Just last month, if you were to tell me that Vlaada Chvátil was making a party game, I’d laugh you out of the room. I mean, I’d finish choking on my chocolate milk first, but then I’d laugh you out of the room.
Why? Well, because party games are about simplicity. About getting everyone involved, even when they aren’t particularly into games. They’re about appealing to both your hardcore enthusiast brother-in-law and your grandma who hasn’t played a board game since the winter of ’47 when her little brother froze to death because he wouldn’t stop playing checkers under the porch.
Vlaada Chvátil, on the other hand — and this is what I would have told you a month ago — is about convoluted designs that glow with the uncanny brilliance of an insane person. People don’t play Space Alert, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Mage Knight, or Galaxy Trucker because they’re simple. They play them because they’re bonkers.
But that was the me of a month ago. Today I have been humbled, because I can’t stop playing Vlaada Chvátil’s version of a party game.
Here’s a handy step-by-step guide to playing Codenames.
One. Break into roughly even teams. Try to align yourself with whoever does the New York Times daily crossword.
Two. Assign a team leader. Don’t worry too much about picking the best candidate, because you’ll want to play enough rounds that everybody will probably get a chance.
Three. Wait patiently for your team leader’s expression of consternation to recede. It’s okay. They’re experiencing a mild form of shock; the best thing you can do is give them their space.
Four. The team leader will give you a clue. Before you sits a 5×5 grid of words. Try to guess which words go with your team leader’s clue.
Five. When you get it wrong, go easy on the poor guy, huh? It’s tougher than it looks. And it’s probably your own fault anyway. His clue made total sense to the people on the other team.
And that’s how you play Codenames.
It really is fantastically simple. Without Chvátil’s name plastered across the front of the box, I never would have guessed that Codenames was his brainchild.
The idea is that both team leaders are trying to get their underlings to identify which words belong to them. They have a top-secret special grid that shows the identity of each card, whether they belong to the Red Team, Blue Team, are a helpless bystander, or the dreaded ASSASSIN. More on the ASSASSIN later.
The clues they can give are agonizingly limited, just one word and one number. The word, of course, is supposed to relate to some of the words laid out across the board. A Charlie Parker fan might, for instance, say “Bird” to encompass “Feather,” “Jazz,” and “Saxophone.” Something like that. The number, meanwhile, indicates how many words your clue applies to. “Bird three.”
That’s when it starts to come apart. You watch in desperation as your team fumbles around. “Birds live in trees,” they’ll say. “So branch? Or cat? Because birds hate cats?” Then they’ll reach out and touch the wrong clue and you’ll sigh and put down an innocent bystander, ending your team’s turn. Or worse, an enemy agent, ending your team’s turn and giving your enemies a point. Or worse, the ASSASSIN.
More on the ASSASSIN later.
Like many party games, Codenames highlights both the power and fallibility of language. In one recent game, my team was down to two final words, Link and Pan, hidden amid a minefield of worthless vocabulary. As the team leader, I rolled the possible clues around in my head. The obvious one seemed to be Steel, but then I realized that one a nearby bystander was identified by the word Compound. Reasoning that steel is uncomfortably close to a compound, I decided to say Iron instead — since iron is an element, not a compound (or a mixture, as steel technically is). “Iron Two,” I said. Right away, my teammates zoned in on Link, touching it and letting me breathe a sigh of relief as I revealed one of our markers. They got a second guess, because getting a clue right often means your team can keep going — and then they sat there and talked about how I probably didn’t know the difference between compounds, mixtures, and elements. In the end, they guessed Compound.
As with some of the best party games, Codenames sparks great table-talk even after the game ends. And I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t make a big childish scene about that one. I also made a big childish scene when “Bloodsuckers Two” got them to guess both the Tick and the Novel in our next game.
Alright, I’ve put this off long enough. Let’s talk about the ASSASSIN.
While most of the people on the board are bystanders or agents, there’s a single spot that will instantly kill the team who picks it. That’s the ASSASSIN, and much like how the worst earworms stick in your head until you’ve hummed “Livin’ la Vida Loca” so many times that you’ve actually purchased a length of sturdy rope at the hardware store, the ASSASSIN’s word has a way of coming up every time you think of a really good clue. Like saying “Bird Three” and then realizing that the ASSASSIN is hidden underneath Nest. The one measly upside is that even when you’re trailed the other team by four clues, there’s a chance they’ll stumble across the ASSASSIN and lose anyway.
And that’s Codenames.
It’s been an incredible year for party games, packed with titles like Funemployed!, Knee Jerk, Mysterium, Spyfall, and A Fake Artist Goes to New York, and Codenames still feels like the genius in the room. Vlaada Chvátil, I owe you my deepest apologies. Turns out you can do simple and broad appeal with the best of them.