Once upon a time, there was a popular television game show called Password. Younger readers probably have never heard of it, and in truth, the show also predates me by decades.
Password is a game of word-association played in teams. In each round of the game there is a ‘password’, a secret word that only one member of each team knows. It’s the job of this in-the-know team member to get his or her partner to guess the password. The challenge of the game is this: the clue giver can only speak a 1-word clue.
So, let’s say the password is- “MOON”
If I was the clue giver, I might say to my partner- “Lunar”
I used to own a copy of the home card game version of Password, and I played it quite a bit throughout my youth. It’s an easy game to learn, and very fun and rewarding to play when you and your partner have a good connection. I enjoyed the game for years, but as with most things in life, the experience of Password eventually grew stale. For me, it was time to move on to the next thing…
So I moved on… and I kept moving on until the year 2015.
Cut to: me in Indianapolis, at the board game convention Gen Con. After a long day of promoting my game Trekking the National Parks, I slumped down at a table to relax and hang out with some friends. Someone inevitably said to the group- “Want to play a game?”
I replied- “No, I want to give up this foolish hobby and become an investment banker so I can finally afford some health care… YES, I WANT TO PLAY A GAME!”
And that’s when I was first introduced to Codenames.
Codenames is a game of word-association played in teams. In each round of the game there are ‘codenames’, secret words that only one member of each team knows. It’s the job of this in-the-know team member to get his or her partners to guess the codenames. The challenge is, the clue giver can only speak a 1-word clue……
“Hold on. This is just Password again!”
Yes….. and no.
It’s true that Password and Codenames have a lot in common. But as I soon found out, Codenames iterates on the original concept in brilliant new ways that would completely reinvigorate me (and the world) to word guessing games.
Codenames takes place in a classic espionage setting where you and your fellow players are competing spy teams (red team and blue team). One member of each team acts as the ‘Spymaster’, and it’s their job to swiftly direct their team in locating all of their color agents by getting them to correctly say the proper “codenames”. A grid of 25 codename cards is set up on the table representing a group of people who are possible agents. The Spymasters on each team are given one shared key card that reveals the secret identity of all the 25 codename cards: some are red team spies, some are blue team spies, some are innocent bystanders, and there is always one assassin.
On your team’s turn, if you are the Spymaster you must say a word that relates to one or more of your codenames in the card grid.
Example: Two of your team’s codenames are MERMAID and SAILBOAT.
So you may give the clue- “Ocean, 2.”
The ‘2’ tells your team how many words they should try to guess based on the clue. Since the game is a race to find all your agents before your opponent can find theirs, you’ll be challenged to come up with interesting word correlations that allow your team to guess as many codenames possible in a single turn.
But you must be careful. Incorrect guesses are always bad, and can go a number of ways:
Codenames works best as a gateway game for groups between 6-8. While a group as small as 4 people can play (or less with variant rules) the game shines at the higher player counts because of the group dynamic it creates when solving clues together. 25 codenames is a lot of data for a single mind to process, but when a clue is given to a group they are able to collectively dissect and discuss what the possible answers could be. This helps to avoid misplays and creates a lot of ‘ah ha!’ moments.
Needless to say, after my first game of Codenames at Gen Con, I was hooked. I immediately wanted to try the game again as the opposite role to get a feel for how the experience differed. I would highly recommend Codenames as a gateway game. It gets high marks in all the following categories:
Great First Play: Wheather you play as the Spymaster giving clues, or a field operative guessing codenames, both roles have their own fun challenges. Since games usually don’t last longer than 20 minutes, everyone will likely want to try both roles, and this generates a lot of momentum for the game with everyone learning strategies together and bonding over the experience.
Social Interaction: While talking isn’t required beyond the occasional clue, the game always generates a lot of table talk among the players while they are guessing and after guessing is complete as they analyze outcomes.
Understandable Choices: The mechanics of the game are beautifully simple, but the depth of the play experience is realized in the creative decisions you must make when giving clues or responding to them.
Player Stories: You are almost guaranteed to have moments of hilarious missteps where clues are misinterpreted. Likewise, there will be moments of triumph where your team is able to guess 4 or more codenames in a single turn. High fives and chest bumps are likely to happen.
Iteration is a natural occurrence in any art field. It is human nature to tweak and improve upon things, and I believe the progression from Password to Codenames is a beautiful example of this in the board gaming world. The mechanics originated in Password were ripe with potential, and game designer Vlaada Chvatil was able to expand the play experience into something fresh and new in his game Codenames.
Makes me wonder if they will ever make a game show out of it.
All images © 2018 Robert D. Bruce