I love me some Vlaada Chvatil. I delight in his imagination and skill in welding together unlikely elements to create brilliant games. He likes pushing dexterity into unlikely place. Or adding depth of strategy to genres and mechanics that have not, traditionally, had much. So it came as something of a surprise to find that his latest game, Codenames, is a simple party game.
One thing I've found is that colors seem to be an easy way out. One time I had ALPS and PASTE as my last two words. I said "stuck 2" thinking that people could get stuck in the mountains, and my team didn't get ALPS. After the game someone said, "you should have just said white!" The one time that I saw someone get a 5, it was with "Black 5." Words were things like Knight and Night- no racist overtones on any of it.
The only time that I've seen it flop was when we played it with my girlfriend's cousins and two foreign exchange students. The Pakistani kid and one of the cousins liked it, but the Chinese guy struggled a bit.
The first turn is also the hardest, so sometimes you're sitting there saying, "Hey this game is super fun and cool," and then you sit there really frustrated and thinking hard for a solid 2 or more minutes. Sometimes in that first game you've just go to throw out an easy 1 to get the game rolling.
Since names are valid clues, it's fun to use fictional characters. You can link Ring and Mount by saying "Frodo 2" for example. My girlfriend and I have been watching Breaking Bad, so we've used Walter and Jesse as clues. My friend and his wife once used "cat" to get the word "dragon" because I guess after seeing How to Train Your Dragon they both decided that Toothless acted like their cat.
I like Codenames. It's a cute little filler. I'm not sure how it has gone gangbusters that has become the must have of 2015. It's cute, but game wise it's not very interesting or original.
It's not a must have in my book - it's just cheap, flexible and fun. It's the best party game of 2015 but that's not a category that sets a lot of gamers on fire. This is a game in that awkward niche that gamers of any stripe can enjoy.
It might not be original but it is smart design. It's got a lot of clever tweaks to keep it as smooth and as replayable as possible.
I'd hop on it sooner rather than later if you're interested. It will probably go out of stock in a wee bit.
My biggest issue is that it's too easy to win by simply not taking any risks. If your spymaster goes for easy clues that only reference one obvious word ... your team will probably win. In all five games, my team took risks, tried to make educated guesses, and pushed for connections between multiple words. The other team took the slow-and-steady route of one-word clues. They easily won all five games.
Now, maybe my team just sucks at this game (very possible). But I saw no indication that taking risks in this game is a viable strategy. Just go one word at a time making obvious clues that can't be misinterpreted ... and you'll win. And MAN, does that make for a boring experience. There's just no "game" here.