Thank you for checking review #35 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
**Note: A review copy of this game was provided in exchange for an honest review. The below opinions remain our own based upon our impressions and reactions to the game.
An Overview of Codenames: Duet
Codenames: Duet is a game designed by Vlaada Chvatil and is published by Czech Games Edition. The box states that it can play 2 players and has a 15-30 minute play time.
Codenames Duet keeps the basic elements of Codenames — give one-word clues to try to get someone to identify your agents among those on the table — but now you’re working together as a team to find all of your agents. (Why you don’t already know who your agents are is a question that Congressional investigators will get on your back about later!)
Setup and gameplay for 2 Players
From the game’s description:
To set up play, lay out 25 word cards in a 5×5 grid. Place a key card in the holder so that each player sees one side of the card. Each player sees a 5×5 grid on the card, with nine of the squares colored green (representing your agents) and three squares colored black (representing assassins). Three of the nine squares on each side are also green on the other side, one assassin is black on both sides, one is green on the other side and the other is an innocent bystander on the other side.
Collectively, you need to reveal all fifteen agents — without revealing an assassin — before time runs out in order to win the game. Either player can decide to give the first one-word clue to the other player, along with a number. Whoever receives the clue places a finger on a card to identify that agent. If correct, they can attempt to identify another one. If they identify a bystander, then their guessing time ends. If they identify an assassin, you both lose! Unlike regular Codenames, they can keep guessing as long as they keep identifying an agent each time; this is useful for going back to previous clues and finding ones they missed earlier. After the first clue is given, players alternate giving clues.
Let’s dive right in, shall we? This game, in spite of its cooperative reshaping, remains the game that so many people have come to love and enjoy. At its root, this is still a version of Codenames. However, its most brilliant twist comes in the key card. What you see as an assassin on your side might be the clue I need you to guess on my side. That throws people off so hard when they are trying to guess a clue, and I love seeing that happen. It is a struggle to wrap your brain around the idea of picking a word that you are convinced will make you lose. Bravo for this change.
The components are all of the same quality you found in the other Codenames games. The cards are nice and durable, the tokens are a good cardboard, and everything is built to be played often. The box is a little oversized compared to what it needs to be, but this could probably hold another version or two of Codenames in one box for those who like to condense and save shelf space.
The length of this game is a good one – perfect to get in several plays on a night after work or even to get a round or two in during a lunch hour. Add in the fact that you really only need a handful of the components to play a few rounds and that can make this both portable and playable in those windows of opportunity that arise for gamers. Being a cooperative game designed for 2 players, it also tends to be less loud than a full game of Codenames, making it something you could even play at a restaurant while waiting on your meal.
The time tracker is an interesting, and challenging, mechanic. I definitely think it is necessary in a cooperative game – otherwise you’re just playing until you win or hit an assassin every time. The campaign (below) throws in a few wrenches, making it so only X number of turns can end in a wrong guess before you “lose”. It also forces you to get creative with your clues, because there are not enough turns to give all 1-word clues and win. This can lead to some frustrating situations where you need to give a 2-3 word clue but nothing pairs together by any stretch of the imagination.
When you hear the word “campaign”, you might start to get some impressive and grand ideas about what that will provide. Prior to the game’s release, I heard about them developing a campaign mode and it raised my excitement for this game. And what they have is certainly a functional campaign, complete with a map and locations to try and win under varying conditions. Some places are easy, others would be incredibly difficult. It isn’t what I was expecting, as all it does is mix up the number of tokens you use to track time and how many of those can be spent on wrong guesses and still have you win. But you, like me, might find it to be less-than-interesting.
Part of the fun of Codenames is playing with a large group of people and working with a diverse set of viewpoints and interpretations. This can lead to some wild clues, crazy reasoning for guesses, and many other memorable moments. This can be played with more than two, being possible to play on teams, but the core concept of a 2-player Codenames has the possibility of losing some of those moments that made Codenames so great as a party game. For instance, if you sit down to play this with your spouse then you are playing with someone you know fairly well. You can give clues that no one but they would understand. You can read body language that nobody else could interpret as they agonize over a clue to give or a word to guess. Dropping the player count removes so many of those great dynamics that it simply doesn’t always feel like Codenames. Much like Super Mario Bros. 2 was the odd game out of the NES Mario games because of its unique approach, this one could be that Codenames game that just never becomes a huge hit for you because it presents completely different dynamics. It won’t feel that way for everyone, but it runs that risk. There are great things to be said for exploring new options and player counts for a game like this rather than sticking to just a bunch of rethemes like Disney and Marvel. Some people will really, really love this one. Some people might really dislike it. Most will probably fall somewhere in the middle there. Which leads me to…
This one is ultimately not a game that fit well for us. I enjoyed my few plays of Codenames well enough, but I am far from being a person who plays and enjoys party games. In fact, I haven’t been back to a certain FLGS game day event ever since I was roped into playing a whole bunch of party games because it was the opposite of what I was looking for in a game day. But Codenames was the exception to that rule, and I was really interested in how a 2-player only version would work. The concept of a campaign really interested me.
My wife tends to like some of the lighter games on occasion, and it seemed like Codenames might be a fun change from all the other light fillers on our shelf. It really surprised me at how good she was at the game, as well as how much she enjoyed many of the core Codenames concepts. However, she’s gone on record before as preferring to play a game where she is trying to defeat me, not work together. Some cooperative games she has come to enjoy as of late, but this one was not one of them.
I don’t know how the regular Codenames game plays at two, but our consensus after multiple plays of this was that we’d both prefer the standard Codenames over the Duet version because we’d rather compete in this game. There are some excellent things this game does, and I really love the twist with the assassins and how each side of the key card is different. Other couples may find this to be the ideal game for them – someone like Rahdo, who loves playing a game with his wife where they have to be a team, will be the perfect pair of gamers for this version of Codenames.
If you really like Codenames and want a unique way to play with fewer players, you might want to check this out. If you enjoy, or prefer, a cooperative game then this is one you won’t want to miss out on. It retains enough of the Codenames flavor to make it a good, solid entry into the Codenames line.
This is best expressed by one of the ratings on Heavy Cardboard’s 6-point rating system: “It’s not you, its us.” Essentially, this is a good game. Probably even a great game. It will get a lot of great, glowing reviews and will deserve those. But it won’t get them across the board, because this simply isn’t the game for us.
Check out more of our reviews at the following Geeklist and be sure to let me know what you thought of this game.