It’s been a while since we looked a team game, so here’s a short overview of Codenames, definitely one of the most successful team games of recent years.
Codenames by Vlaada Chvátil
Publisher: Czech Games Edition (2015)
Cooperative Style: Teamwork
Play Style: Word Guessing Game
Codenames is a simple word guessing team game with extremely restricted communication and a permanent spymaster role for each team. It’s focused on a grid of 25 cards, each with a word or words on them. Each team is trying to guess 7 or 8 of the words, and only the spymasters knows which ones. On his turn, a spymaster gives hints to his team — hopefully causing them to guess their words, not the other teams’ words and especially not the assassin’s word.
The core of Codenames’ cooperative play is its system of restricted communication. On his turn, a spymaster provides a one-word clue and a single number to his team. The word can’t be one of the words in the grid, while the number denotes how many words the clue refers to. It’s the most restricted cooperative communication since Hanabi (2010), and like Hanabi it works quite well due to the extremity and specificity of these restrictions.
Codenames also works because it gives the players the opportunity to be clever in spite of the restrictions: a good spymaster can figure out how to give a clue that might refer to multiple words. For example, if “Superman” and “Gilgamesh” were his team’s words on the grid, he could say “hero”. Then, clever players could figure out what he meant. However, Codenames is never that simple, and so a spymaster must typically provide much more obscure clues that his team will then have to carefully analyze. For example, could “muscle” refer to “Superman”, “Gilgamesh”, and “beach”? Or is it a purposeful homophone for a “mollusk”?
The mechanics of Codenames also support a lot of player agency: because there’s no obvious right answer, and because there’s so much vagueness, players feel more able to speak up, to each offer their own opinion.
No Challenge System Elements. Teams with Reverse-Overlords.
Expansions & Variants
The core ideas of Codenames are very expandable. Codenames: Deep Undercover (2016) was a supplement with different (risqué) words, while Codenames: Pictures (2016) created a grid of pictures instead of words, and Codenames: Duet (2017) offered a way for two to play. There are also variants focused on specific brands, from Disney (2017) to The Simpsons (2019).
Codenames offers a fine example of how to tune communications restrictions to the point where they enhance teamwork play rather than limiting it. It also shows how an extremely simple game can be quite successful.
“Most children invent their own games, don’t they? I just never stopped…”
— Vlaada Chvátil, “The Art of Design”, OpinionatedGamers.com (December 2011)