Codenames: From Essen With Love

Pairs well with: Martinis. Shaken, not stirred. (Rumour has it they’re actually better stirred, but that’s just the kind of shit you’ve got to deal with as a spy.)

Traitor-rating: 2/10 for the ability to try to put off your opponents mid-game.

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We three kings* board game enthusiasts have had a lot to say about what some of the best games from Essen 2015 may have been. There have been a lot of candidates and a lot of enthusiasm. It’s almost as if we really, really love board games! Weird.

The excited froth of enthusiasm shall continue to spill forth as we move on to what really is one of the best, and surprisingly so, games of the year: Codenames. Don’t be put off by the box art which looks like it was designed in MS Word and features the thrilling byline of ‘TOP SECRET WORD GAME’,** this is some addictive shit. We hope you’ll forgive a bit of brief explanation, since the game is pretty simple to play and explain.

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Lizzy gets fancy photography confused with just holding the camera in a funny place

In Codenames you (usually) play as two different teams of spies. One person per team is the spymaster, the rest of you are regular vanilla-spies sitting in the field awaiting instruction.

The ‘board’ consists of a 5 x 5 grid of cards, each with a different word on it. The two rival spymasters, presumably sitting nice and comfortably somewhere in Spy HQ playing with some gadgets and looking at a dozen different CCTV monitors, have access to an extra card which they share, but which the rest of the players aren’t allowed to see. That card shows the ‘board’ as a 5 x 5 grid with each card marked as red, blue, grey or the single black.

This little card means that the spymasters can know which of the words on the table are the codenames of red-team spies, blue-team spies, regular confused passers-by and THE ASSASSIN!

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The Assassin

The actual game is a word association game, with the aim being to contact all of the spies on your own team before the other team does the same, and to not contact the assassin (for obvious, game-ending reasons). The spymasters will take turns giving exactly one word and one number, the word being one that they’re trying to associate with some on the table and the number indicating how many words they’re trying to link.

Simple!

One of the first things you come to notice as you play the game is that you really feel sorry for some of these spies. Agent Ghost? Cool. Agent Roulette? Pretty classy. Agent Ham? Umm, maybe not so much. Agent Ketchup? Are you sure you work here? Oh and I’ve got to say I’m a little embarrassed to be working with Agent Pants over here. There’s a reason we gave her that name.

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Confused passer-by

And sometimes you’ve really got to question just what the secret service were thinking about. Agent Spy? I mean really. AGENT SPY? What do you think the point of a secret codename is? Maybe to avoid revealing your identity as a spy to everyone? Tsh. Some people just weren’t cut out for this business.

The plus side of Spy HQ’s batshit, overboard spy-naming policy is that you’ll never be short on variety between different games, even when each one is only about 15-20 minutes long. The box is jam-packed with different words, two sides to each, and you can get through a hell of a lot of games (trust us, we’d know) before you need to come across the same words that you’ve already used. Even if that weren’t the case, the way that the board is always different means that it’s unlikely any of your games will ever resemble each other. And other factors, like the impossible and bizarre ways that you and your friends’ brains work.

Bonus points for the game come from its flexibility. In our short time of owning it we’ve played it on beds, on floors, in hotel lobbies… even on walls. While procrastinating our PhD research doing important board game research for this blog we even spotted someone on /r/boardgames who threw together a makeshift copy for a family gathering. Pretty impressive.

Codenames is more fun than we ever thought a word association game could be, and at least part of that is thanks to the mad things you’ll try to connect, the connections that seem startlingly obvious to some and mad to others.

Lizzy: Water; Two.
Bob: Right. Ok. So, I’ll go for… ‘Well’
*Well is correct*
Bob: Good. Ok, so next I’ll go for Bridge..
*Bridge is incorrect*
Bob: WHAT. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BRIDGE IS INCORRECT?
Lizzy: *silence*
Bob: Bridge! Water goes under the bridge!
Lizzy: *awkward silence*
Bob: Seriously? ARGH.

*later*

Bob: Wait, so what the flip was the other word for water?
Lizzy: Palm.
Bob: P… pardon?
Lizzy: You know, Palm. Palm trees… are… er… sometimes near water. And Palm Springs is a place that sounds like it’s named after some, you know, springs.
Bob: … I think we should be on different teams.

Other times you find that special friend who just seems to share your brain.

Spymaster: Bond; Four.
Secret agent: Right, well. There’s Octopus, because of Octopussy, (correct answer), Moon, because of Moonraker (correct answer), Spy because James Bond is a spy, (correct answer) and… well, James Bond holds a gun in the palm of his hand, so… Palm! (correct!!)

Another great feature of the game, although one that only really works with a group of 4+ playing, is the constant (but friendly) mockery of the other team’s guesses. Not to mention trying to put them off!

Lizzy: Right guys. Beef; Three.
Opposing Team (pretending to talk to each other, but loudly so the other team can hear): OH! Yeah. She’s probably referring to the great Beef Revolution of ’93. Or she means ‘Beef Dice’. Isn’t that the sequel to Sushi Dice?

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It’s really an unfair advantage that the blues get Pierce Brosnan on their team

LWH Codenames Tournament

As we briefly mentioned last week, one of our local conventions Little Wooden Houses ran a Codenames tournament at their latest shindig. Teams of 3 people competed for the coveted Tiny Trophy of Being Good at Games in an incredibly tense competition.  Team Misery decided that despite wearing her ‘Captain Hangover’ hat, Bob should be spymaster as it’s very easy to get inside her head.***

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Round One

The first match was against a team of raw recruits who’d never met. It’s easy to underestimate a team of nice (ha!) ladies but all early pleasantries were rapidly erased as Bob politely but firmly invited the opposing team to suck her dick when they took an early lead.**** Team Misery sucked it up and got their shit together to win convincingly and immediately take on the next challengers.

Round Two (or ‘Semi-final’… it was a pretty small tournament)

On round two, shit got serious. These were no fresh-faced n00bs, but experienced gamers and long-time friends. It would be easy for them to work together, and the stress was real. Ground rules were firmly laid (no speaking at all from the spymasters apart from clues (a rule which Bob finds supremely hard to follow), and taunting and smack-talk from team-members absolutely allowed). Adrenaline pumping and neurons firing, Bob flopped her enormous spymaster-schlong across the table with a steady ‘Culinary, six.’

Six correct card choices left the opposing team in the dust, and Team Misery advanced to the final round unbeaten.

The Final

The final match was played as best of three rounds, against a team which included a girlfriend-boyfriend pairing (Dr Boyfriend and Cthulhu-Joss) and Dr Charlie. Harsh.

A strong start in the first round got Team Misery off the ground, but they were nearly brought down by an incredible last-ditch hail-Mary clue from Charlie, whose team needed to get five correct answers in one turn to win.

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Play along at home!

‘Nazis, infinity.’

Um. What. Surely this could never work! But after the initial laughter, Joss and Al took to the board to give it their all.

‘Er. Did the Nazis ever go near some Czechs? Czech!’
*1/5 correct*
‘Well, they probably had ships. Ship?’
*2/5 correct*
‘They love to MARCH!’
*3/5 correct, panic from Team Misery*
‘Drill?’
*4/5 correct*

Team Misery watched in shock as all their dreams decayed in the face of insanity. If the opposing team got one more correct answer, they would win.

‘Aw nuts. Isn’t there a movie about Nazis where they’re all somewhere really cold? And they’re zombies? Dead Snow! Yeah. Maybe he means that! ICE!’
*INCORRECT*

Thank goodness for good guys. (That’s us, by the way.)

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A very tense Dr Charlie and ‘Hangover-hat’ Bob

Round two was almost as close, but went to team Charlie, making it even-Stevens going into the final round.

Bob meditated while Lizzy and Briony made a break for stress-wees and tea.

It was a tough board for the team. ‘Hollywood’, ‘France’, and ‘New York’ were all needed, but ‘England’ was the assassin and ‘Beijing’ belonged to the opposing team, so a simple clue like ‘places’ was out.

‘Cannes, three’ managed to tie Hollywood, France, and Premiere together, but that was just the start. An incredibly close, tense game ensued, until both teams were down to their last two words.

Bob made a desperate bid to tie ‘New York’ and ‘Forest’ together with ‘Jungle, two’ (urban jungle, right?) but was thwarted by Lizzy’s insistence that ‘Jungle Jam’ was a thing (she meant a jungle gym. Like the climbing frame. Bob actually broke the rules when that went down as she was incapable of stopping a stress-pressured ‘Mrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp’ from escaping).

To be fair, the team’s eventual demise might also be put down to a glorious moment in which Bob forgot which colour she was, and gave a clue for the wrong team’s spies. Some swearing followed.

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A smooth final two from Team Charlie and it was all over. The tiny trophy of ‘Good at Games’ was wrested from the Misery Farm’s grasp, and Bob unclenched her butt-hole for the first time since the tournament started.

Codenames is a frickin’ excellent game. Good as both a light party game for the inexperienced, and as a brain-crusher for more experienced players. Incredibly stressful. Highly-recommended.

The real winner was the stupid other team. But also, board games.

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Hate is such a strong word, but…

* Too early for Christmas jokes? What? Christmas jokes are never appropriate? Psh.

** Codenames won Shut Up & Sit Down’s prestigious ‘Best Game, Worst Box’ award 2015.

*** It is mostly filled with air so there’s plenty of room.

**** Did we mention that we’re really, really competitive?

 

4 thoughts on “Codenames: From Essen With Love

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