Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 15 mins
Setup Time: 2 mins
Value For Money: Low
The story of Codenames’ creation is that its designer Vlaada Chvátil knocked it together out of some scrap paper over a few hours of brainstorming and very little changed before it got to the table. That take could be apocryphal, and I’m not knocking Vlaada Chvátil, with Mage Knight, Space Alert and Galaxy Truckers to his name he’s clearly shown that he can produce games that are far more complex. But the fact that it’s a story that’s totally believable possibly doesn’t say anything kind about the game.
Gameplay is that sort of simple to do, complex to explain that turns up in a few gateway games. Players are split into two teams, with one member of each team taking position as ‘spymaster’ with the others as spies. Cards with simple words are laid out in a grid on the table. The spymasters have a shared grid showing the cards as theirs, their opponents, neutral or deadly assassins. The spymaster then has to give clues, as they do so indicating with a number, how many of the cards the clues are intended to lead their spies to. The spies then guess, the first team to have uncovered all of their cards being the winners.
Codenames has turned into something of a giant, aside from its standard version there are now adult, 2-player, picture based, Marvel and Disney versions, to name a few. While I wish its designer all the success in the world, I’m not sure that of all their designs this is the one I would wish that success on, but such is the turn of the world. The issue with Codenames is that its not really that great of a game. Personally, its pretty rare that I feel compelled to pull it out for a game night, and I think that much like the Spiel Des Jahres’ more recent shot at awarding a party game the crown, Just One, it sort of boils down my not finding it all that much fun.
The first reason for which is that it has a bit of a first player advantage. A clue leading to just one word is both easy and safe to give, two is no major challenge, but three or more can be a bit tricky, and lead to your spies picking an opponent’s tile, or worse the assassin. So playing Codenames can be a bit like Scalextric, in that the best tactic is to get a nose ahead and wait for the other guy to come off, knowing that you can then drive safe as you like because to speed up enough to catch up, he’s always going to come off the rails. If the first player hits an easy two or not tough three clue, the second player is always pushed to risk a bigger clue, which by being riskier can often go awry earlier, leaving player one to quite often win with a series of one or two clue tap-ins. Secondly, the actual clue giving and guessing process just isn’t that much fun. It can drag, particularly if a spymaster is intent on giving the exact perfect clue, and since there aren’t specific targets most of the time its rare that individual clues give much of a sense of achievement. Instead much more of the time the sense is of having done just enough, a sufficient level of clue giving to achieve an acceptable victory. Because the grids and words are largely random there’s never a sense that this is an actual puzzle with an actual right answer to be found and so often the great clues feel like the result of the cards falling well rather than a spymaster actually being smart. The biggest reason though is that it sets up a sort of stupid player trap rather than smart player reward. That is to say, the spymaster gives a clue, with a set number of cards it is intended to lead the spies to, at which point the spies have one of three options. One is that they can fulfill the clue as expected, simply achieve that which is required of their role, two is that they can bail on the clue before reaching the specified number, which makes someone feel slightly dumb, three is that they can guess wrong, making someone feel either somewhat or very dumb. There is very little, if any, chance to perform beyond what was expected of you. There’s not the moment when someone guesses a clue in Pictionary after the first line is drawn, or when you extrapolate an elimination in Cluedo from an exchange you weren’t actually involved in.
So why is it so popular? Mainly I suspect for a few reasons, one, is that its infinitely re-skinnable, unlike most SDJ winners it can be themed to anything in the world by simply picking a set of word cards that match. It’s a small box game that’s not too expensive and has a great player count range of 2-8. Its easy to play irrespective of age range or skill level, a major gateway game requirement. Really, its selling well as a semi-mainstream game isn’t that confusing.
Why did it win the Spiel Des Jahres is a rather more difficult question. It doesn’t have much table presence and doesn’t present any very revolutionary mechanics. It is a sort of party game that makes up a significant part of the market but was pretty much un-represented in the award until now. Sadly, it feels like rather than the SDJ waiting for a year when the best game of the year was a party game and then giving the prize to it, they simply decided to give the prize to a party game and this one was just about family friendly and wordy enough to feel right.
Still, people who play party games regularly tend to go through them at something of a rate, and if that’s you, Codenames will cover a session or two. If not, its not exactly a crowd pleaser or a brain breaker. I’ve never had anyone ask to play Codenames at a game night (apart from people who hadn’t played it before and were curious). People play it, and it acceptably fills a period of time. But that’s not exactly a glowing endorsement.