Codenames Duet: (kind of) expansion review

Codenames Duet* is a co-operative version of the award winning word game Codenames, released in 2015 (and reviewed by me here – see also Codenames Pictures from 2016).

The original Codenames saw two teams (4-8 players total, realistically) trying to guess words from a grid taking clues from their team leader. The clues could only be one word, but could cover several words on the grid (so, for example, abode 2 could mean ‘house’ and ‘cave’).

The trick was that both clue givers are using the same grid but trying to get their team to guess different words – while certain other words on the grid weren’t for either team (guessing them would end their round). One word was even an assassin – so if your team guessed that by accident, it was game over. This helped make clue giving tricky, raising the game above a lot of other word games.

What does Duet bring to the party?

What the original lacked was a two-player variant that anything other than lacklustre, which is exactly what Codenames Duet introduces. It also says you could play it in two teams of two, which would certainly work if you had a small group who prefer a co-operative game to a more competitive one.

And yes, it’s a co-op. Even if you split into teams the idea is to beat the game in a certain amount of turns, rather than defeat your opponent. So far I’ve found we’ve won about 50% of the time, which is high for a co-op, but it does have a solid mechanism in place for raising the difficulty level once you’re regularly beating the basic game.

Also, the competitive edge was never really the draw: like most party games, winning wasn’t as important as the fun you were having while playing. That is skilfully retained here, as I found myself wanting to guess the clues correctly in exactly the same way as I did with the original.

How much does it change the game?

The core game rules of Codenames still apply (a grid of words, a code card only the clue giver can see, the same clue/guess structure etc): basically, it still very much feels like playing Codenames. To make it co-operative, you use both sides of a double-sided code card during the same game – with one person/pair looking at each side.

Each side of the 25-word grid marks nine spies (words) to find, 13 innocent bystanders and three (ouch) assassins. The twist is that all but three of the spies you want to get are in different places on each side of the grid card, meaning you have to find/guess a total of 15 – and you only have nine turns to do so in the basic version of the game.

The three assassins certainly ramp up the tension and make clue finding more treacherous; while needing almost two correct guesses per clue keeps the pressure on to go for the tenuous word combos that make the game sing. That said, if you found yourself crippled by analysis paralysis by the original, you’ll be in exactly the same boat here.

The way the difficulty ramps up via the map is clever, works fine, but is a pretty thinly veiled way to say: “Winning? Give yourself less clues and see how that goes.” Don’t come in having seen the map expecting any kind of story line or plot: this is purely a standard mathematical solution to solving the standard co-op game difficulty level problem.

Which is probably a good time to make it clear that, unless the co-operative nature of the game really makes a difference to you, this is not going to convert anyone who really didn’t like the original version.

Is Codenames Duet value for money?

On the surface I’d say yes: for well under £20 you’re getting a great 2-4 player word game that you can play with anyone – families, non-gamers and gamers alike. The components are of solidly average standard and there’s nothing to criticise. Unless, of course, you already own a version of Codenames.

It would be easy to use the majority of components from the original to play this version: the world map and rules are already available to download, so you just need some markers to show used clues and the new grid cards. For this, I’d like to have seen a cheap upgrade kit for owners of the original – but it’s a minor gripe: I have no objection to a company trying to make money.

Is it essential?

Absolutely not. Players who regularly play in couples, or as a couple, are definitely advised to pick it up if they like the sound of it or the original – as are those who really love co-operative games. But if you only really like this kind of game in a larger group, you’ll be fine with the original (which is still good with four).

… and does it fit in the original Codenames box?

Well, that depends what’s already in there! I’ve found you can comfortably fit two versions of Codenames in the same box – so I have Codenames and Codenames Pictures in one box. But that fills it, so sadly there’s no room to also squeeze Duet in. But if you only have one of those two, you could get this in the same box with it.

That said, I’m more than happy to add this version to my collection in its own box – because there’s bound to be another version along soon that I’ll want to squeeze in with it. After all, The Marvel and Disney Family versions have already been announced…

* Thank you to Czech Games Edition for providing Codenames Duet for review.

2 thoughts on “Codenames Duet: (kind of) expansion review

  1. You seem to indicate that the original Codenames doesn’t include a 2-player variant. 2-player and 3-player variants are provided, though I haven’t tried either one.

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