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Game Preview: Codenames Duet, or Searching for Agents in All the Right Places

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game Designer
Board Game: Codenames: Duet
We've already published two preview videos about Codenames Duet: one from the 2017 GAMA Trade Show when the game was still being developed, and another from the 2017 Origins Game Fair when the design was pretty much complete and just waiting to be sent to production before the game's debut at Gen Con 2017 in August. Thus, I thought I'd avoid creating another video about the game and instead write something up.

Vlaada Chvátil's Codenames is only two years old, but the game already feels like an established classic, something that will be with us for decades. The game design is so minimal — teams take turns trying to identify their hidden secret agents, which are known only by their visible codenames — that its framework can be filled with almost any content, and the gameplay itself will still work just fine; designer Bruno Faidutti, for example, has noted that he's played the game with people guessing rubber ducks, empty beer bottles, board game boxes, novels, Dixit cards, Cards Against Humanity cards, Unusual Suspects cards, and actual people. Multiple versions of Codenames exist or have been announced, and many more are sure to come in the years ahead.

Codenames Duet already functions as another version of Codenames. The box contains two hundred new double-sided word cards, so even if you ignored the new way to play the game, you'd have four hundred new words to use when playing Codenames. (You're on your own when it comes to acquiring rubber ducks as publisher Czech Games Edition doesn't sell them!) These words are a bit more out there than in the original game, with "Joan of Arc" and "Hercules" showing up amongst more common words like "soup" and "hose". I've spoken with CGE's Josh Githens at multiple conventions this year — including at PAX East, where we played a still-in-development Codenames Duet — and he said that they tried to assemble a mix of words in which some serve as hubs (with tons of potential connections) while others have a smaller range of connections.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In practice, some of those more limited words can still be guessed the old-fashioned way: creative clue-giving combined with the process of elimination. In one game, my partner gave the clue "queen - 2", and it was easy to guess "King Arthur" as one of the two words matching "queen", but I scanned fruitlessly for its partner — until I suddenly realized that she probably meant "Joan of Arc", simply because this card was the only one in play with the name of a female human. Success! (After the game, she confirmed that line of thinking. Joan of Arc wasn't a queen, but that clue would likely get me to that card, and in the end that's all that matters.)

Board Game: Codenames: Duet
Codenames Duet differs from Codenames in that this new game is fully cooperative instead of being played with competing teams. You lay out 25 word cards in a 5x5 grid like normal, but you place a double-sided code card (one side shown at left) between the two players. I see the nine agents (shown in green) that I want my partner to guess and three assassins that I want my partner to avoid (in black). Either player can give the first clue, then players alternate after that, trying to identify all fifteen agents within nine turns.

The tricky part is that my partner's side of the card also shows nine agents and three assassins, and of those three assassins, one of them is an assassin on my side of the code card, one of them is an innocent bystander (shown in tan), and one of them is an agent. This last one is a double agent, I suppose, since I'm trying to get my partner to guess this card, yet if I choose the card on my turn, we lose the game.

Thus, Codenames Duet often puts you in a bind. You know that at some point you'll need to correctly identify one of the three assassins you see as an agent — but which one? The cool part about this bind is that once you do guess the right assassin, you know that the other two assassins shouldn't ever be guessed since they're worthless to you. Your partner doesn't know that you know this since you're not supposed to share info, but you can feel satisfied internally and leave it at that.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

You each have nine agents depicted on your side of the code card, but three of those agents are shared; each of us knows those three agents, but we don't know that we both know. This (unwitting) sharing of information gives you another chance to interact in subtle ways. Your partner gives a clue that might work for a few different cards, but one of them is an agent on your side, so that gives you an incentive to choose it — although one of those agents is an assassin, so hmm...

Another challenging aspect of Codenames Duet is that you want to track guesses and information in a way that records who did what. We place the agents and bystanders on the cards so that they face the person who guessed them. If someone is facing me, that means I discovered their identity on my partner's side of the code card; my partner, however, knows nothing about their identity on my side of the code card. Is this revealed agent also an agent on my side? I know it is, which means I have one fewer agent to clue, but that's my info, not theirs. The person I see as a bystander might actually be an agent that they have to guess.

I've played more than twenty games so far on four-fifths of a copy that Czech Games Edition gave me after the 2017 Origins Game Fair. One strong difference from the original game is that Codenames Duet is a lot quieter. When playing Codenames, teams trying to guess words tend to discuss things openly, which gives information to both cluegivers as well as the other team, but in Codenames Duet you know information that the other player doesn't, so you can't say, "Well, it can't be 'scarecrow' because that's an assassin on my side and I've already guessed the 'fog' assassin." You just sit and stare and eventually guess.

And sometimes you die. In Codenames when a team guesses the assassin, the other team breaks out in huzzahs and cheers; in Codenames Duet, you both slump in the chair, defeated. If Codenames were Star Wars, with two factions facing off against one another with one sure to win in the end, Codenames Duet is Rogue One, with the two of you in a race against time, often cowering on the beach as the world blows up around you.

Then you flip over the word cards and try again.


Board Game: Codenames: Duet

One new addition to Codenames Duet — something not in the original design from Scot Eaton (which was heavily developed by CGE) or in the original Codenames — is a campaign mode that allows you to increase the difficulty of the game. In my 20+ playings, we've won only 3-4 times, with two of those wins coming in sudden death. (If after nine rounds you haven't identified all fifteen agents, then you enter sudden death. Either player can finger one of the word cards, and if it's an agent from the other player's perspective, then you mark it as such and continue or win; if it's not an agent, then you've lost the game.) Thus, we've stayed away from the campaign mode so far.

How campaign mode works: If you've won the normal Codenames Duet set-up, which starts with nine bystander tokens on the side of the playing area with players having nine rounds, then you can mark off Prague on the map and travel to an adjacent city. Maybe you'll go to Moscow where you start with only eight bystander tokens and have only eight rounds in which to identify the fifteen agents. If you survive Moscow, you can travel to Bangkok where you have only seven of each — or you can head to Yakutsk, where you have eight tokens, but only four bystanders.

During the normal game, if you voluntarily stop guessing after one or more successes, then you take one of the bystander tokens and flip it over to show a file. (Thus, whether you hit a bystander or stop on your own, one token is removed from play.) The number of tokens thus indicates how many turns remain in the game. If you go to Yakutsk, then you start with four bystanders and four files. If you stop voluntarily, then you take a file; if you finger a bystander, then you place a bystander; if you can't place a bystander token (because you've already placed them all), then you must take two file tokens, flip them to the bystander side, and place both of them on the word card. Boom — two turns lost in one go.

Maybe I'll get to travel the world of secret agents at some point, but I need to improve my clue-giving before that can happen!
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