Nominal Award: Best Team Game
Mechanics: communication, Memory
Players: 2 - 8
I never expected I would like Codenames. It's designed by Vlaada Chvatil, the designer of Mage Knight and Through The Ages, brilliant games whose only downfall is their complexity and duration. The concept of Codenames, by comparison, is so remarkably simple and short that the contrast was initially off-putting. Honestly, if I hadn't found an interest in the challenge of making my own version and if the ratings on Board Game Geek weren't as high as they are, by the description alone I never would have tried this game.
Codenames is best played with 4-8 players. This allows the players to split into two teams, a blue team and a red team. The playing space is 25 cards with simple words on them..."liquid", "circle", "turtle", etc. Thematically, the cards represent the "code names" of field agents. One person from each team is the designated codemaster and is given a key that shows which cards belong to which teams. Some cards are neutral. One card is an instant death card, the "assassin". Using one-word hints, the codemasters take turns trying to get their teammates to guess their affiliated words. So far, this isn't very different from other hinting/guessing games (Taboo, Password...) Of course, there's a catch.
Along with a one-word hint, the codemasters may also specify the number of guesses their team may take. For example, if I was on the blue team and "turtle" and "circle" were our words, I might say "Shell, two." This is harder than it sounds. Since your teammates are guessing only out of the selection on the table, an incorrect guess risks giving a point to the opposing team. Furthermore, a word like "shell" might be too vague. If the word "ocean" belongs to the red team or, worse yet, happens to be the assassin, my hint might hurt more than help. If I want my team to guess two or more agents, I will have to come up with a more specific hint to help them guess our agents and not others. This makes the game far more competitive.
I love this game. I have played two through seven players. (The two-player version is played against a "dummy" for a high score.) The game is an absolute riot with all players every time. In fact, I have a group that gets together for games on a monthly basis. This one (and Avalon) always hits the table. Sometimes when we play it, we play it hours longer than anyone originally said they were willing to stay. I would attribute its popularity to the brilliant competition that results from players being able to take more than one guess. Often, players want another chance to prove that they can get three or four correct on a single try. Other times, people just want another chance to not "blow it" by picking the assassin. Whatever the reason is, this party game is a complete masterpiece.