Codenames Duet is more than simply a 2-player version of the most popular party game of the last few years. It’s transformed, different, and compelling in its own unique way. It also makes me appreciate the original Codenames design more.
It’s hard to overstate just how much of a big deal Codenames was back in 2015. More than a popular game, it’s a popular game that’s well respected among the hobbyist crowd. Inversely, it’s a hobbyist’s game that also received broad recognition. The number of games, ever, that have received more ratings on boardgamegeek can be counted on two hands. It wasn’t the first word association game by any means, but it was the first one I played that fully embraced showmanship.
Most word association party games I’m familiar with are centered around speed; get your teammate to guess as many words as possible in a limited period of time to win. Codenames takes a more stately approach, allowing clue-givers time to fashion the best clue they can give. Honestly, most games of Codenames can probably be won with a steady stream of clues that connect two words together, with the occasional three-clue. But the temptation to push it further is too strong. A three-clue is strong, but four is spectacular, five heroic. Who wants to merely be a winner when you could be a hero? Fly, Icarus!
It’s the perfect set-up, balanced on the line between comedy and triumph. Nothing’s funnier than unearned confidence gone wrong; nothing more exciting than a daring feat succeeding against the odds. I was able to play Codenames the week before its U.S. release at a small local convention dedicated to Vlaada Chvatil’s games. Twenty of us stood around a table, waiting in anticipation for the first clue. “Pepper, 4”. We scanned the cards. Someone pointed out that “ghost” was among the words. That’s straightforward enough—lock it in. A literal facepalm from the clue giver. “I forgot that was a pepper.” Brilliant.
Duet actively works against these moments, and for all the ways it deepens the original idea I can’t forgive it for its humorlessness. For starters the word set is more difficult. Getting a solid clue connecting two of them is a good aim. Three at a time is outstanding. The difficulty curve confirms this as even the most difficult missions will have the players average just over two successful guesses per turn to win. The early missions you can get by with about 1.5 words per turn.
But there are benefits to Codenames in its cooperative form. Most notably, by having two different answer keys spread over the same grid of words, players can exploit overlaps. You know, for instance, that one of the three words marked as an assassin on your key will be a word you’ll need to select at some point. One will be a shared assassin, and the third will be neutral. You know that in every game you’ll have exactly three words that are successful in both directions. By keeping this information in mind, you can read how the odds shift in subtle ways as words are selected. When your back’s against the wall and you know you need to take a shot in a moment of uncertainty, having something to tip the scale one way or the other can be a lifesafer. Or, at the very least, it can be a useful scapegoat when you mess up.
I find that pure cooperation gives Codenames an extra edge. Get a group of 8 friends together to play and you’ve got a party. Two people accomplish tasks. Failure is both of your failure, and success feels more expected. In a team v. team game you’re fine with losing half the time. Even a cooperative game against a mechanical system feels like battling a second “other”. Codenames Duet merely sets the parameters and steps away, waiting for you to bring forth your own destruction. I’ve actually gotten upset after losing a game. A stupid kind of upset that quickly turned into delirious laughter, but upset nonetheless.
It doesn’t help that Amber and I are uniquely bad game teammates, a truth reinforced through multiple forms of Codenames, Decrypto, COIN games, brief, hostile Twilight Imperium alliances, etc. etc. Still, we persist in trying to push through progressively difficult parameters. Even though I’ll always prefer the original, the fact that we keep returning to Duet, recalling that one definition of insanity, says a lot. If it says more about Codenames Duet or our partnership I’ll leave as an open question.