Last week I talked about a Vlaada Chvátil game called That’s a Question!, arguing that it was pleasant enough, particularly in family or get-to-know-you settings, but didn’t exactly rock my socks off. In part because it didn’t feel like much of an innovation from one of our hobby’s most renowned innovators.
Well, today I’m going to tell you about Codenames Duet, which right there in its title announces itself as a new take on the living classic Codenames. But here’s the thing — in addition to being a testament to why our hobby thrives on iterative design, it just might be one of my favorite Chvátil games.
For those who haven’t played Codenames, the concept couldn’t be simpler. You’ve got a five-by-five grid of words laid out on the table. Players are divided into two teams, each with their own set of words they’re striving to mark off on the grid. The quandary is that only each team’s leader knows which words are theirs, and they can only give clues consisting of one word and one number. The word should be some indication of which cards their teammates must guess, while the number is, well, the number of cards the clue applies to.
Oh, and there are blank spaces that will end your team’s turn when guessed, plus an assassin that will lose you the round instantly. Tread carefully.
It quickly became one of my favorite lighter party games, the sort of thing that could reliably get people laughing about those existential archipelagoes we call “language,” and how we never truly inhabit the same space or fully understand one another. It made light of a dismal thing. Sort of like Chvátil’s own Space Alert, weirdly enough.
The thing is, Codenames also had a way of being peculiarly stressful. Whether it was existential loneliness seeping into the design like ink leeching into paper or just the fact that word games tend to winnow the smart-with-vocabulary from those who aren’t, it sometimes came across as mildly exhausting. Mildly, yes. But exhausting, mildly.
Codenames Duet is not that. It’s better. And it pulls it off by being profoundly collaborative.
Unlike some of Codenames’ previous outings, which mixed up the formula by being about pictures or naughty things or pictures of naughty things — don’t take that last one, it’s my super original idea — Duet is a cooperative game. It sounds almost like a gimmick. After all, you could theoretically play Codenames like that from the start. It would be as easy as passing clues back and forth between two people.
But that’s where you’d be wrong, because Duet is far more than that. Instead, each puzzle is a finely-tuned jigsaw of shared cards, multiple assassins, and accumulated hints, bound together by a turn limit to prevent you from giving a bunch of “Furniture One”-style clues. The goal is to find fifteen words, but each partner only holds the key to some portion of them. Further complicating matters, some of your words will also be your partner’s words, just as one of your three assassins will be shared, another will be one of your partner’s blanks, and the other will be — you guessed it — one of your partner’s target words. It’s like a big wordy Sudoku version of Minesweeper in that there are hundreds of combinations even though it would seem like there wouldn’t actually be all that many.
It’s also wonderful to play. Rather than focusing on outpacing an opponent’s team, the emphasis on working together means that it’s okay to have a flubbed turn. Maybe you were just waiting for the board to develop. As spaces are claimed, it gets easier to sidestep confusing non-targets, while also constricting attention around those pesky assassins. It gets more and less dangerous at the same time, if you get my meaning.
There’s also something relieving about the knowledge that failure doesn’t mean anybody is going to be hollering in your ears about their superior intellect. By stripping out even the faintest watermark of competition, Duet elevates itself to crossword-puzzles-in-bed levels of pleasantry.
Bottom line: Duet feels like the final form Codenames was always meant to eventually ascend to. With its dual-use neutral tokens and clever arrangement of clue cards, it’s not the sort of game Codenames could have started out as. Instead, the design had to get here one step at a time, from cutthroat vocabulary game to weird picture game and desperate-to-be-edgy game, all the way around to this incarnation. It reveals just why board games spend so much time improving themselves by grains and grams, the same mechanism hashed and rehashed until they evoke something truly great. Or in Duet’s case, something truly charming.
It won’t replace Codenames at my family gatherings, especially when I want to show off my superiority at Words. But Duet is truly magnificent on its own.