Confession time. I’m not a very big fan of Codenames. I think it’s a fine game, but I just never got the hype for it. People who play it constantly, or said it changed the dynamic of their game group are on another planet than me. It was always one of those games where I’d play it if someone asked, and then quickly move on. It was fine but forgettable.
But I have an open mind, so I figured I’d give Codenames: Duet a chance when publisher Czech Games Edition was kind enough to send one over for review. Thankfully this wasn’t just another rethemed version of Codenames, but a whole new way to play it, cooperatively! Could this be the spark that was always missing in Codenames for me? Let’s find out.
The goal in Codenames: Duet is for you and your partner to guess 15 specific cards in the grid of 25. Using a double-sided clue card, each player will be showing 9 cards that must be guessed (3 cards overlap), and 3 assassin cards that your partner must not choose. The rest are innocent bystanders.
Guessing is handled in the usual Codenames fashion. You give a 1-word clue, followed by a number, which is how many cards in the grid your clue applies to. Your partner can make as many guesses as they like, but must stop at an incorrect guess. At the end of each turn, players lose one of their 9 communal time markers. The game ends when players either run out of time markers or guess all 15 cards.
This, this is my Codenames. I admit I was skeptical at first. More Codenames? Blah. But there is something about Codenames: Duet that really elevates it above its predecessors for me. It takes a game that, for me, was just a party game to be played when I had a big group, to something that I actually seek to bring to the table.
Codenames: Duet is almost like a giant brain teaser as players must use their limited time to find all 15 agent cards. The pure genius of this game is delivered from the card placement graph. Vlaada Chvátil and Scot Eaton really knocked this one out of the park with the underlying math of this system. Each player has 9 cards they know and are trying to get their partner to guess. However 3 of those cards overlap, so sometimes you will be able to guess your own card.
This system is further refined with the assassin card. You see the location of three assassins. However, on the opposite side of that card, the matching squares for your partner will contain an assassin, a bystander, and an agent. That means that you have to guess at least one card that you know is an assassin on your side. Let me tell you just how much this messes with your head. You KNOW you need to avoid assassins, so having to actually choose that card can be painful.
Yet with all this knowledge, you can really do some mental gymnastics to try and figure out which cards your partner is clueing you in on. If you can work the numbers, you can almost get extra knowledge just knowing how everything is broken down. And I love that about Codenames: Duet.
One of the other issues I had with original Codenames was the downtime. When it’s not your turn, there really isn’t much to do other than wait for your next turn. This is especially true if you were a guesser. It’s a lot of waiting.
However with Codenames: Duet, there is almost no downtime. You are either guessing or giving clues. It’s not exactly rapid fire, but it’s a slow and steady bounce back that gives the game a nice ebb and flow.
Finally, Codenames: Duet also comes with a campaign mode, of sorts. I was originally excited about the possibility, but in practice, it’s not all that exciting. It’s really just a series of challenges that play with your time and wrong answer tolerances. Unless you play Codenames: Duet a lot, you probably won’t mess with this much.
This is my version of Codenames. I love it and don’t really have much desire to go back to the original. It’s a game full of tension and mental gymnastics, all bundled into a highly accessible package. Many times when we review an expansion, new edition, or retheme, we say how if you hated the base game, there is nothing there that will change your mind. For me, Codenames: Duet breaks out of that mold. It’s not often a game can completely change my thoughts on it with a few tweaks, but Codenames: Duet absolutely nails it.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – The version of Codenames I never even knew I was looking for. Codename: Duet is fun, engaging, and hits the table often.
• Great ebb and flow with minimal downtime
• Nice underlying “math” for the clue cards
• Doesn’t lose its accessible nature
• Campaign mode is nothing special