Last year, GeekDad declared Codenames to be the best new game that we saw at Gen Con. It was innovative and clever and, most of all, fun. Over the course of this past year, it seems like we managed to talk most of the other GeekDad writers into buying a copy (still waiting for my commission check). So, when we returned to Indianapolis this year, we were interested to see what innovations Vlaada Chvátil and Czech Games would bring to our favorite game. Of course, like you, we knew the game was being adapted to pictures. But what we were really curious about was how it would play.
The answer is an easy one. It plays just like the original and, at the same time, it plays better. Let me explain. I’m not going to rehash the rules because they are identical to the first game. If you’d like to read them, please see my review from last year. Codenames: Pictures is played the same way: spymasters give clues, field operatives try to identify agents and avoid the assassin. The only differences are that the grid is 5 x 4 instead of the original’s 5 x 5 and you can name an element of the image as a clue. That is, if there’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex riding a penny-farthing, your clue can be “T-Rex”… but why would you? You’re only going to score one agent in that turn.
The components are mostly the same too. The picture cards are a bit bigger, as are the agent cards that cover them. The key cards have been changed to represent the newly configured grid. The dual agent card has been upgraded to show a more noticeable splash of red on the blue side and vice versa. It’s a good improvement.
What’s more, there are a couple of new game modes and rules explanations. For spymasters, the instructions are more emphatic, to help prevent subtle hints through body language. At the back of the rulebook, there are three game variations to be tried. For those less competitive, there is a two-player/one team option, where everyone is on the same team, and for small groups, there is a three-player option. There’s also a variant called the “Assassin Ending” where teams continue to guess until the assassin has been found. The game always ends on the turn the assassin is found, but that team gets an unlimited number of guesses to find their remaining agents… but no clues. Finally, there’s the suggestion to combine both Codenames and Codenames: Pictures on a single 5 x 4 or 5 x 5 grid.
So if it’s mostly the same game, why is Codenames: Pictures better? Simply put, it’s more challenging. At first glance, the pictures seem pretty simple (and some of them are). But the closer you look at them and begin to analyze them, the more complex they are. You may think you’ve given a masterful clue that should allow your field operative to identify 4 agents, but as the field operatives begin to analyze–and over-analyze–the pictures, they begin to see little nuances and details you missed when crafting your clue. And… oh no! Is that? Yes, the agent card that represents the assassin has a bit of its image that could arguably be interpreted as applying to your clue. So, you hold your breath and hope your field operatives don’t see what you’re seeing…
The game ends up ratcheting up the anxiety a little. There seem to be more misguesses and uncertainty on the side opposite the spymasters. It becomes a challenge in the same way that Dixit cards and Mysterium clues offer lots of room to interpretation. It’s easy to see multiple concepts in a single picture and it makes for a demanding game. Codenames: Pictures takes Codenames and flips the original game on its head. If we were playing Codenames and I had three more agents to have my team identify, it is usually fairly easy to find a connection to tie them together. After all, words are buckets that hold all manner of definitions. That is if I want you to guess the words “seal,” “whale,” and “fish,” I would probably say “ocean” because when you hear that word, you might think of a number of things in basic terms. However, if I had three cards left for you to guess and one of them was a picture of a bear hopping on a pogo stick and the other was a Ferris wheel with cherries in place of the seats and the third was the Leaning Tower of Pisa with a circular slide coming off the side, well, my job is a whole lot harder to find a common thread between even two of them.
The groups I’ve played with have been up for that challenge. I think the pictures make the game better and they force you to think more and be more creative. When I play Codenames now, it almost feels a bit easier—but still very enjoyable. Codenames: Pictures, though played quite similarly to its predecessor, is its own game—and a very enjoyable one at that. Codenames: Pictures will be available at the end of September.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.