Recently I looked at the 2016 Spiel Des Jahres winner Codenames. Despite only being released a couple years ago Codenames has already become one of the highest rated board games of all time. The game deserves all of its acclaim as it is a fantastic party game that shows one truly unique mechanic can make a game great. After enjoying the original Codenames so much I decided to purchase Codenames Duet to see how it would compare to the original game. Codenames Duet takes the gameplay from the original game and turns it into a cooperative game. While Codenames Duet is not quite as good as the original game, it is still a fantastic cooperative experience.
How to Play Codenames Duet
- The two players sit on opposite sides of the table. If more than two players are playing the game, the players are evenly divided between the two sides of the table.
- Shuffle the word cards and place 25 of them on the table to form a 5 x 5 grid.
- Place the green agent and black assassin cards where both players can reach them.
- The 9 timer/bystander tokens are placed next to the agent cards with the bystander side face up. If you want an easier game you can also use the two blue background bystander tokens.
- The plastic stand is placed between the two players and the players randomly choose one of the key cards. The key card is placed into the stand so one player sees each side of the card.
Playing the Game
Before players start the game they should study their side of the key card. The green spots indicate words that the player is trying to get the other player to guess. The beige spots are innocent bystanders and the black spots are the assassins.
Either player can start the game. On a player’s turn they will have to come up with a one word clue and a number that describes one or more of the word cards that they want the other player to guess. If a word card is already covered up by a green agent card, it doesn’t have to be guessed again. When coming up with a clue the player should try to avoid clues that would lead the other player to guess one of the bystanders or assassins. Clues must also follow these rules:
- Clues have to be about the meaning of the words.
- Letters and numbers can only be used as clues if they refer to the meaning of the word.
- You can’t use the number after your clue word as an additional clue.
- No clue can use any form or part of a word currently visible on the table. Once that word card is covered with an agent card you can use the clue.
- Players can spell out the word that they are using for their clue.
- All clues given must be English or commonly used in English.
- Players can’t give any visual clues to guide their partner.
Along with the one word clue the player has to give a number. This number indicates how many of the words that you think the clue applies to.
After the clue is given the other player studies the cards and chooses one of the word cards. When making a guess a player can use the current clue or any previous clues to make their choice.
If the card chosen relates to one of the green squares on the key card, the player has found one of the agents. The player places one of the agent cards on the space. The player can now make another guess. As long as the player keeps picking words corresponding to agents, they can make as many guesses as they want.
If the chosen card relates to a bystander, the player takes one of the bystander tokens and places it on the card with the arrow pointing to the player that made the guess. The player’s turn then ends and the other player must give a clue.
If the chosen card relates to one of the assassins, the assassin card is placed on the word card. The players will also automatically lose the game.
When the player decides to stop making guesses; they take one of the bystander tokens, flip it to the timer side and place it in front of themselves. The other player will then give their next clue.
When a player is guessing, the other side of the key card is what matters. Some words are agents for both players. Other cards are assassins or bystanders for one player but are different for the other player. In these cases the outcome depends on the clue givers side of the card. For example if a player selects a card that is an agent on the other player’s side but an assassin on their side, the card will be treated as an agent. Here are the distribution of the agent and assassin cards:
- 3 agents are shared between both players.
- 1 agent for each player is an assassin for the other player.
- 5 agents for each player are bystanders for the other player.
- One of the assassins is shared between the two players, one is a bystander for the other player, and one is an assassin for the other player.
When one of the players have had all of their agents guessed, they tell the other player. That player will be giving clues for the rest of the game.
End of Game
The game can end in one of three ways.
If one of the players guesses the assassin, the team loses.
If the players correctly guess all fifteen agents, the players win the game.
If the players run out of timer/bystander tokens but haven’t found all of the agents, the players enter sudden death. Players are no longer able to give additional clues. The players still have the opportunity to guess words though hoping they find the agents that haven’t already been found. Players can make guesses in any order that they want. If a player guesses a bystander or the assassin the players automatically lose. If the players are able to find the rest of the agents though, they will win the game.
In order to add some variety to the game players can choose to use the mission map. Once a team has completed a standard game they can cross Prague off the map. The players then can choose a city connected to one of the cities they have already completed. Each city on the map has two numbers.
The first number indicates how many timer/bystander tokens will be used in the game.
The second number indicates how many of the tokens will be turned to the bystander side at the beginning of the game. Tokens that are bystander side up can be used for incorrect guesses of bystanders and to end a player’s turn. The timer side tokens can only be used to end a players turn. To turn a timer side token into a bystander token the player will have to use two timer tokens.
My Thoughts on Codenames Duet
As I recently reviewed the original Codenames I don’t think it really pays to rehash what I talked about in that review. Basically Codenames is a fantastic party word game where players have to give clues to their teammates in order to guide them towards picking the right word cards. The original game shows that all you need for a great board game is a fun and original game mechanic. Instead of repeating myself in this review I want to talk about how Codenames Duet differs from the original game.
If the name didn’t already make it clear, Codenames Duet is the two player cooperative version of Codenames. While Codenames Duet was created as a two player game it can be played with more players. Two or more players will just work together to give clues and try to decode the other players’ clues. In Codenames Duet instead of two teams competing to see who can find all of their agents first, the players are working together to find all of the agents before time runs out. All of the players can play as the spymaster since both sides of the key card only show half of the agents. The players on each side of the table will take turns giving clues to try and get the other side of the table to guess the correct cards.
Before playing Duet I was curious how it was going to work as a cooperative game. Codenames really thrives on the competitive party atmosphere so I wondered how it would work with all of the players working together towards a goal. I have to admit that I was surprised by how well the gameplay actually translated to a cooperative game. I would say the Codenames gameplay works just as well in a cooperative game as it does for the competitive game. Codenames Duet could have easily been a quick cash grab to make money off the popularity of the original game but I give credit to the designers for doing a good job of adapting it for a cooperative game.
While Codenames Duet is lacking some of the competitiveness of the original Codenames (due to no longer competing against the other team), I think the cooperative aspect also improves upon the formula. One of the biggest benefits of making the game cooperative is that it eliminates players having to wait around for the other team. Instead of waiting for the other team you will either be coming up with your next clue or trying to decode the clue that the other player gave you. There is also no need to fight over who is the spymaster as all of the players get to be the spymaster in Codenames Duet.
For the most part Codenames Duet shares the same main mechanics as the original game. You still give out clues and try to figure out what words the other player’s clues refer to. The only real change to the main mechanics involve the number of guesses that a player can make. In the original Codenames you could only make up to one more guess then the number provided by the spymaster. In Codenames Duet you can make as many guesses as you want as long as you avoid bystanders and the assassin. Personally I like this change as it makes it easier for a player to pick up the agents that they missed on a previous clue.
The biggest change to Codenames Duet comes from the idea of the “time limit”. In Codenames the only time limit you had was on being able to guess all of your agents before the other team. Since there is no team to compete against Codenames Duet had to find a way to add some challenge to the game. The challenge comes from the idea of the bystander/timer tokens. These tokens limit how many clues can be given in the game. In the basic game the players are able to give a total of nine clues before time runs out and they head to sudden death.
While Codenames Duet shares basically all the same mechanics as the original game, the time limit actually makes the game play quite a bit differently. No longer can players play conservatively if they build a lead on the other team. If you are not at least somewhat aggressive you have no chance of guessing all of the agents in time. While you can get away with some one word clues in the normal Codenames, you really can’t do that in Codenames Duet. You usually need to try for at least two words with every clue or you are going to be left making random guesses at the end of the game.
As you have to get at least two words most of the time, you really have to play the game more aggressively. This means that players will occasionally have to make some guesses. Usually you are best off guessing until you have found all of the words that correspond to the clues that you have been given. This puts more pressure on the clue givers to give clues that the other player could never associate with the assassin words. If you can give clues that won’t lead to a player guessing an assassin, ending your turn early or picking a bystander doesn’t really an adverse impact unless you are using the mission map.
This is why I would say that Codenames Duet is more difficult than the original game. In order to be successful players need to be more aggressive and creative with the clues they give. Two words might not have much in common but you need to try to find creative ways to still connect them. I would say I am pretty good at the normal Codenames and yet Codenames Duet is not an easy game. Even the best Codenames players will still lose the game from time to time. The difficulty in Codenames Duet is fair for the most part though as it truly gives you a challenge without feeling unfair. Be prepared to lose from time to time though.
As the game is more challenging, players have to sometimes get a little more creative in how they approach the game. Every key card in the game has the same distribution so you can somewhat use that to your advantage. Each player has five agents that correspond to bystanders on the other side, three agents are the same, and one agent corresponds to an assassin on the other side. Of the three assassins on each side of the card one corresponds to an assassin, bystander and agent. The distribution of the assassins is interesting in particular since you can use it to infer information about the other side of the card. For example if you guessed an agent from the other side that corresponds to one of your assassins you know that you shouldn’t pick the other two cards that correspond to your assassins since one will be an assassin and the other will be a bystander. While using the distributions won’t give you a huge clue to the identities of your missing agents, it could end up becoming important when you get to sudden death.
Speaking of sudden death, the mechanic can be kind of exhilarating. Basically sudden death has the players randomly trying to guess the final agents that they are missing. Any incorrect guess automatically ends the round. If you haven’t used all of the clues you have gotten from your partner in the past you have some information that can help you with guessing. Sudden death becomes really interesting when you have no clues left to go off of. Basically the only things you can use involve things like distribution that I just mentioned. You likely won’t pick the right card(s) but it is exciting when you randomly pick the right card. I just so happened to randomly guess the right card in my first sudden death and it was exciting.
Other than the time limit the biggest addition to Codenames Duet is the mission map. Basically I see the mission map as a challenge mode for the game. It doesn’t really change the actual gameplay but it gives the players some interesting challenges. The mission map is used to determine how many bystander/timer tokens you get at the beginning of the game and how they are distributed. This little tweak can actually have a pretty big impact on how you approach a game. Some of the challenges give you more tokens but limit how many bystanders you can choose throughout the game. In these rounds you don’t have to be as aggressive but you have to avoid mistakes. Other challenges give you less tokens which mean you have to be more aggressive in the clues and guesses you make. The mission map doesn’t drastically change the game but I think it brings a welcome challenge to the game for more experienced players.
For people familiar with Codenames, you already know what to expect out of the components of Codenames Duet as they are basically the same. Once again you get a bunch of word and key cards. With so many cards the game presents many different combinations that I think you could play hundreds to thousands of games before you ever encountered a repeat game. Then if you own multiple sets of the game you can easily combine the word cards to create even more possibilities. I like that you can combine the games but I think the game could have distinguished the cards a little more. The only difference in the Codenames Duet cards is two tiny dots in the corner of the cards. The only somewhat unique components in Codenames Duet is the mission map sheets and the agent/bystander cards. Unlike the first game I appreciate that each agent/bystander card has its’ own unique art which is better than looking at the same people over and over again.
While I really like Codenames Duet, I don’t think it is quite as good as the original Codenames. I am not entirely sure why I feel this way as Duet has everything that I really enjoyed about Codenames. If I had to make a guess I think it would be that it doesn’t have as much interaction as the original game. Codenames thrives on playing with larger groups. Codenames Duet doesn’t quite have the same party atmosphere. It does a fantastic job turning it into a cooperative two player game but Codenames is just a game that works better with more people.
Should You Buy Codenames Duet?
Codenames Duet could have easily been a cheap spinoff game made to capitalize on the success of the original game but it isn’t. The designers took time to figure out a way of turning the competitive party game into a fun cooperative game. The main mechanics of Duet are basically the same as the original game and yet Duet feels different than the original game. This mostly comes from the timer tokens which force players to be more aggressive and also makes the game more difficult. When you add in the mission map, Codenames Duet feels like a familiar but different experience from the original game. While I don’t think Codenames Duet is quite as good as the original game, it is still a fantastic game.
Basically my recommendation for Codenames Duet comes down to how much you like Codenames. If you don’t really care for the gameplay in Codenames you aren’t going to like Codenames Duet because it is very similar. If you are interested in a two player or cooperative version of Codenames, I think you will love Codenames Duet. Also if you are interested in adding more word cards to Codenames it might also be worth picking up Codenames Duet as it adds 200 more cards. If you have never played a Codenames game before the decision will come down to how much you like the concept behind the game. If you are at all interested in the concept I would highly recommend picking up Codenames Duet.