While Pandemic Legacy: Season One won most 2015 Game of the Year awards, I take great pride in picking Codenames in my own writing. I even got a little bit of vindication recently when Codenames won the Spiel des Jahres. That’s Germany’s “Best Family Game” award (and it means a lot more copies sold for the winner). You can also check out Chris Hecox’s review from Geeks Under Grace, but you should know something. I’m even more enamored with the game than he is; it’s one of my favorite games of all time. (My own review is listed under MeepleTown here on BGG.)
The minute Codenames released last year at Gen Con, it was an international phenomenon. It wasn’t long before players began experimenting with the game, using words from other games, game boxes, and most often pictures. Czech Games Edition was smart enough to listen to the fans and put out their own version of that concept, and now we have the cleverly titled Codenames Pictures...
If you don’t know Codenames, the general concept is that players are split into two teams and the captains (spymasters) give clues to the rest of the team. These one-word clues indicate to the other teammates which cards are theirs; the goal is to hit all of your own cards. There are neutral cards, cards for the opposing team, and the deadly assassin (game over!) in the mix as well. It really can be a challenge, though it still has a party game feel. In Codenames Pictures, clues are now being given about—you guessed it—pictures instead of words.
That’s not the only change in Codenames Pictures. The grid is now four-by-five for shorter games. The game is also shorter simply because there are far fewer neutrals. This means when you whiff, you’re more likely to hit an opponent’s card and advance the game. The rules for giving clues are looser, since there are no words on the board to consider. I also find that pictures are easier to link up in general. This is the great advantage of Codenames Pictures.
The one Achilles heel of Codenames is that certain players will freeze up when playing as the spymaster because they just know there’s got to be a way to connect “Horseshoe” and “Tokyo.” Instead, you’ll look at the cards laid out before you, think, “Hey, the broom and the umbrella are the only two objects on the boards with handles!” So, you’ll say, “Handle: 2,” and of course, your teammate will touch the picture of a dog. It’s a different way to itch your brain, and it’s still interesting. Even though the clues don’t feel quite as clever, the tradeoff can be worth it. It’s much easier to get the game off to a good start and a strong finish without those moments of “analysis paralysis” that Codenames occasionally endures.
The game is so similar to Codenames that it’s quite difficult to like one and not the other, though it’s certainly easy to have a preference. But even if the pictures don’t have the same allure for you, Codenames Pictures is also an expansion of sorts for the original. You can use the four-by-five grids, for example, for shorter games of Codenames. My copy also included promo tiles that allowed Codenames Pictures to use the original five-by-five grids; I assume those will be available at the BoardGameGeek Store.
Additionally, for a particularly brain-burning experience, it’s entirely possible to mix words and pictures in one grid. There’s also an extremely cool “eight-ball” variant for both versions that I expect will become standard for us.
Codenames has been covered extensively by reviewers and by awards committees; if you’ve been exposed to it already and enjoy it a fraction of what I do, Codenames Pictures is an obvious buy. It’s not quite as clever and enjoyable, but it’s still worth buying for a myriad of reasons: the new grids, the crazy word/picture mixed games, and the accessibility. It’s much easier for beginners, for younger tykes who aren’t reading well just yet, or those with dyslexia or other reading difficulties.
If you haven’t played Codenames yet, I recommend you pick up the original first. Even though Codenames Pictures is a little easier and quicker to play, there’s just something about the wordplay in Codenames. Sure, the grid mechanism allows a little bit of math to sneak into a word game and is impressive in its own right, but digging deep and finding that clever linguistic connection is just so incredibly satisfying.
But with all that said, it still doesn’t really matter which one you pick up. Sometimes you want vanilla and sometimes you want chocolate; either way, you’re getting delicious, hand-scooped frozen custard. Codenames Pictures is a title I’m happy to have in my collection. In fact, I’ve already thrown it all into my Codenames box and look forward to using them together in every way possible for a long time to come.
+ Different than the original, but in a good way
+ More accessible
+ Tickles a different part of the brain
+ New grids and variant add replayability to Codenames
- Not quite as clever as the original
Codenames Pictures is an automatic buy for any Codenames fan. For anyone else, it's still worth a look.