Codenames Duet takes the highly successful Codenames formula and makes it accessible to a whole new audience – the 2-player co-op crowd. Regular readers will know that this is the niche my wife and I fall in to, so we were pretty excited about this one. Did it live up to expectations? Is it any good? Let’s find out!
First things first: Codenames
To understand where Codenames Duet is coming from, it’s important to have a bit of background about Codenames itself. Codenames was one of the smash hits of 2015 A party-game that gives two teams the task of each contacting their own agents before the other team could contact theirs.
A game of Codenames begins with 25 cards being laid out on the table, each bearing a single word. Each team selects a clue-giver, and the 2 clue-givers can see a grid in which each space is randomly coloured red, blue, white or black.
They must then give a 1-word clue to their team, followed by a number. The challenge is to give a clue which will point your team to multiple cards in blue positions (assuming you are the blue team), without sending them to any of the other colours.
Your team will discuss, argue, and ultimately choose some cards to point at. For each word they select, you place a coloured token, indicating the affiliation of the word they have chosen. If it’s a blue, then they can continue to guess more words. White means that they have tried to contact a bystander, and the turn ends. Red means that they have accidentally activated an opposing agent, ending the turn AND giving the red team a leg-up. Lastly, if they picked the single black word, the spy, then the game ends in instant defeat for Blue Team.
Although the concept is very simple, Codenames is a game with surprising depth. The limitations on the information the clue-giver can provide create a great atmosphere of uncertainty, and the discussions/arguments that ensue about how to interpret such minimalist clues make great entertainment (especially when you know what the other team’s clue refers to, and they don’t).
Figuring out how to translate this mechanic for a 2-player co-op environment was always going to be an interesting exercise.
Codenames Duet: What’s in the Box?
Codenames Duet, like any Codenames game comes with a big stack of cards with Nouns on, a random 25 of which will be used in any given game. Although there is a small dot to identify them as Codenames Duet components, they are otherwise identical to standard Codenames cards, and can be used interchangeably.
Codenames Duet also features a new set of cards which look very similar to the reference cards in original Codenames, except that these only have agents marked in Green, rather than Red and Blue. The blank spaces for passers-by, and the single black spy remain.
Lastly, you have the tokens to cover words successfully guessed, markers for bystanders incorrectly guessed, and a rulebook – all of it fits neatly into a compact box, and the component quality is solid, the graphic design very clean.
So far, so Codenames: what are the changes?
So, player A wants player B to guess ‘Pacific’ even though B see it as a Spy. Both players see ‘Microwave’ as a Spy, so should be staying well clear of it.
As I mentioned in the components overview, you don’t have separate teams of Red and Blue agents to find in Codenames Duet: both players are trying to find all of the Green agents, and rather than the other team, the opponent is time (a limited number of turns).
The grid card is double-sided, and slots into a stand with one side facing you, and another facing your partner.
Your job is to get your partner to guess all the words corresponding to spaces that you see as green.
Your partner’s job is to get you to guess all the words corresponding to spaces that they see as green.
This is where it gets complicated.
Spaces are not the same on both sides of the card – some of the spaces are green on both sides, but many are different coloured one green and one white, or even green on one side, and black on the other.
This means that it matters not just which words you get, but who guesses them. There will be words that will be correct if you guess them, but incorrect if your partner guesses them! When you look at your card and see the 3 Spies that you need to keep your partner well clear of, you also need to keep in mind, that one of those is an agent you need to find.
So how does it play out?
There are probably 2 different ways that you can approach Codenames Duet. My wife, I suspect, takes the game at face value: she sees 9 green spaces and 3 black spaces, and tries to give me clues that correspond to the green words, and not to the black words.
Personally, I play the meta-game. I’m looking at the grid – I know that one of the words I see as black is actually a word I need to guess: hopefully I get it early on, at which point I know with complete certainty that I can avoid the other 2. Likewise with the words that get marked as green, I’m trying to keep track of how many look like they’ve been green from both sides, how many just from one.
Part of the reason I’m trying to go through all of these extra layers of thought, is that Codenames Duet is a quiet game. Very quiet. Whereas classic Codenames prompts a discussion about what the clues might mean, in Codenames Duet, there’s (generally) no-one to discuss it with. Given that you could very quickly make the game far too easy by adding to the clues, we felt that we had to be quite disciplined in keeping it to just “word, number” – if you open that with “one of these is a bit of a stretch, but the other two are fairly obvious, and the third one kind of makes sense if you remember last round’s clue” you’re not only cheating, as per the rules, but you’re somewhat defeating the purpose of the game.
Success? Time for your next mission!
We’ve enjoyed our games of Codenames Duet, but we can’t claim to be brilliant at it. We’ve had a fair few defeats, and our victories tend to be narrow ones. We haven’t used the 2 extra tokens that are provided to allow you to ease the difficulty by adding extra rounds.
That said, Codenames Duet is the sort of game you will get better at over time, if you play with the same person – you’ll learn how the other person is likely to interpret your clues, and aside from the times when the random distribution of the words just aren’t going to work for you, you might start to find the game a bit easy.
If so, that’s probably the point where you’ll want to get into the Missions. The Missions retain the basic structure of Codenames Duet, but give it a twist – the overall time limit for the game goes down (or sometimes even up!) but now there are restrictions on the number of mistakes you can make.
As with a lot of aspects of the game, things are fairly abstracted –there’s not really anything about Prague that corresponds to the default way of playing Codenames Duet, nor anything inherently Muscovite or Parisian about their variants. As an expansion of the scope of the game though, I think it works well: an “8-8” mission (8 turns max, 8 mistakes allowed) is just straight-up harder than a “9-9” but what about an “11-2”? In this version you actually have extra turns available at the start of the game, but once you use up the 2 face-up bystander tokens, each turn that ends with an incorrect guess uses up two check markers.
So far, we’ve not got very far into the missions, as we’re still getting to grips with the game, but it’s a fun extra feature, and it definitely does put a new spin on things – knowing that sometimes it’s best to avoid a risky guess, because a mistake will penalise you doubly, compared with taking an early pass. The existence of the missions also gives us confidence that Codenames Duet has a lot of life left in it.
Codenames Duet Final Thoughts
As I said at the start, Codenames is both a big hit and a very good game, and we were excited to be able to bring that to our 2-player table.
Codenames Duet is also a good game – but it’s a very different beast to original Codenames.
If you play (or wanted to play) Codenames for the lateral thinking, the clever word-play, and the interesting challenge of communicating in such a restricted fashion, then Codenames Duet still has that to offer aplenty. It can be quite a difficult game, especially to begin with, but it’s easy enough to adjust the difficulty if you need to, by increasing the number of guesses you have available.
However, if you enjoy Codenames for the Social dynamics, the discussion, the tension of rival teams getting ahead then being caught once more, then Codenames Duet is not going to scratch that itch. Rather than a game where most people are talking most of the time, this is a game that gets played more-or-less in silence.
Overall, I’d rate it 7/10
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.