When doing reviews for games, this one is going to be a bit different for me. As a general rule, I break a game apart by a series of subjective metrics: aesthetics, components, rule book, theme, gameplay, value, etc. Codenames is an entirely different animal; this is a review that is going to get rather philosophical. Setting this up is going to be pretty extensive, so hold on.
Board gaming is a genre that should be dead because it’s so old and out of date. After all, why would anyone play a simple board game when you can play video games instead? Video games can be vastly more complex, exciting, and they don’t require finding anybody else to sit down and play. Setting up a video game is also quicker and easier than a board game, and when you’re done the cleanup is a snap.
So why do we still love to play board games? Answer: because of the human element.
To be clear, I love video games. But I know that lots of people can relate to me when I say that I can spend all day playing video games and feel terrible afterwards, most especially if I spent the entire time by myself. I know that I never really feel the same way when I’m with others doing more or less the same thing. Hence, we know that board gaming is far from dead, and I feel as if there is still room for so much more innovation, despite it being around for thousands of years.
I’m not a psychologist, but from what tiny bit I understand about the human brain, the science behind this is fascinating. Without getting too far into this point, there are four principle neurotransmitters in our bodies that make us happy: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. In order to establish a sense of complete happiness, we must be able to access all four, though serotonin and oxytocin are tricky because they require human interaction for them to be produced. In other words, human are genetically designed to be social creatures; nobody has ever heard of the happy hermit. Board games remain popular because they generally require human interaction. Notice that solitaire games very rarely are ever all that popular.
In times past, I’ve been largely critical of many Euro (and some American) game designers because they develop games that feel like multi-player solitaire. Even as we might have several people at a table playing the same game, the interaction between players remains weak, and I find this disappointing. Of the games that I play, the ones I generally enjoy the most have a strong element of interaction and even conflict with other players. (Side note: this is why Dominion is a better game than Thunderstone. Despite the latter’s superior artwork and theme, Dominion has a stronger interactive element to it.)
Codenames really isn’t a game of conflict, but the interactive element of it is fascinating on a whole new level of human psychology that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced in board gaming. This leads me to another interesting scientific perspective that comes from an online article called “The Essence of Peopling.”
The article itself is rather long, so I’ll break down the synopsis:
I am not who I think I am, I am not who you think I am, I am who I-think-you-think I am.
Did you get that? (If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend the next 15 minutes rereading that line until it comes together.) The gist of it is this: I am a different person around everyone. The difference might be slight, but I’m a different person around my wife as I am around my gaming buddies, as I am around my bishop, as I am around my parents, etc. We all do this to some degree or another by connecting our brains with other people around us, some of which are cultural constructs, some of which are very much part of our genetic makeup. In a very real sense, I become part of the people around me as I interact with them, and we all do this whether we want to admit it or not. The rabbit hole goes deep on this one.
This is where the fantastic brilliance of Codenames comes together. Codenames is a game where I must not only solve the puzzle to win, but I must do it in a way that my partner understands, and he/she has to do the same with me. I have to establish a link with the person sitting across the table from me, and through this process of playing multiple games back-to-back, our brains become one. We become one.
That is just straight up crazy.
Aside from that, Codenames is a game that’s great because it has a relatively short play time that works for people across age groups and backgrounds. I enjoy Codenames because my wife, kids and gaming buddies enjoy Codenames.
This game is an instant classic. Long live Codenames.
While the human-interaction element of boardgames is a significant one, it's not entirely a real difference from video-games - sure, comparing Ocarina of Time with Pictionary, the two are very different, but within videogaming there's a whole continuum of human interaction - from the purely single-player game through things like Journey or Dark Souls where interaction with other players is largely in the form of messages in bottles rather than anything more direct (okay, DS lets you invade/be invited into another player's world). And on through online multiplayer (Overwatch, MOBAs, MMORPGs) and local multiplayer (Mario Party, Smash Bros, stuff not by Nintendo...). You can even get electronic versions of actual boardgames. And then there are games that incorporate digital elements - XCOM TBG, for example - which cross the line between boardgame and videogame.
There are other differences between boardgames and videogames that help explain the resurgent popularity of the former:
Boardgames are tactile in a way videogames rarely are - in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the kinesthetic element of clicking on a Sniper is indistinguishable from that of clicking on an Assault, but the experience of picking them up in XCOM: TBG is different - the Sniper has a different shape. Motion control and haptic feedback can introduce an element of this into videogames, but, in general, you're holding the same controller and pressing the same buttons the whole game...
And the one I personally put a lot of weight in: where videogames force you to follow the game's rules, boardgames function by consensus - with a videogame, while you make decisions for what you want to do, what actually happens is determined by the game's code; in a boardgame, you don't only choose what you want to do; you also control the outcome (subject to the laws of physics). If you want to put money on Free Parking in Monopoly, or not auction off property that the person landing on doesn't want to pay list price for, or waive the 10% fee for mortgaged property, or allow buildings to be sold back to the bank for full price, then you can, and all you need to do is decide to do it.
To make a comparable change in a videogame, you either need the game developers to have included it as an official variant, or for someone (possibly even yourself) to create a mod for the game, and to successfully install that mod. Depending on the game's code, and the change you're trying to make, that ranges from 5 minutes of editing config files to weeks or months reverse engineering the game code and figuring out how to make the change.
That flexibility and responsibility for making the game work gives players ownership of the experience in a way videogames don't - you're not just playing the game; you're taking part in creating the game - and it's guaranteed that you understand the rules you're playing by rather than feeding decisions into a black box and having consequences fed back to you without knowing how one turns into the other.
Most of your points are excellent and insightful.
I have occasionally played board games online as well as other video games that require humans to play with each other. They sometimes come very close to scratching the same itch as meeting with friends on a Saturday evening and engaging a civil quest of epic violence and conquest, etc, but it is never quite the same.
Then again, most of the time it doesn't come even close. I have Star Realms on my phone, wherein I can play against other humans or against the computer. I almost always play against the computer. I do this because the game goes much faster, while the satisfaction I get from playing against a faceless player I've never met is essentially null.
But I also own Star Realms the physical card game. I really enjoy playing with my son despite the fact that the game never goes as fast as it does on my phone.