The job of the spy is difficult enough with rival spy organizations working around you. But it’s even more difficult to go it alone. Or with just two. And with multiple assassins waiting around every corner. But you love love the life of danger, and you trust your partner. What could go wrong?
How It Works
Codenames Duet is a cooperative word game for two or more players. Players are spymasters trying to clue their operatives into making contact with their agents while avoiding deadly assassins. The players win if they make contact with all fifteen of their agents before they run out of timer tokens or make contact with an assassin.
To begin, players sit on opposite sides of the table and lay out a 5×5 grid of word cards. They place a clue card on its stand and set it between the players. Players decide how many bystander/timer tokens to include. (More tokens can be used for an easier game.) One side goes first.
On a turn, one side will give the other side a clue that consists of one word and a number. This clue corresponds to the agents that they see on their side of the card.
The dual-sided clue card shows a different setup of agents, bystanders, and assassins on both sides. When a side is guessing, only the spymaster for that turn’s side of the clue card matters. (That is, a word may be the assassin for one side and an agent for the other.) The overlap of agents/bystanders/assassins is standard for each card.
When the guessing side touches a word card, the spymaster places a token on this card corresponding to what that card is in their clue key. If it is an agent, the card is covered completely and may no longer be guessed for the remainder of the game (even if it is an agent for the other side). If the card is a bystander, the spymaster places one of the double-sided bystander/timer tokens on the card with the arrow facing themself–it’s possible this card might be an agent for the other side, so it can still be touched. If the card is the assassin, all players lose immediately.
The guessing side may keep guessing as long as they like as long as they keep touching agent cards. They may stop at any time, in which case they take a timer token. The other side gives the next clue.
The game ends when either players have made contact with all the agents on both sides of the clue card or the timer/bystander tokens have been claimed, or players have made contact with an assassin. The players collectively win only if all the agents have been guessed.
Codenames is the party game that just keeps giving. After the smash success of the original edition came a version with pictures, several licensed versions like Disney and Marvel and Harry Potter, and the unassuming Duet, which is a return to simple word cards. But Duet isn’t just a new coat of paint–it’s an entirely different game, and one that rivals the original Codenames in interest and ingenuity.
Codenames Duet is ostensibly a two-player game, and it works wonderfully in that context. Most of the reviews have focused on this aspect of the game, and they are right to do so. (And I’ll come back to this.) But Duet also makes Codenames not just a team game but a cooperative game, and that’s a great way to play it too.
I’m generally not a huge fan of cooperative games. I don’t like being told what to do, but I also don’t want to be the bossy one who is directing everyone else’s moves. But after I praised Just One for its cooperative play, I thought it worth giving cooperative Codenames a shot. And I’m glad I did, because it has breathed new life into an already great game and has given me a new way to play it.
I’ve mentioned before that my family would be content if I had introduced them only to Bohnanza and Codenames. But Codenames has a tendency to degenerate when we play it. “I can’t think of a clue.” “Just try something.” “I don’t want you to mess up.” “It’s Codenames. Messing up is part of the fun.” “Okay, I’m just going to go for it. Vehicle – 1.”
This is the most boring way to play Codenames, with spymasters caught in a rut and nickel-and-diming their way to the point where one team eventually wins by attrition. Even when a spymaster has tried to be creative, looping in multiple words, the guessers in my family have become sheepish enough that they’d rather sit on guesses for another round.
Codenames Duet fixes this problem by limiting the number of possible rounds. Fortune favors the bold, and now Codenames does too. While it loosens the rules in that players can now guess as many words as they want to when it’s their turn to guess (until they hit a bystander or an assassin), players also are encouraged to take more risks. There are only a certain number of rounds available (the basic game is nine), so single-correspondence clues won’t cut it. Spymasters will have to do more word association to have a shot at winning.
And really, Codenames is best when played on this razor’s edge. It’s best when spymasters are trying to hit the greatest number of words with a single clue. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and the limited rounds in Codenames Duet allow all groups to enjoy the creativity that Codenames is supposed to engender.
Codenames Duet further challenges groups by offering a, for lack of better term, “campaign mode.” A tear sheet of maps is included with the game that show different locations in the world and different requirements to win in that place. Codenames Duet ups the challenge by either lowering the number of rounds or penalizing teams for making contact with neutral agents. Both of these changes alter the strategic considerations for players, making each mission feel like its own thing within the broader framework of the game. (And in the XXL version, the maps are, well, also extra large, so crossing off a location feels momentous.)
The main change from regular Codenames that makes Codenames Duet work as well as it does is the clue card, which unlike regular Codenames, is double-sided. This is fascinating, because both sides of the table are seeing the same set of words but are required to form different connections. I’ve said before that Codenames is already endlessly replayable, even with a limited bank of words, just because even if the same words are in the same game, the relationships that the clue card dictates will require a different tack, even if the spymaster is the same. Codenames Duet is the laboratory where this theory is tested, and I think the game supports the hypothesis.
Because of the dual-sided clue cards, Codenames Duet is, if possible, an even more cerebral experience than regular Codenames. The back of the rules show a chart of the overlap between the two sides–each side has nine agents, three assassins, and thirteen innocent bystanders–but there is some overlap. Each side has one assassin in common (which always makes guessing a word that is an assassin on your side tense), three agents in common, and seven bystanders in common. The trick is, you don’t know which is which, but as the round progresses, you can begin to make more intelligent guesses.
Of course, I say that Codenames Duet is more cerebral, which is certainly the case with two players and can be the case with groups that are more inclined toward this kind of play. But Duet can also be more interactive. Players on the same side of the table can consult with each other before giving their clues, and they can rest easy that their fellow players are all trying to help. It also keeps players more engaged in the game. I think most of us who have played Codenames at all know the dread of seeing the over-analyzer taking several minutes before settling on a clue (and usually, it’s still a clue connecting just one or two words). Relying on the analysis prone player for all the clues in a game can be excruciating. But in cooperative Duet, all players on one side of the table can share this duty. My wife, who hates the responsibility of being spymaster, can sit it out, or help someone else on her side craft a good clue. And because all players are both guessing and giving clues, there’s more engagement with the game rather than off-topic small talk in Duet (which could be seen as a plus or minus, depending on the group).
I think cooperative multiplayer Codenames is great in Duet, but there are some things to be aware of. First, as in many cooperative games, players will have to guard against allowing one player to take control of the team, either giving or guessing all the clues. Duet is more open to this sort of thing than the team-based Codenames, which has a clearer delineation of duties. Second, multiplayer Duet can be a bit fragile, as players will want to deduce information from their side of the clue card and discuss this with their teammates, but they’ll need to do so without giving information to the other side–which is tricky. Also, because of the blurred lines between spymaster and guesser, players giving the clues are looser in their talk in Duet than they are in Codenames, which has the strict mandate that spymasters are to be silent and stone-faced. I don’t call any of these negatives, per se: I’d still gladly play Duet with a group of players. But the experience is a little more fragile, and it’s helpful to discuss these behaviors up front.
Okay, so there it is: Codenames Duet is great as a cooperative group game. But it’s phenomenal as a two-player word game…in the right context. Again, the dual-sided clue card is an ingenious twist, the three assassins keep the two players on their toes, and the intimacy of the game makes allowances for long pauses, hopeless gambits, glorious victories, and ignominious defeats. If you and someone else love Codenames, Duet is a no-brainer.
For me, I’ve enjoyed my two-player games of Duet, but my wife has been more mixed on this, for the reason mentioned above: she doesn’t like the pressure of being spymaster. Even when the game involves just the two of us, she doesn’t like feeling locked up when giving a clue, and she doesn’t like the added pressure of the deduction offered by the dual-sided card. I think she would be fine with multiplayer Duet, but two-player Duet would never be her first choice.
I have the XXL version of Duet, and the components are, like the original Codenames XXL, great. I love the large-format cards, the thick punchboard tiles, and the big clue cards. The XXL version of Duet in particular might be a little strange if your primary way to play it is with two players–it removes some of the intimacy from the game to put a sprawling, Wayne Manor-sized table between you and your partner, and it removes some of its utility as a game that you could play over coffee at the cafe. That being said, man, I love the XXL format for Codenames. There’s less leaning, it’s easier to see all the words, and with the multiplayer cooperative Duet, it’s even easy for all the players on both sides to see and read the code card.
Codenames Duet includes 400 new words (200 new double-sided cards), which is worth it for the expansion to Codenames alone. I also appreciate that each of the bystanders in Duet is individually illustrated. When I reviewed Codenames XXL, I landed on keeping both–the XXL version for parties, the regular edition for everyday use. Since then, I’ve passed along the regular-size edition and use the XXL version exclusively. I prefer it that much (and I also found a suitable storage solution for both games: an expansion box for the game Scythe).
All told, Duet is a wonderful addition to the Codenames family. It’s worth getting simply to expand the Codenames game you already love, but it’s also a worthy twist on the formula that works excellently for two players and well enough to see play in multiplayer groups. And the XXL version makes it that much more the centerpiece of your game night. Codenames remains one of the very best party games, and Duet is another proof of the versatility of the system.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing us with a copy of Codenames Duet XXL for review.