As far as the world of board games is concerned, Codenames is likely one of the most solid board games on the market currently, on the fast track into becoming a classic. Codenames even earned the coveted award “Spiel des Jahres” (Game of the Year) in Germany which speaks to the success of the game. There are several aspects within Codenames that were likely what led to the game’s overall smashing success.
Developed by the Cech designer Vladimír Chvátil through Czech Board Games (perhaps not the most creative of company names but at the very least straightforward), Codenames is refreshingly simple:
“Two rival spymasters know the secret identities of 25 agents. Their teammates know the agents only by their CODENAMES. The teams compete to see who can make contact with all of their agents first. Spymasters give one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the board. Their teammates try to guess words of the right color while avoiding those that belong to the opposing team. And everyone wants to avoid the assassin.”
Very simple! A far cry from the complexity of Vladimír Chvátil’s other noteworthy game, “Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization” which is essentially is a straight tabletop adaption of the classic video game series Sid Meier’s Civilzation. Comparatively Codenames is a simple game which, through the simplicity of the mechanics, manages to become gracefully flexible and replayable.
I could go into the mechanics/how to play or why it is simple and therefore elegant. However, everything has room for improvement and I feel some criticism is warranted to that end. So in the spirit of brevity here is a synopsis of gameplay: two people hereto known as spymasters use a little cheatsheet to try and use one word hints in the hopes that their team will correctly guess the desired words from the lineup. There is also a version where instead of a lineup of words there are different pictures.
The word version’s strengths lie in the difficulty level that the simple words lend. Because each card contains single unembellished words the difficulty of stringing combinations and chance of misunderstandings is at a relatively perfect balance. My first playthrough of the game with a group of other first timers proved that the difficulty made the game cerebral at a comfortable level which made playing the game fun. The game was often characterized by thoughtful silences which is an interesting element for a party game such as this. It was difficult enough to make everybody think and rewarding when combos were successfully pulled off. I also noted that the word version of Codenames offered a teaching opportunity. Several of the people playing were not native English speakers and the game exercised their skills in English.
However, the word version did have a weak point. The cards for the words are borderline ugly, for starters. Perhaps that offers subconscious motivation to cover their shame with the pretty spy cards. Otherwise the word version also could benefit from more materiality, things to hold or manipulate, and perhaps an option for greater complexity if the players want because the game can become tedious after a few rounds.
The picture version of Codenames… well. Conceptually it is a great idea. However I feel this way because the picture version of Codenames was far too difficult and abstract. I think in the spirit of trying to make the pictures convey an adaptable range of concepts to be utilized by the players, they accidentally made them too complex. Each card has an oppressive number of elements that all too often had too much in common with other cards. Therefore it was extremely hard to reliably anticipate what the other people were focusing on and far too easy to guess the wrong things. Maybe this version works better with groups of people well acquainted with each other’s thought processes but that really limits the game’s overall flexibility. The word version of Codenames better fit the ‘plotline’ of the game as well. It makes more sense for a spy to be named Crane Palm Day than an elaborate interpretive dance. I will admit, however, that the picture version of Codenames is far more aesthetically pleasing as well as more creative. It also lends more approachability to people with dyslexia.
I believe that the two versions should be combined to fix the inherent problems in both; the ugliness of the word version could be augmented by the pictures. The lack of complexity and creativity in the word version could be fixed by the pictures as well as adding a degree of accessibility for people with learning disorders. The utter impossibility of the picture version can be mitigated by the straightforward words.