First Impressions: Codenames

pic2582929No one game is for everyone, but for every person, there’s a game out there that they will probably enjoy. (Odds are more than one, but I’m hedging my bets with terse generalizations.) Board games are incredibly diverse, as are the tastes of people who play them.

That’s what made Vlaada Chvatil’s Codenames such a big surprise—there’s a consensus, and a positive one at that. There were a ton of great games released in 2015, but if you ask anyone what the best party game was, or filler game, or word game—or just about any category that can reasonably describe this game—people will say Codenames is one of the best in class. Not only is it the top-rated party game as determined by the users of BoardGameGeek, but it’s the nineteenth best game period.

So, now that I managed to play a game, careful to manage my expectations, I can confidently say—I get it. It’s really good, and just about everyone ought to try it.

It strikes a perfect balance between cleverness and accessibility. That’s important for party games and gateway games—you need to convey the rules before people get bored, and they haven’t been convinced that board games are worth it yet. I usually shy away from rules explanations in my reviews, but I think this bears an exception.

In Codenames, two teams are competing to identify secret agents. There is a five-by-five grid of words in the center of the table representing blue agents, red agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. One player on each team is tasked with giving clues, and the rest of their team must use those clues to guess which cards represent their secret agents. The first team to identify all of their agents wins.

A clue takes the form of a word and a number. The number represents how many cards relate to that clue. Players keep guessing until either they fail to identify one of their agents, win the game, or make as many guesses as the number they were given plus one. If you pick the assassin, your team instantly loses. If the game isn’t over, then the next team gets to go.

Sure, there might be some fine details missing, but nothing that can’t be handled with one of the more experienced players moderating things. It passes the first test of a part game, which is that you can explain it well enough in minutes and get started immediately.

Of course that’s not enough. It has to be fun. Elegance just goes means the game is less likely to get in its own way.

One of the things that defines a game is that it uses rules to create obstacles between the player and victory. In this case, the clearest example is the limitations in what clues you can give. It’s a little like Mysterium, or especially Hanabi in that way. The person giving clues has to find some way of, preferably, tying together multiple words together with one common factor, avoiding the opponent’s cards and the assassin. The rest of the players then have to try to interpret a vague clue that their spymaster seems to thing is perfectly straightforward. It’s about interpreting and understanding the other players, which is fantastic for a party game.

I’d go so far as to say it does better than Mysterium or Hanabi, at least in some ways. Mysterium is more atmospheric, but less creative—you have set options, and all of them are abstract. It also takes far longer, and is more difficult to teach. The clue-giving is very similar to Hanabi, but the cooperation against an incredibly difficult goal is replaced with competition between teams. Too few games involve teams anyway, and sometimes you just want a bit more conflict.

I still love Mysterium and Hanabi, but Codenames is just so… useful. Whether bringing it to game days as filler, or to parties with strangers, it’s just more likely to be played and still offers a lot of fun.

Unfortunately I can’t say too much more about the game, having only played it with four players. I don’t have a lot of faith in the two- and three-player variants, but I do expect the game to get better with more people. But hey, it shouldn’t be too long before I rack up enough plays to do a more thorough review.

In short: play this game if you have any room in your heart (and collection) for quick and simple entertainment. Unless you like heavy games exclusively, this is almost certainly a game for you—and I bet that comes as close as possible to being a game for everyone.

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