PuzzleNation Product Review: Codenames

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There are all kinds of games where communication is crucial.

In You’ve Got Crabs, you must employ a secret non-verbal signal to inform your partner that you’ve completed a task, but without the other team spotting your signal and intercepting. In Taboo, you have to get a teammate to state a particular word, but without using several words closely associated with the answer.

But other games ratchet up both the creativity necessary to win and the difficulty involved in doing so. Imagine having to communicate volumes with a single word.

In today’s product review, we delve into the world of spycraft and put our communication skills to the test as we try out the card game Codenames.

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In Codenames, two teams (the red team and the blue team) are tasked with identifying all of their secret agents before their opponents can locate their own agents from the same list. But in order to do so, they must pick those agents out of a field of 25 possible individuals.

In each group, there are red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. Each possible individual is marked with a codename that is viewable by all of the players.

So, where does the wordplay and communication come in?

Each team selects one player apiece to serve as the spymaster. The spymaster for each team looks at one of the secret patterns determining which cards/codenames represent blue agents and which red agents.

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So it’s up to the spymaster to point the players in the right direction, but it’s up to the players to actually choose a given person in the field of 25 and label them an agent.

Each round, the spymaster comes up with a one-word clue for the other players on their team that points to their secret agents (as well as a number representing the number of agents in the field that the clue applies to). The word must be specific enough to point them in the right direction, but that can be difficult depending on the words in your play area.

For instance, in our example grid, the clue “royalty: 1” could point toward KING, or QUEEN, or HEAD, or even REVOLUTION, depending on what the other players associate with the word “royalty.” But suppose that you want your players to choose KING and not QUEEN. Then “royalty” is no good, because it’s too vague.

The number aspect of the clue is also important, because it offers the opportunity to gain an advantage over your opponents. For instance, if you wanted both KING and QUEEN to be labeled as your agents, the clue “royalty: 2” would be good, because those would probably be the two most likely choices based on that clue.

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In our example grid, the red team went first, and the spymaster said “dishes: 2.” The other player on the red team chose GLASS and WASHER from the grid, and both were correct and marked with red agent cards. This was a smart play, but also a risky one, as PAN could also be associated with “dishes.”

The blue team responded with the clue “rasp: 1,” choosing specificity and a single possible answer for the sake of certainty, rather than risk trying for more than one agent in this turn. The blue player correctly selected FILE, and that card was marked with a blue agent card.

The next turn for the red team didn’t go nearly as well. The spymaster used the clue “big: 1” and instead of choosing SHOT (the intended answer), the player opted for MAMMOTH. The card was revealed to be an innocent bystander, and the red team’s turn was immediately over for failing to ID an agent that turn.

And that is one of the big strategic challenges of Codenames. Do you stick to 1 agent per turn with a greater chance of success, or do you try to get more creative and bold by going for less certain clues that could lead to multiple agent IDs in one fell swoop? Do you risk uncovering the assassin (and immediately losing the game) with a clue that could suggest him as well as a secret agent for your team?

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The field of codenames in the play area can also lead to unexpected challenges. In one game, I was playing the spymaster for my team. The words JUPITER and SATURN were both in the grid, but only JUPITER was one of our agents. So a clue like “planet” was out. Unfortunately, other clues (like “biggest” or “god”) were excluded because they also applied to other codenames in the play area, including the dreaded assassin.

A mix of tactics, efficiency, association, vocabulary, and luck, Codenames is a terrific game that will test your wits, your communication skills, and your ability to make every word count.

The sheer volume of possible codenames (as well as the increased variety offered by each card being double-sided) ensues a huge amount of replay value is built into the game. And not only is it great as a group game, but the two-player version is just as fun!

Codenames, playable for 4 to 8 players (with variant rules for 2 or 3 players) is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, and many online retailers.


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