[NOTE: Due to this being a lighter party game, this review follows a slightly different, trimmed-down format from what we usually use for reviews]
“What is the DEAL with Codenames?“
If you’re a follower of the tabletop gaming community/industry, you’ve probably asked yourself that question at least once or twice in recent memory. If you don’t fit in to the above description, allow me to explain:
Codenames, designed by Vlaada Chvatil and published by Czech Games Edition just this year, is a party game that is just so hot right now. It’s true–Codenames, ever since its release, has been high in demand. While only a $20 game on its own, many have paid double that or more to get their hands on this title during times of stock shortages. In places where board game sales and deals are posted, Codenames shows up just for being available, prices be darned.
Codenames, however, does not only have casual appeal. This is a game that makes headline news over and over among seasoned, veteran board game players. For anyone who is familiar with the community, it can be surprising when a casual, party-type game hits home with seasoned gamers. Many of us (myself sometimes included) can get into a holier-than-thou attitude when it comes to games, as if only highly strategic, elegantly designed heavy games can be considered real games. Many tabletop enthusiasts make it a point to scoff loudly at the mere mention of Monopoly, or to start hyperventilating if Cards Against Humanity is suggested for weekly game night.
Of course, I’m not trying to say that all gamers are like this (indeed, most people in this hobby are among the nicest people you’ll ever meet), but the point I’m trying to make is that, when a casual party game becomes really popular with seasoned hobby gamers, it’s a big deal. It’s kind of like a Marvel superhero movie being universally hailed by film critics and winning several Oscars.
So, why is Codenames so popular? I asked myself the same question, and I’ve finally gotten the chance to play it. In this Codenames review, I’ll try my best to make the answer crystal clear.
This review is in accordion format; feel free to shrink them and jump around to read about what interests you.
I was surprised when I found out how simple Codenames is. I thought, surely for a game that’s selling out so much, there has to be some kind of super unique innovative gimmick, right? Wrong. The game is extremely easy to play, and so inherently simple that you could make it out of scrap paper at home (don’t do that though, because this game is worth the price of admission.
The first thing you’ll notice about Codenames is, indeed, the codenames. The “board” is made up of a 5×5 grid randomly constructed with little cards, each one containing a word. The game is played with two teams, red and blue, and each team has eight or nine spies “hiding” in the grid, which is determined by a special key that differs with every game. Both teams appoint a “spy master” who looks at the key and has a perfect knowledge of which spies are where. The object of the game is to guess the correct words, aka “codenames,” that correspond to your team’s spies, through hints given by the spy master.
The spy master’s hints are the most important part of the game. See, the spy master can’t just talk freely about where their spies are, they can only give a single one word clue every turn. Furthermore, you’re in a race against the other team to uncover your spies, so if you want to win, you’ll have to uncover multiple spies per turn. This means that, to play Codenames effectively, the spymaster will have to think of singular words that correspond to multiple words on the board, in the hopes that their teammates will catch on. Also, the spy master will tell their team how many words correspond to their specific hint, so “cities, 2” would mean that there are exactly two words related to the hint “cities” that the spy master wants their team to guess. This determines how many guesses the team gets; if the spymaster dictates “2,” they have the chance of revealing up to two words on their turn. It IS worth noting that you always get an extra guess, so if the team were to guess the two “cities” clues, they could perhaps use their third guess to dig out an answer that they got wrong on a previous clue. However, if the team makes an incorrect guess, their turn ends immediately, thus negating the bonus guess. So, “cities, 2” would mean there are two cities on the board, and the team would have the chance to uncover three words.
But wait! Spies are a tricky bunch, and it’s possible to guess the wrong spies. If the spy master isn’t clever enough with their hints, their teammates might get the wrong idea and choose the wrong word (which immediately ends their turn). At best, you’ll reveal a “bystander,” which is a neutral card that neither helps nor hurts anyone in the game. At worst, you’ll end up revealing one of the other team’s spies, shortcutting them closer to victory. At worse-than-worst, you’ll reveal the assassin (there is exactly one in every game), which will instantly lose the game for you.
At the end of the day, then, it all comes down to the spymaster. They have to find words that can connect multiple words together, while also not coinciding with their opponents’ words, and especially not with the assassin. Ultimately, it comes down to strategy and clever thinking, but it also comes down to how well the teammates can read each other, which makes this a particularly fun social game.
While there are other smaller, more minor rules, what I’ve described above covers just about everything you need to know. Codenames is a game that’s all about knowing your teammates, but you’ll have to be thinking on your feet to win.
Like I said above, there is nothing particularly special about Codenames in terms of its mechanics. It’s mind-blowingly simple, and yet, it’s something I’ve never seen before. If we’re trying to answer the question, “why is Codenames so popular?” then something to take out of this is that there is beauty in simplicity, and that less really can be more. Codenames feels like something that would have originated as a pen and paper game that could be made on a whim at parties, which strikes a chord with me, because in my giant, boisterous family, these homemade, quick and dirty games have often outclassed anything that comes packaged in a box with a price. Homemade Telestrations was one of our favorites long before it became a packaged, popular party game, and Nertz is a simple card game that can be played with a standard deck that STILL hasn’t worn out its welcome after a decade and a half of playing.
Now, I’m not saying that Codenames originated in such a way, but it feels like a game that could have, and the point that I’m trying to make is that these types of games are often more fun than anything you can buy in a store, and I suppose that’s one reason why the game is spreading like wildfire. There are no fancy mechanics, no weird gimmicks, no exclusive components, it’s just good, old fashioned fun packaged into a box, nothing more, nothing less. In a world where gaming is becoming ever more popular, it’s not uncommon to see designers desperately innovate to a fault, to a point where their overly convoluted ideas end up detracting from the main goal of playing a game which is, again, just to have fun.
The thing I love most about Codenames is that it’s not really about the game, when it comes down to it. It’s about the players. Do you have that one person that you just seem to have a connection with? Do you find each other finishing each other’s sentences, or looking at each other slyly when you make some kind of reference that nobody else in the room understood but each other? Codenames is a game that takes those relationships, and puts them to the test. You have to know your players if you want to win, whether you’re the spy master, or the guesser trying to decipher their hints.
I recall a game where three of my words were “green,” “ring,” and “heart.” It seemed a near impossible task to connect these words together, until I realized, “wait a minute, we’re all die-hard Lord of the Rings fans!” I gave “Samwise, 3” as my hint, and my two teammates guessed them all without skipping a beat. There’s no way in heaven or earth that this trick would have worked with the other team, but it did for us because I knew who I was playing with; these were my two family members with whom I’ve shared my love of LOTR for more than a decade, the people that engage in philosophical conversation with me about the virtues of Tolkien’s writing and oh-how-great good ol’ Samwise is. When that hint popped into my head, it just felt right, and these are the moments that make Codenames a meaningful game.
On the other hand, the exact opposite of the above scenario can also make the game a delightful riot. What happens when you pair a team together who just can’t understand each others’ cues? As long as there are no poor sports playing, it’s equally agonizing and hilarious when somebody’s hints (or the teammates guessing them) consistently fail to understand each other’s internal thought process. This is best enjoyed when the game ends, when the teammates can finally spill out their reasoning, which inevitably turns into an incredulous debate between players of “HOW were you possibly thinking like that?!” These moments are both comical and revealing, and if you choose not to take the game super seriously, both failure and success will be among the high points in your enjoyment.
Codenames also carries a delightful sense of vengeful competition, where players are constantly trying to one-up one another. Oh, the opposing team just guessed three words in one turn? Well, time for your team to try to get four. This, of course, can make the scenario incresingly ridiculous as the spy master desperately attempts to push ahead of the competition. Failing in this regard can lead to the bittersweet loss I mentioned above, but it can also become an incredibly moment of roaring satisfaction when your team actually does it. It’s sickeningly satisfying when your opponents’ smug faces, confident in their inevitable win, turn into disbelief as your team actually manages to guess correctly from the ridiculous clue that’s given, shooting you ahead of them, or even to victory. I recall a win where the hint “Ron Burgundy” (we were allowing for proper noun hints) won us the game in the eleventh hour against all odds. These are the moments that make Codenames worth playing.
Overall, this is a game that creates a social experience. While board games are played for a multitude of reasons, the games that provoke you to dig deep and understand your fellow players, and then use that understanding of who they are to manipulate yourself to victory, are rare treasures. In an age where smartphones, technology, and anonymity are penetrating the very fabric of our social interactions, a game that encourages true social interaction is something that I just can’t turn down. It brings me back to the days of weekly Risk, where we played not because of the rules or strategy, but because of the social experience that it provided; the secret alliances, the treaties, the backstabbing. It brings me back to our homemade party games, where the participating players were an extension of the game itself, and understanding them was a key component to victory. Perhaps that is why Codenames is so popular–it’s so easy to forget why we play games, that it’s incredibly refreshing when something comes along and reminds us.
Codenames can be a focused, intimate experience with two players per team; the players must understand each other individually, and play to their exact tastes, which can either make it easier or even more difficult, depending on the combination of players. The game gets more interesting with multiple players, as you now have second and third opinions about what words should be guessed. Sometimes this can be advantageous, while at other times disastrous if you have the authoratative player who sounds convincing, but who actually has no idea about anything. It’s funny and tragic as the spy master, watching one person dissuade the group from what would have been a correct guess. In my experiences playing Codenames, you really can’t go wrong with however many players you bring in.
Codenames presents itself as a spy game. I would argue that it doesn’t really feel like a spy game, other than the fact that there’s guessing in it, but it certainly looks the part. There’s not a whole lot to say here except that Codenames plays the part well. Aesthetically, there’s no need for it to be overly flashy or intricate, given the simple nature of the game. The codeword cards are nice and readable, with a sealed-letter motif to fit in with the spy theme.
The only art to be found in the game is printed on the spy (and bystander) cards. Both teams have their own set of spies, each card having a male and female version (depending on which side is showing). The spies have different artwork on both teams, but within their own set, they both use the same male/female versions for every card, so there’s not a whole lot of variety. There is a “double agent” that’s added to whichever team goes first, in which the agent’s sunglasses match the color of the opposing team. I thought this was a clever and elegant way to represent that idea.
Ultimately, if I had to find something to criticize about the aesthetics, I would have liked to see more spies for each team, but it’s such an insignificant thing that it doesn’t really matter much.
In terms of component quality, there’s also not much to say here other than that it works. The components don’t feel cheap or flimsy, nor do they feel like they’re some kind of premium grade quality. They feel exactly right for what they need to do, and let’s be honest, component quality most likely isn’t the first thing on most people’s minds when it comes to party games. No issues here.
Remember when I said that Codenames is a game that you could, hypothetically, put together with pen and paper? Well, don’t do that, because Codenames is totally worth it at the paltry price of $20 (might as well be pennies in the board gaming world), and by paying it, you’re helping to support a company that has a track record of making fantastic games. Not only that, but creating your own Codenames would kind of be a huge pain. Codenames comes with everything you need, and includes hundreds of double sided cards, practically guaranteeing that you’ll never play the same game twice.
I would recommend Codenames to anybody in an absolute heartbeat. It’s accessible enough to where just about anybody would enjoy it, and it’s so easy to set up, teach, and play that you can bust it out at any moment’s notice if you have company over. In this sense, it is the embodiment of what every good party game should be. This is not my opinion alone; when I presented Codenames to friends and family, they immediately had intentions to pick up their own copies after just a few rounds.
So, it’s worth the price, yeah, but the real challenge is finding it. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as it sounds. While Codenames is indeed in high demand, it is by no means impossible to find. Even as I write this post right now, it’s available on Amazon. If you order it online, it’s possible that you might wait a couple days more than usual for shipping (depending on inventory and demand), but the publishers seem to be acutely aware of the game’s popularity, and are making earnest strides to meet supply expectations.
In short, Codenames, depending on the day, might be a little bit harder to find than other games, but it’s still very attainable. If you see it being sold for higher than MSRP, don’t give in, because it’s highly likely that it’ll be available and accessible if you wait a few days.
Codenames is all about the spy master thinking of the best clues to outwit their opponents. Unfortunately, this can induce a seriously dangerous case of analysis paralysis. It’s not uncommon for the spy master to sit, brooding, for forever while they try to think of the perfect clue. Even worse is when, after the eternity of enduring their overthinking, you’ve now got to sit through the players trying to pick through the words to make their guesses, which can often take equally as long.
Fortunately, the game acknowledges this inevitable situation, and provides a sand timer if things get too slow. There is no official rule regarding the timer, it simply says that the other team may wish to enact it if the other team is taking too long. It’s up to your group to determine the “rules” of the timer, but it is there. Depending on the people that are playing, the pressure from the timer could actually make the game more enjoyable, while others might just become stressed.
But hey! There are always solutions. Our group decided to get a game of Exploding Kittens running during our Codenames game. If there ever was a purpose for a “filler” game, this would be it. Normally, I would take more issue with a game that has so much downtime, but it’s more easily forgiven if it’s a party game, where the stakes aren’t as high, and where players can easily find ways to keep themselves busy in the meantime.
Codenames, with all the hype that surrounds it, must have some kind of “secret ingredient,” right? I would argue that the answer is no. I was surprised to find that there’s nothing exceptionally innovative or gimmicky or extraordinary about this game. It’s simply a good idea that was executed well, and that makes it a good time. I’m not going to say that this is the best game ever made, but it is absolutely, undoubtedly worth your time if you’re looking for a fun party game.
Codenames really excels in the interaction department, as it provokes players to try to understand each other’s internal thought processes. Are you really on the same wavelength as your significant other? Do those twins actually have that “twin connection” that they always have to bring up? These questions can be answered by Codenames, and at the end of every game, everyone will be ready for more.
Codenames, in a way, reminds me of Disney’s Frozen (bear with me here). Frozen is, for all intents and purposes, a good movie. A great movie, in fact! Not only that, but it subverted the low expectations that many people likely had for it before release, bursting out of the woodwork and being hailed by many as the first great Disney musical in more than a decade. This, of course, led people to talk about it and hype it up as something great. The massive hype around Frozen led many to believe (who hadn’t seen it) that there was something incredible and amazing about it that must be the reason why it’s so good. In reality, Frozen is not some miraculous, legendary feat of filmmaking; it’s simply a good movie with good music that got overblown by the media because it caught people off guard. If you can remove the golden crown of hype that surrounds it, it’s easy to enjoy the movie for what it is.
This is how I feel about Codenames. It’s not some incredible, wondrous achievement in tabletop gaming, it’s just a good, fun, enjoyable game–there’s no secret ingredient here except for a clever, “less is more” approach at having fun. If you see the “#1 Party Game on Board Game Geek” on its box and expect the second coming of gaming, it might just disappoint. However, if you simply want a good party game that’s quick to set up, easy to play, and a delight to all players involved, Codenames is absolutely worth your time and money.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You enjoy “mind-melding” games
- You enjoy reading people
- You want a game that can be set up and taught within five minutes
- You’re good with words, or have ever had aspirations to attend the Scrabble World Championship
- You want a game that can be played quickly and easily
- You enjoy guessing games
- You want a game that’s quick and easy to play
- You like injecting friendly competition into your games
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You don’t like downtime during your games
- You don’t have a single lick of mental chemistry with the people in your gaming group
- You’re not good at associative guessing
- You have a small vocabulary
- The thought playing a party game makes you hurl