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Top Of The Table – Codenames: Pictures

by Matt Miller on Oct 02, 2016 at 08:16 AM

Recent readers of Game Informer’s tabletop coverage know that I’m a big fan of Codenames, which I named one of my top games from 2015. This winner of 2016’s coveted Spiel des Jahres award is a brilliant game of deduction, word play, and shared associations, published by Czech Games Edition. In recent weeks, I’ve been exploring the follow-up; Codenames: Pictures uses the same intriguing formula, and can even be cross-played with the original game at the same time. Nonetheless, the new dynamic of surreal picture cards instead of words adds a whole new vibe, and is well worth your attention, as a standalone game or as an add-on to make your Codenames games even more intriguing. 

To understand what makes Codenames: Pictures so engaging, it’s worth looking at the core concept behind Codenames. Two rival teams of spies are each trying to find their agents in the field. One member of each team is the spymaster, who knows where those agents are located. They must send coded clues about those locations to their team operatives, in the hope of contacting all of their team’s agents before the opponent team. 

In practice, this thematic concept is a light backdrop to a game about word guessing. Players lay out a grid of cards that each are meant to represent one of the spies in need of discovery. The spymasters prop up a special card that shows them the secret identities of each card in the grid. Most of the grid shows blue or red squares – the two opposing spy teams. But a few cards in the grid are designated as innocent bystanders, and one particularly dangerous spot on the grid indicates the location of the Assassin. 

Each spymaster gives a one-word clue that hopefully points his or her teammates to some of the secret agent locations on the grid, as well as stating a number which indicates how many cards that word connects. The trick, of course, is not giving a clue that might inadvertently be interpreted a different way, leading your teammates to pick an innocent bystander (ending your turn), an opponent’s card (effectively giving them a point), or worst of all, the Assassin (losing you the game). 

Designer Vlaada Chvátil wisely recognizes the elegance of his original formula. The game plays nearly identically to its predecessor from a structural perspective, with the one exception of a recommended 5x4 grid of cards instead of 5x5. 

The real difference lies in the cards themselves. The original Codenames cards listed a single word, like Dog, Europe, Snow, or Pupil, and then demanded that spymasters and guessers think about the clues that might connect those words. The new Pictures variant changes that dynamic and demands even more lateral thinking, as the cards all depict surreal pictures that can be interpreted in numerous ways. One card shows off tentacles holding a birthday gift. Another has fairies hanging out on an electric wire. A third card depicts a bear on a pogo stick. The game includes 280 pictures in total, and given that different pictures are on every card, the replay potential is tremendous. 

A single game usually lasts 15 minutes or less, so it’s easy to trade off the spymaster role all the time; everyone deserves a shot at being on both sides of the table. Moreover, while Codenames doesn’t have the raucous quality of some party games, it still allows easy adjustment of team sizes as players come and go, which is great for any environment where your players might be moving between multiple activities, or if they’re not ready for a long commitment to a larger game.

Until you play it for the first time, it’s hard to understand just how much fun the concept can be. The spymaster must juggle all the potential ways that their clue might be interpreted, offering specificity that relates to multiple cards, but being careful not to accidentally guide allies to an incorrect location. The players on the other side of the table have an equally intriguing role, especially when playing with a team with whom you can discuss the clue. The game becomes not just about literal interpretation, but also understanding potentially metaphorical connections, or even considering the personality and knowledge of your spymaster and the way they think. 

As the grid slowly gets marked off with blue and red discovered agents, the excitement rises as the spymasters try to get to the win before their opponent, often forcing them to offer ever riskier clues to stay ahead.  And there’s always laughter as the players consider the potential implications of the weird connections that can be drawn between individual pictures. 

I like that the rules to Codenames: Pictures are very open and encouraging of variant play, and allowing your group to enjoy the game in the way they want, including flexing what types of clues are allowed or not. Pictures also introduces a variant ending option which plays a little bit like Eight Ball. To win, your team must still find all its spy cards, but subsequently must also touch the Assassin card to win. I like the additional challenge and danger of this scenario, and the way it adds tension to the final moments of the game. And, of course, the ability to add in cards from the original Codenames is a huge bonus. Mixing the two in a single session is fascinating. 

Like its predecessor, it’s hard for me to find too much to criticize about Codenames. More than almost any game in my library, I have rarely found a player, no matter their experience with tabletop gaming, who doesn’t quickly find something to enjoy about this highly social, quick-playing game. My only complaint this time around is the dilemma of card placement. In the original Codenames, the word on any given card was printed twice and mirrored in both directions, so readers on both sides of the table could clearly see it. With the card-filling pictures of this new iteration, (which by default rules face the spymaster) it can sometimes be hard for the field operatives on the other side of the table to see and interpret the images. As an option, I’d recommend considering a setup that places the card grid to the side, with their bottoms facing the middle of the table, offering easy viewing for everyone. 

Have any of you played Codenames, and can add to my recommendation? What’s the highest number of cards you’ve seen guessed in a single turn? Does the word or picture variant of Codenames appeal more or less to your sensibilities? Share your opinions and experiences in the comments. And for more recommendations about the best in tabletop gaming, make sure and click on the banner below. 

As always, drop me an email or tweet if there’s a game you’d like to see featured in an upcoming column, and I’ll see what I can do.