2 Chits, 5 Giggles
Do you remember how inept you felt when you first tried to fill in a government form like, say, a tax return? Or how frustrating it was almost finishing building that bookshelf and realising right at the end that you’re missing one of the crucial pieces? Have you ever wanted to revisit these feelings, but condense them into a relatively short period of time? Well if you have, then you would do well to purchase Codenames, the newest game from beloved games designer Vlaada Chvátil.
Reading that paragraph above, you might think I’m not fond of this game, but you’re wrong. So wrong. Let me explain. Codenames is a marvelously simple yet devilishly tricky party game, and involves a grid of 25 unique words laid out on the table, visible to all. The words come from a pool of nouns, proper nouns and verbs (e.g ‘mount’, ‘orange’ and ‘India’) and after they’ve been revealed, each of them is assigned a colour according to a randomly selected grid. Thus each word will either now be hiding a red spy, a blue spy, a beige coloured civilian or a lone black assassin. The idea is that each teams chosen ‘spymaster’, who gets to see the grid and knows which word hides which colour, must try to direct their teammates to find all their fellow spies while avoiding all the rest as best as they can before their opponents achieve the same goal.
However, as with any word game, or for that matter any spy game, it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. There is a caveat; your spymasters are only allowed to give clues in the form of a single word and a single number, therefore implying there are that number of words on the board that are related to that word. Don’t worry, I’ve got an example for you that should make it crystal clear..
Let’s pretend only the following words are visible on the table; space, wave, cherry, pants. With a smile I give you the following clue: “moon two” So that means, according to me, two of those words are our teams spies and they are both related to the moon. So you might think ‘space’ yes, for that’s obviously where the moon is. You are so confident that you point to it, and after a moment’s tension, I plonk our teams colour card on it revealing you were correct. But you’re also thinking well it’s not immediately obvious which of the other words is linked. Does the moon look like a cherry because they’re both round-ish? Do people wave at the moon? Don’t you have to pull down your pants to moon someone? You think to yourself that pants are probably the most obvious answer. You can feel it in your gut, you know how hilarious I find a good mooning. You don’t have to use all your guesses every turn (which is always one more than the number I say) and a wrong move might give a point to your teammates, or even worse, you might reveal the assassin which is an instant game over for us. However, you’re feeling brave so you point to it, and as I frown and throw a civilian card on it, you yell ‘Damn it Russell!’ because actually I was so sure you knew that the moon’s gravity causes waves in the sea that I feel a little stupid. I should have known pants was linked to the moon somehow, if only I’d been more careful!
There is a lot more to this game than you’ll initially suspect, and more than anything it’s a puzzle game. Trying to connect words like Berlin and China without also involving India (‘wall’ is a good example) is tricky enough but can be made moreso depending on which other words are visible. The addition of the assassin spices things up further, particularly if it shares meanings with several other spaces on the board. When you do figure out a way to connect many words together though, even if it relies on your team mates making gigantic leaps in logic, it’s an incredibly satisfying moment you’ll want to shout about. It will also push you too, challenging you to stretch yourself to link that extra word, which could be the difference between winning and losing.
It’s very much a game I would come back to in a heartbeat. Like Two Rooms And A Boom, it is the type of game where everybody can get involved, but like Mysterium, the player coming up with the clues is having a little bit more fun than the others. Also similar to those games, there is definitely a sweet spot for player numbers; a co-op mode exists for 2-3 players which is decent enough and more than eight people can occasionally herald a ‘too many cooks’ scenario, but between those two certainly exists an entertaining time.
The only real issue with this game is how much time you could spend deliberating over your clue as the spymaster. You want to make sure you don’t overlook any word, and often you’ll think up a perfect clue only to notice one of the other visible words screwing it up. They’ve somewhat combatted this by adding a sand timer, its sole purpose to allow your own team mates to hurry you up, but it feels like a cheat. You don’t want to encourage your friend to give you a crap clue so putting a time pressure on them isn't the best plan. However, this is not a deal breaker, just be careful selecting your spymaster, the success of your mission depends on it!
While writing this review, I’ve seen many compare this game to it’s thematic cousin ‘Spyfall’ and the question over which is better has commonly cropped up. It’s an unfair comparison. These are two different games. One encourages smart bluffing and is a one vs all affair, while the other is a team word game and can be very strategic at times. The only real similarities are the spy theme and their having limited communication. While Spyfall is a fun game, there is a time and a place for either, and you can enjoy both in the same game session without getting ‘spy game fatigue’ (which is a very odd phrase to be writing.)
I wholeheartedly recommend getting this game. It’s fun, it’s got some of the best replayability in a game I’ve seen and feels like it fills a hole in many gamer’s collections. To summarise, I’ll give you two more clues; chits two, giggles five.
Review by Russell Chapman