On the Table: Codenames

This past week I played a game of Hanabi, which is a game I was pretty stoked about when it first came out, but haven’t really thought about much since. It’s not bad, just not something I find myself wanting to play. My copy is in the trade pile.

We also played Amun-Re, which I hadn’t played in some time. It’s a solid Knizia design from 2003, though it contains a certain amount of faff that would be called “point salad” ten years later. The thing I like the most about it is the fact that there’s two halves to the game, and you wipe some elements and ownership off the board. Build up your stuff too well in the first half of the game and risk giving those points to someone else when it’s not your stuff anymore. I thought I was doing pretty well until I walked into a situation where only one region was good for me in the final round and I couldn’t get it. Wouldn’t have won me the game, but I would have done a bit better.

But the big thing was Saturday night when we played three rounds of Codenames. This is a refreshingly simple game that provides a lot of fun. It’s one of the few games I’ve seen where my group played someone’s copy and then suddenly everyone wanted a copy of their own.

It’s a staggeringly simple idea. There is a 5×5 grid of words. The players divide into teams, Red and Blue, and one player from each team is the codemaster for that team. Her goal is to get the other players to guess which words are their team’s before the others do. To do so, she will provide one-word clues to the code words. Since it’s a race, you want to try to “combine” guesses. So let’s say three of your words are “oil”, “cat”, and “pitch”. You might give the clue, “Black, three.” Black is the one-word clue, and three is the number of words you are saying it applies to. The team members then have to figure out which words you’re pointing them to. If they pick a word that belongs to the other team, or a “neutral” one that belongs to neither team, the turn is over and the other team goes. One word is the “assassin” word and choosing it results in your turn losing immediately.

There’s nothing to it. It’s such a straightforward, simple idea (and coming from Vlaada Chvatil, who usually designs sprawling, intricate games. But it’s a lot of fun, and it’s not easy for either the clue givers of receivers. I’m not much for party games, and it’s very close to a party game, but I’m one of the ones who immediately ordered a copy. We were playing with only four, but it really gets good with six.

Earlier on Twitter I was remarking that if 2015 ended tomorrow, I don’t think I could fill out a complete list of ten really good New to Me boardgames. Codenames, however, would easily make that list. It’s one of the standouts this year.

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