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Game Night Reviews: Codenames

Updated: Jun 14, 2021


With our first successful meetup done and dusted I expected a full twelve months to pass by before I would have another opportunity to introduce my friends to the fun of board gaming. You could have knocked me down with a feather when less than a month later they suggested we meet up again!

The evening was proposed as a social gathering, a post Christmas drink and catch up, so I seeded my bag with a couple of light party games (which I do for every party) fully expecting that I wouldn’t actually need them. I was wrong! And so Codenames saw its first outing on a crisp December night with a group of good friends gathered around a coffee table by a roaring fire, glasses of wine and mince pies in hand.

A Brief Overview

So what is Codenames? It is a team game where the players are competing to uncover all of their spies before the other team. One player on each team takes on the role of the Spymaster, only they know the locations of each of the spies, innocent bystanders and the sinister assassin.

The game is played on a 5x5 grid of cards, each card has a word on it. The Spymasters must give a single word clue followed by the number of cards the clue relates to. Then the players on his team can discuss and guess which cards the spymaster was trying to indicate. If they guess correctly they can continue to guess upto the number of times given in the clue plus 1 or they can stop. If they guess wrong and uncover an innocent bystander their turn ends, if they uncover an enemy agent their turn ends and they give a point to the opposing team and if they uncover the assassin the game ends and they automatically lose.

Why Choose it?

I chose Codenames for a couple of reasons, firstly, selfishly, I had been given it as a Christmas present and I really wanted to play it. Secondly the buzz the game was generating at the time was tremendous and Paul Grogan, CGE’s UK representative and my close friend, highly recommended the game. As with all my Game Night choices the reasons for choosing Codenames comes down to “Can it handle 6?” and “Is it simple to teach?” and Codenames ticks both of these boxes.

The AP Problem

Codenames rewards players for their ability to analyze a lot of information and provide a single linking word to allow their team to score the maximum points. For some players this is straightforward and for me it was it was more fun to be the Spymaster, but for players who suffer from Analysis Paralysis* this task could take a long time, causing players to disengage with the game while Alan mulls over his choices.

The Exceptions & Clarifications

While Codenames is a great game and it has a simple premise the rulebook does manage to be rather long as it presents a series of rules about what is and what is not an acceptable clue. The list of exceptions can be a little overwhelming to take in and takes the game away from it’s party-game roots towards strategy gamer territory.

There were two particular rules I opted to omit during the first few rounds. The Zero rule, where you can use your codeword to imply that none of your remaining words relate to a specific word and the Unlimited rule where you give a clue but instead of a number you can say unlimited, with this method your teammates don’t know how many words relate to your given clue, but they can guess as many times as they like, unlocking their ability to guess previously unsolved clues.

Did They Like It?

Yes, a resounding yes. Many games of Codenames were played as everyone wanted a turn at being the Spymaster. I feel our literary inclined friends enjoyed the game more as they found clever ways to give clues but everyone seemed to have a good time.

Final Thoughts

Should you buy Codenames? The answer is probably yes. The game is small and cheap so it’s a great standby for parties and social gatherings. For me Codenames beats the spots off other popular party games, like Dixit or Cards Against Humanity, offering instead an actual game with strategy and mostly uncomplicated rules.

As I mentioned the game bogs down with AP prone players and really it requires a minimum of 4 players but ideally 6+ for it to really shine.

However, with only those two caveats I highly recommend jumping onboard the bandwagon and playing this year's Game of the Year (Spiel Des Jahres 2016)

*Analysis paralysis [uh-nal-uh-seez puh-ral-uh-seez] or paralysis by analysis is the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. - Source Wikipedia

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