Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Code to Joy

Game designer Vlaada Chvátil is best known for elaborate board games with elaborate themes -- Dungeon Lords, Galaxy Trucker, and the like. But he does occasionally produce simpler games where the theme is hardly important at all. And apparently in those cases, his go-to theme is "spies." So it was for his earlier Sneaks & Snitches, and so it is with his latest, Codenames.

Codenames is a party game where players divide into a red team and a blue team. 25 cards are dealt into a 5x5 grid, from a deck of hundreds of English nouns. One player from each team then looks at a randomly chosen map card that (by position) identifies a third of the word cards in the grid for the red team and another third for the blue team. These cards represent "agents" with whom the teams are attempting to "get in contact"; these are the words the team is trying to guess.

The single players from each team take turns giving one word clues that point to the cards their team is after. Efficiency is rewarded, because each team can keep guessing multiple word cards -- until they guess a word that isn't one of their targets. Thus, the clue givers are trying to give one word clues that apply to multiple words the team is after. But the clue givers must also take care not to be too general. Any word card belonging to the opposing team is scored by them, no matter who guesses it. And one word represents the "assassin," which everyone wants to avoid. A team that exposes the assassin loses the round.

The spy veneer disappears instantly from this game once you start playing it, so if flavor's what you're looking for here, you may be disappointed. But I think it likely you won't be disappointed, as the game itself is quite a brain tickler. Somehow, Vlaada Chvátil has been able to take the rough idea of Password or Taboo, give it a pseudo-visual aspect, and the compress the tension. The result is a completely different game.

The deck of words is hundreds of cards tall, and double sided. Yet it is clearly "curated" in a way that puts many possible multi-answer clues into play. "Heat" could be a valid clue for both "Degree" and "Phoenix." "Performance" could be a valid clue for "Stage" and "Bow"... and maybe, if you're stretching, "Cycle." But the trick as clue-giver is not just to connect your words in inventive ways, but to avoid connecting any "enemy words" (or the dreaded assassin word). It's quite challenging, and quite fun.

One possible drawback of the game is that it's considerably more fun to give the clues than it is to guess them. It can also take a lot of time, as the clue givers agonize over the perfect clue. There is an optional timer you can use to speed the action... though employing it feels like it might short-circuit the core fun of the game. That leaves me with the vague impression that this game works best if you've got, say, 8 or more people willing to commit to one party game for a long time -- and who don't mind filling the inevitable waiting time with conversation. Or it might be fine if not everyone playing wants a turn in the clue-giving hot seat. It's probably great for four players in two teams of two, where everyone can spend equal time giving and guessing. (But then, it's probable that with just four of you, you wouldn't want to play a "party game.")

Still, there are many in my circle of friends who really enjoy clever wordplay, and who all seemed quite taken with Codenames. I have no doubt it'll be seen again at future group gatherings. I give it a B+.

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