There’s one thing you can say for certain about Vlaada Chvatil: no two of his games play the same. He’s one of the mad scientists of the board game world, designing everything from epic civ games like Through the Ages, to real-time cooperative games like Space Alert, to extremely silly party games like Bunny Bunny Moose Moose. He’s back this year with another party game, the hotly anticipated Codenames. In Codenames, two teams are using word association clues to get the rest of their team to guess the appropriate words, while avoiding the words belonging to the other team and to THE ASSASSIN. Is the game as good as the hype? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: This game looks quite nice. The cover looks a tiny bit serious, which fits with the gameplay. There’s a ton of cards to use in the game, all of which are double-sided, which is very helpful as it makes a second game easy to set up. Including the optional timer was also a nice touch. The cardboard tiles also make the game play and feel much nicer even though they aren’t necessary (but I do wish each side had their own separate 9th tile). The box is a weird shape, but the right size for the components. The MSRP of $20 is super competitive. They did a great job here all around. If I had the tiniest complaint, it’s that the very well-thought-out cards show the same word right-side-up and upside-down but with one variation in a much lighter color, so I end up reading the upside-down darker text anyway. (That might be the most nitpicky thing I’ve ever written in a review.)
Accessibility: This could easily be someone’s gateway game, as anyone who’s not into gaming but plays the occasional party game can pick this one up easily. Vlaada Chvatil’s rulebooks sometimes value humor over organization, but this one was very thorough and clear while still having a fair amount of humor. However, getting started playing was a lot more difficult than I expected! You have to spend the first minute or two with everyone just processing what twenty-five cards are on the table, and the spymasters have to then start thinking about which cards belong to which player. I played as the spymaster my first game and was awful at it, although some other players took to it quite naturally. The game is so quick that you can just play again, and once you’ve played the game just a few times, things start to really click. It’s by no means hard to play, but there’s definitely a learning curve in the first game or two. Fortunately, those are only about ten minutes each.
Depth: This is one of those cerebral party games, like Spyfall or Dixit. Actually, calling this game a party game is kind of weird in the first place, although I don’t have a better name. Yes, it’s a word game, and it’s occasionally funny, but it’s mostly super intense! Every time a player touches a card in the tableau, it’s super suspenseful. As the spymaster, you’re just cringing, hoping they understand what you meant. (And in my case, regretting your clue just as soon as you spit it out…) We played four times in a row our first session, and we were really starting to see the game open up as we played more and more. It’s amazing just how much language games can tease your brain. For example, in one game I needed to give clues about Drill, Crown, and Back. I would have been okay with them only guessing two. I eventually went with “Hair: 2” (the number is how many cards fit the clue), but I didn’t think about the opponents having the word Root because in my head, I was only thinking about plant roots. Someone pointed out later I should have done “Dentist: 2” but it didn’t cross my mind because I couldn’t get off of the typical definitions of drill and crown. The game is full of opportunities for cleverness like this, and is overall very strategic for a “party game”.
Theme: The actual theme of this game is quite weak – the two spymasters are trying to make contact with their spies who are only known by their codenames. It’s a thin veneer, but I like it, and I think it works for two reasons. The first is that it gives the game a great aesthetic – everything about this game looks great. The second reason is that it matches the feel of the gameplay. Picking cards after being given a clue really feels like you’re trying to defuse a bomb that’s going to explode when you pick the wrong card. It’s loose, but there’s definitely a connection there. And this is about as good as it gets for a party game, I think.
Fun: This game is awesome. Gamer types who traditionally frown upon party games are going to enjoy this because the gameplay is plenty deep, and it’s not just a silly game for laughs. On the other hand, it’s an easy transition for beginners from other party games, as the mechanisms aren’t particularly weird. The only way I can see people not enjoying this is that they hate “feeling stupid” when they screw up in team games, something I’ve seen happen with people yelling and ruining Time’s Up!. So it’s not for quite everyone, but it’s definitely been a hit with me and everyone I’ve taught it to. I will say, though, that this is really only for four to six players. Past that, the teams get too big, and you can only play the game cooperatively with two or three, which takes the competitive tension away.
Just about everyone should find themselves enjoying Codenames – it’s fast, it’s deep, it’s tense, it’s awesome.
5 out of 5