made me an awesome Superhero edition for my birthday and my friends made me a board gaming theme. While many people find that there is too much overlap with themes, I greatly enjoy them as it requires the Spymaster, a role I usually fulfill, to be as direct and clear as possible. It adds a further sense of tension and increases the risk that you will pick the other team’s word, adding that necessary sense of risk versus reward that disparate words do not provide. This feature allows Codenames to be great for a number of events where newcomers would be less likely to play a game, for the theme draws them in and makes the idea of playing a random game less jarring.

It’s a great team building and family building exercise

Codenames has been the most popular game at Teamwork Tuesday at work; several of my coworkers have even purchased their own copy and it is their first modern board game. Part of that success is created by the necessity for both sides of the map to work as a team. As a Spymaster (the one giving clues), you are required to think in terms that your audience will understand; just because it makes sense to you does not mean that others will relate. As a Field Operative (the one making the guesses), you not only have to think like the Spymaster but you must also listen to your teammates well. As a teamwork enthusiast, I wish I could record just how many times someone suggests the correct word for the correct reason, only for them to be completely ignored by their teammates. Codenames provides a lot of value with its ability to not only be fun but constructive, and this applies to families as well. Spouse pairings make great Spymaster-Operative combinations because you can bring your personal experience into the deduction.

You can play as much or as little as you want

Perhaps the single biggest reason why I fell in love with this game was not because of its simplicity but because of its footprint for individua players. Codenames has that rare ability where players can slide in and out at will without affecting the game too much (the only exception is the Spymaster, who really should remain constant; even if the Spymaster leaves and someone else takes over, that meta-knowledge leaves with them). When playing over a lunch break, for example, there is no reason to wait for more players to start since they can just join a team as they arrive. People walking casually by can hear a clue, provide some input, and then leave five minutes later; or they can stay for as long as they’d like. At game nights, I have personally set this game out at the beginning and watched as a rotating cast of players played the game throughout the entire night; one round leads into the next, and it’s never about keeping score from round to round. Part of the reason for the longevity is because ...

It's easy to be good.

It is well established that many players do not like being the Spymaster. I often hear it described as being on the hot seat and most I know do not like the pressure. For being an Operative, however, there is little pressure and it is easy to be good at your job. After a few turns, players begin to realize not to skip over any words and jump to conclusions too quickly. As you play more and more with the same group, you begin to get used to the Spymaster tendencies, which is easier to do since that job tends not to rotate (though I prefer that it does). Therefore, with experience comes knowledge as to whether someone likes to really stretch, use opposites, play conservatively, and how they use the expert rules (unlimited and zero guesses). Success and competitive games add to the fun, and that is yet another reason why Codenames has been so successful.

It’s no surprise that word games are making a major comeback due to the influence of Codenames. Insider, Werewords, Crosstalk and Word Slam are just a few examples of the trending genre which has traditionally been dominated by Scrabble. But that is changing now all thanks to Codenames. Not many games can say they’ve influenced the industry as much in so little time.