07 November 2017
Play in harmony with this catchy co-op spin on the word game
Codenames Duet is quickly becoming my favourite way to play Vlaada Chvátil’s outstanding one-word clue-giving hit – and, despite the name, it’s fun by no means limited to two people.
Although a co-operative variant was technically included in the back of the original Codenames’ manual, Duet takes the basic concepts presented there one step further, fleshing out the competition against a cardboard adversary with dedicated turn-timer tokens, balancing the involvement of both human players and introducing a charming campaign mode in the form of a map of missions with varying difficulties and challenges.
With the 400 new words from this box able to be used with the original (and vice-versa, plus spin-off Codenames Pictures), it’s also a worthwhile expansion that increases the replayability of the cross-compatible series to a frankly staggering level.
Instead of racing against the intellect of a rival team, the opponent here is your own skill: the standard mode only gives you nine turns as a pair (or two teams of any number of players – it should’ve really been called Codenames Co-op) to discover 15 agents hidden around the grid of word cards while avoiding the usual crowd of assassins and bystanders.
Unlike Codenames’ barebones variant, both players have a unique group of agents for their partner to find – although some apply to both, introducing a captivating layer of meta-strategy as you bounce clues off each other and use your knowledge of how many agents and assassins are shared to pare down your options.
Once the time runs out, the fun doesn’t immediately stop – a nail-biting ‘sudden death’ mode halts the clues but keeps guesses going as long as they remain correct, offering a thrilling last-minute chance to swipe victory. Exemplifying the simple genius that made Codenames such an incredible joy in the first place, it leaves the highly entertaining core of the game untouched while applying changes that feel meaningful and fresh – and, like the original, it’s all-too-easy to end up in a 'one more game' loop for hour after enjoyable hour.
The standard game is already much more than a simply repackaged version of the original’s alternate mode, but it’s in the optional campaign that the changes really shine.
Completing a basic match kicks off a globetrotting adventure, as the players choose which country to visit next based on linked paths. Each location alters the difficulty, reducing or increasing the number of turns and incorrect guesses permitted (going as low as 0 for a tough but tense instant-failure challenge).
There’s no narrative hook, yet the choice of where to visit next and dynamic method of encouraging different play styles (risky or conservative, depending on the setup) is a treat, injecting extra life and energy into a game that has never been short of either. It’s also an ideal mode for Codenames connoisseurs looking for an extra linguistic trial, as the harder levels hinge on providing first-rate clues to score higher and higher combos without slipping up. The flexibility to start from and end on any location, or try and travel as far as possible without losing once, makes the campaign a fantastic way to lose an afternoon.
Codenames Duet doesn’t reinvent Codenames, but it achieves a rare feat by being just as exceptionally crafted and compelling as the original without being exactly the same game in a new box. Whether you get it to add to your collection, or simply find out what all the fuss is about, just make sure you get it.
Introducing enough meaningful changes to mark it apart from its predecessor, Duet is nevertheless just as entertaining and enthralling to play. The campaign mode is light but smartly encourages different styles of play, while the gameplay tweaks make one of the best competitive games around now one of the finest co-op experiences going.
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Time: 15 minutes
This review originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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