Codenames isn't the kind of game I would normally play. It hasn't got miniatures, dice, Cthulhu or light sabres. It doesn't involve controlling territory, raising armies or levelling up. Instead Codenames is a simple game about word play and I'm beginning to think it's the best game of the year.
The premise of Codenames is paper thin but that doesn't matter, laid out is a 5 x 5 grid of Codenames which could be the names of spies, civilians or a deadly assassin. You will split into two teams and try and work out the names of your team's spies before your opponent and without finding the assassin. A spy master on each team will use word association to give clues to the identity of their teams' spies. For example they could say animal, and the code name could be horse.
But just selecting one word at a time would get boring and the first person to get one wrong would lose, so instead the aim is to come up with clues that cover multiple code names, giving the number of words that match that clue.
Let's use an example, it’s the Red Team’s turn and the spymaster has to give a clue. I’ve shown what the spymaster sees, so you get an idea of the struggle that can ensue:
The Red Spymaster could go for a simple clue, like “Fruit 1”. It’s a nice easy clue, as Apple is about the only word that fits the clue. Unfortunately it’s also a little safe, and you’re not going to win at Codenames by just being safe. The kind of clue you come up with is dependent not only on how your brain works but also on your teams’ brains. So if I was the Spymaster I might give the clue “Movie 2”, with the intended spies being the words Bond and Plot, but knowing my luck your first thought was America, thereby handing a point over to the Blue Team.
The result is a silly, fun and surprisingly clever word association game; a Mallet's Mallet for people with an IQ score above the level of Hawaiian shirt wearing moron.
The game can be quite swingy, with the setup being completely random you could end up with an absolutely perfect set of words that allows you to create a killer clue and at other times you can't put together a clue that strings together multiple words.
Then there is the intelligence of your team mates to deal with, or lack thereof. It's the most frustrating and actually the best part of the game, when the spymaster comes up with what they think is an absolute blinder of a clue only for their teammates to make a completely tangential word association. As the spymaster it can be a very stressful situation as you desperately want to steer your team in the right direction but have to remain completely stone faced.
The best part of Codenames is that this game can be played by anyone. I first played the game at Essen, with a group of German players that I had infiltrated. You would think with the game being English based it would have caused some issues, and to be fair it did, but that made the game even more fun. The base concept can be a little difficult to grasp at first but after just the first round everyone has got their head round the rules. There's also room in the rules with some pretty advanced play, such as giving a clue that doesn't apply to any of the words in play.
The game works even better with people you know really well. If you play with a partner or lifelong friend you're going to find word associations based on shared experiences and come up with words that will baffle the opposing team.
It really is a game for everyone, from hardcore gamers, to families and social gatherings. It's intelligent without being smug about it, just complicated enough to allow strategy without being bogged down in heavy rules and best of all guaranteed to bring out laughs and banter around the table. Game of the year!