My second review in the new detailed series will be for Codenames. Recently released at Gencon 2015, Codenames continues to get a lot of buzz, but is it worth the hype? (Overall Scores are given based on the type of game therefore a micro game can rate highly; however, it does not mean I recommend it over a heavier game with a lower score. It does mean I recommend it over another micro game with a lower score)
I will start by saying I like this game plainly, simply, and to the point. Since purchasing Codenames shortly after is release at Gencon the game has hit the table over 38 times with me playing and been borrowed or used almost every week even if I myself wasn’t playing it. The game is quick, simple, and family friendly while still allowing players to relax, be social and spend time together, which after all is what board games and this community is about! To find out more specifics about the game itself of what I like and dislike about it keep reading!
Overall Score: 7.7 of 10!
Game Play Score: 8 of 10 (weighted 35%)
Component Score: 5 of 10 (weighted 20%)
Theme Score: 8 of 10 (weighted 10%)
Longevity Score: 10 of 10 (weighted 25%)
Scalability: 7 of 10 (weighted 10%)
Player # Recommendations: Best at 6 and 8, Fun anywhere 4+
Player Experience Recommendation: 1 of 5: With no prior gaming experience needed this game is quick to explain and get to the table for any social situation in which gaming is appropriate. This game can easily be introduced to families and younger children in certain situations (I’d say 10+) could grasp the rules and receive some educational benefit.
Initial Play Time: 10-15 minutes
Experienced Play Time: 10 minutes
Initial Setup Time: 5 minutes
Experienced Setup Time: 5 minutes
Codenames is a party style game focusing on word association, memory, and the ability to read into your teammate’s clues. The focus of the game will revolve around a grid of 25 cards each with 1 word written on their face representing a potential “Agent’s” codename. Players split into two opposing factions (Red vs Blue) and assign a spymaster who will give clues throughout the game. Spymasters guide their agents to appropriate contacts while trying to avoid blowing their cover or getting them killed (selecting the assassin loses the game… immediately). Agents contact their counterparts in an effort to complete their network of spies before the other team.
This is a very active and social game on the part of the agents where the more players are involved the more discussion you will have. The spymaster on the other hand is only allowed to give clues and then sits back to enjoy (or quake in fear) and their teams discussion and eventual selection.
Designed by: Vlaada Chvatil
Game Play Review:
The setup for this game is fairly simple with minimal components to organize and place on the table. They are also well prepared for repeated plays and made each of their codename cards double sided allowing you to simply flip over each card in the grid and get right into a second game. The below bullets provide a basic understanding of how the game is setup; however, these are provided mainly to illustrate the process to readers who do not yet own the game and do not cover the rules comprehensively.
1. Separate each of the thick tiles by color. Red and blue for each team, tan for civilians, and black for the assassin. Be sure to keep the “double agent” separated as well; this tile can be identified as the only card with different colored sides.
2. Shuffle each of the codename cards (these are the tan mini euro sized cards). Be aware that there are A LOT of these cards and they will likely need to be separated into multiple piles.
3. Deal 25 of the codename cards out into a 5×5 grid.
4. Shuffle or separate the square Spymaster cards. My suggestion is to separate them into red and blue piles as designated on their outer edge and then using Codenames free companion app to select which team will go first.
5. Select a Spymaster card and place it on the stand facing only the Spymasters.
6. I suggest downloading and using the companion app to ensure the game is paced fairly and appropriately; however, if you do not wish to do this place the hourglass by the board. (Per the rules this is only used to indicate to a player they are taking “just a bit” too long)
The main phase of the game is separated into two distinct parts, the Spymaster’s turn and the Agent’s turn, which I have outlined below:
Spymaster’s Turn: Oh the spymaster, this is the role where most of the pressure resides. First the spymaster will survey the board making sure they are familiar with the words shown. The spymaster should then review the grid showing which codenames relate to his/her team, the opponent’s team, civilians, and the assassin. Once the spymaster is familiar with all of these things he can begin to formulate his clue.
Clues are limited to one word and one number. The word should associate as many codenames on your team as possible while being specific enough to keep your agents from guessing the assassin and enemy operatives. Although you also do not wish to contact a civilian it’s better to take a risk on these codenames as mistakes here only end your turn without benefit to the other team. The number in the clue should indicate how many codenames you wish your agents to associate with your clue which will give them an idea of how broad or narrow you’ve tailored your clue. In addition the number you provide here indicates how many guesses your team can make. Teams are limited to the number given plus one when guessing unless an “expert clue” was used.
“Expert Clues” – The game has two types of clue that are designated as “expert clues” a clue with unlimited being the number, and 0 being the number, both of which allow your team to make as many guesses as they’d like pushing their luck until an incorrect guess is made. The benefit of the unlimited clue is self apparent in allowing players to pick up missed codenames from prior clues or Hail Mary guesses if you are behind; however, the downside is the inability to inform your team of how many items are associated with the current clue. The 0 clue can be used to avoid the assassin word although admittedly I’ve never seen it used to great effect (I’ll admit I “may” not be at the expert level here).
Although for me the most stress does rely on this side of the board I really enjoy the puzzle of finding links between the given words, reading my team and trying to anticipate their frame of reference, and that little bit of nerves as their hands hover over the “assassin”.
Compared to the spymaster the agents have a relatively short turn. Taking the clue given to them by the spymaster they survey the board before contacting their agents (or guessing at random depending on how well the clues have gone over). To truly make a guess the agents must place a finger on the card they wish to contact.
Most of my player group enjoys this side over the spymaster. There is more social interaction as your team discusses or argues over which cards to select. It’s an interesting process that often devolves into hilarity. “Why would you pick that card” “Well YOU didn’t say anything helpful” This sounds frustrating, but it’s often in happy and good natured fun.
This game isn’t given an ending score and instead the winner is determined by which team successfully contacts all of their agents first. The team to lead off always has one additional agent to contact to compensate for being first to act.
Component wise there isn’t a whole lot in the box; however, there is plenty of room. I feel like the box could’ve and should’ve been smaller or come with some form of an insert to keep the components stable instead of purely loose within the box, but it is very easy to just bag everything and throw it into the game cabinet which is really what happens with most of my games anyway.
The cards used to signify your agents codenames are well made and double sided which is a plus; however, although they list the word facing both directions (spymaster and agents) it is much more legible and larger on the side intended to face the agents. This is so pronounced that as the spymaster I often find myself reading the word upside down unconsciously before remembering it’s also printed on my side.
The cards used to signify an agent has been contacted are where the majority of my complaints are. Although I enjoy they each have a male/female side and the piece for the “double agent” is well done and identifiable they have worn very quickly. After only 20-25 games they were beginning to show wear to the faces even though we treat our games very gently and they were kept away from liquids. This doesn’t affect the game play; however, as someone who takes pride in their games and often sleeves just about everything (yes even if the sleeves double the games cost (think boss monster)) it really bothers me to see.
The hourglass that comes in the box has only been used in the first game our group played. Why? Because it isn’t necessary (there is an app) and the way it is described in the rules comes off as rude rather than a function of the game. I wish it had been left out of the box completely and the rules merely listed a suggested turn length.
For what is intended to be a game played over 8-10 minutes each session the theme really shines through. I feel that the way the cards are done especially the confused faces on the “innocent bystanders” and the fast paced and hidden information aspect of the game really lend itself to feeling like a spy game. I don’t think of myself as an agent often when playing but everything makes sense for a spymaster and agents on both sides of the table.
With what are almost infinite combinations of words/board layouts and a strong and engaging level of game play I fully expect this game to be hitting the table next year, in five years, and maybe in ten. Right now it’s one of the best “party style” games and lacks the issues many people I’ve talked with had in its main competitor Spyfall. (Players that refuse or dislike being the spy)
As far as scaling goes in this game I do not recommend it below 4 players. Although there is a cooperative variant it feels largely pasted on and unsatisfying as improving your score doesn’t seem like something that is consistently achievable therefore comes off as luck. At 5 the game is fun; however, finding an impartial spymaster is a difficult thing to do. My suggestion at 5 is to remain in two teams with one team having two agents. At all other levels 4, 6-8 this game is great and although the discussion can get unwieldy it still holds up at the 9-10 player mark.
1. Go for two! As the spymaster if you really work to get two agents contacted each turn you are usually in the clear. Often forcing a clue onto 3-4 agents without being really familiar with your playgroup will result in contacting an incorrect agent either scoring for the other team or ending the game with the assassin.
2. Go back to pick up missed clues. Each turn you may guess one additional item than the number given so if you missed a contact last turn don’t forget about it, pick it up when more of the board has been cleared.