Monday, November 23, 2015


Sometimes big fun comes in small packages.

Vlaada Chvátil is the designer of space junk builder and racer Galaxy Trucker and space ship crew simulator Space Alert, but is most famous for the magical stategy game Mage Knight. So you'd be forgiven for thinking that his expertise lies solely in big box, big rules games. But everyone needs a change of pace, and Codenames is Vlaada's.

When you open the box you'll be surprised to find just a few packets of cards, in two varieties, and a sheet of thicker card stock with a few cards to punch out. It becomes immediately obvious that this game is clean, clear and simple, but by no means basic.

Codenames plays ridiculously cleanly. You set out 25 cards in a 5x5 grid. Each card has a single word printed on it twice, back to back, readable from both sides of a table. Then there's the map card, a square card with a 5x5 grid of squares, eight coloured red, eight blue, one black and seven cream. Eight plus eight, plus one plus seven equals 24. The last of the 25 squares will either be red or blue, deciding which team starts first, having one extra word to identify.

Players are divided into two teams, each made up of one Spymaster and one or more Field Operatives. The two opposing Spymasters sit on one side of the table, with their Field Operatives on the opposite sides. The Spymasters can see the map, or key, and are trying to clue the Field Operatives in to which cards are in their teams colour.

But it's not as easy as giving coordinates to the colours you want. Spymasters are restricted to only saying one descriptive word and one number. With that, they have to find connections between the words in the grid of 25 on the table, using the key to tell them which cards are important to them. So if the words Day and Star are in your colour, you might say Night, 2, in the hopes that your team get the connection.

And that's really the essence of the game. There are rules about guessing, such as not using part of a code word, like if Seahorse is on the table, you can't use Horse, or Sea as the clue, and there are rules for passing the turn to the other team, but all that is in the silm rulebook. Spymasters give clues, their teammates try to decipher those hints and find the required cards, and everyone wants to avoid that one black card which acts as an assassin, instantly losing you the game if chosen.

Codenames is fast. You can get a game set up in less than a minute and played in less than five if your team is on fire, less than ten if they're struggling for inspiration. And the second game will be even easier, as all the word cards are double sided, so for a second game, simply flip the grid!

I highly recommend Codenames. It's fast, easy to teach, and endless fun. The grid of words will never be the same, so there's no chance you'll just learn an optimal codeword and over use it. As long as a player can read all the words, they can play the game, so it works really well with younger players too.

There is a free app available for iOS and Android that generates the key and looks pretty. This means that it's possible to try the game using the app and a deck of Apples to Apples words, as long as you do some curation on the cards that come up. A fun way to try out this fantastic board game, but not a good long-term substitute.

Photos and formatting to be added later. I'm running disasterously behind on my posts.

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