Critical Play: Codenames

I played the game Codenames, by Vladimír Chvátil. Codenames is a team competition guessing game, where a grid of word cards is the playing field, where “red” or “blue” values are labeled on a corresponding grid card for one member of each team to see. This team member provides a one-word clue and a number of word cards that clue applies to, which the team uses to guess if the word card in the grid belongs to their color. The team that gets all the words of their color first wins, or the game ends if a team guesses a word that is assigned the color black, which makes them automatically lose.

This game has a good deal more mechanics than our game, which is much simpler in its current iteration, but the play style of a team competition guessing game is similar to our own. As a fellowship and challenge based game, Codenames promises “win or lose, it’s fun to figure out the clues”, which points to the primary type of enjoyment that Codenames offers – figuring out what the clues your teammate gives you means. Part of the challenge of this game is not just understanding the clue, but understanding your teammate. The clue-giving nature of the game allows for versatility in how open or closed the clues are, and how accurate to the words they may be. Like any guessing game, how well you know your fellow players can greatly impact the experience. 

This is one of the key observations I had while playing codenames – the amount you have in common with your teammates, and how well you know them, severely impacts the experience of the game. Playing Codenames with close friends is often more frictionless than with strangers. For example, when giving clues to my friends, I can think about their experiences, opinions, and associations; I might be able to say “Jam” and hope they get the “Arts” card because a member of my team frequently attends arts jams on campus. However, these sorts of personalized clues are near impossible when playing with strangers – the clues you give and receive are more generic, more geared towards a broad understanding. It’s still fun, but it’s different. The mental exercise of how well you know your friends is no longer an element of the game, and when I played it in this circumstance with more strangers, I found myself having less fun than when I played with my friends. 

Extending this reflection to our game, I think there is something significant about how these guessing games are elevated by knowing your fellow players. Though they can act as good ice-breaker games, sometimes a greater kind of fellowship fun is unlocked when you experience it with people you already know. Strengthening bonds, rather than working to form them. I’m now interested in exploring how our group’s game can make sure to leave room for this type of experience, where the game is more enjoyable when it is played with those you are close with.

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