2016 Spiel des Jahres Winner: Codenames
We don’t often talk about board game awards here, and probably for good reason. I would venture to guess that most folks aren’t familiar with most of the awards that are handed out to board games each year, which makes the fact that a game won an award little more than a random factoid to most people. And while there are a lot of different board game awards out there (who knew?), one set stands above the rest in terms of prestige: The Spiel des Jahres, which literally translates from German as “Game of the Year.” You see, in Germany, board games are a way of life. The country is home to a ton of prominent game designers, including Klaus Teuber, who designed the nearly ubiquitous Settlers of Catan. The Spiel des Jahres has been around since 1978, and if there’s one corollary to it that makes it more understandable, it would be like winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s kind of big deal.
This year’s winner is especially deserving. Codenames comes from one of my favorite designers, Vlaada Chvatil, the man behind games like real-time spaceship simulator Space Alert and intergalactic shipping-fest Galaxy Trucker. While those games are notable for their elegant and in-depth systems, Codenames is remarkable for its simplicity. The theme of the game is two teams of spies are trying to learn each other’s codenames from their spymasters. But here theme doesn’t really matter, it’s like a thin pat of butter spread over a thick piece of toast. At its heart, Codenames is a word game.
The first thing you’ll notice upon opening Codenames’ box is that the game is made up of a lot of cards. Two hundred cards, in fact, each containing a word. You’ll arrange 25 of these cards in a 5×5 grid. Two players, designated the spymasters, will receive one of 40 “key” cards that only they can see. This card shows them which cards in the grid correspond to their spies and which cards belong to the other team. They then have to give their team clues that lead them to uncovering all of their spies before the other team does the same. The catch is the spymasters can only provide two word clues, with the first word being something associated with the card you’re being directed towards and the second word being the number of cards associated with that word. For example, if the spymaster says “baseball, 3” you might guess “bat,” “pitcher,” and “stadium” (if you were so lucky to have all three of those cards on the table at the same time).
From this simple formula, Codenames creates a game that is an absolute blast to play. It starts with the teams trying to decipher the spymasters’ clues. It might sound simple, but, seeing as single words can be associated with other words in so many different ways, overthinking it almost always takes over in the most hilarious of ways. If you’re the other team, it’s just so much fun to watch the spymaster, who can’t talk or give hints in any way while their team discusses the clues, sweat while the rest of their team discusses the clues. Giving the clues and making the guesses is fun and exciting, but it’s also a game that will have you talking excitedly afterward, explaining what you were thinking. Overall, it’s a game that you’ll think about in the best possible way, a game that allows you to be clever and creative while still maintaining tight framework.
On top of this clever base are a couple of features that I absolutely love about Codenames. First is the sheer number of cards. Seeing as you only play with 25 at a time, you can endlessly mix and match them to have a new game every time. It’s one of the most replayable games I’ve ever experienced. That’s great, but my single favorite thing about Codenames, it’s stroke of genius in my mind, has to be the assassin. In addition to cards that correspond to spies from either side, hidden in the grid are a few civilians, who simply give the other team a chance to guess if you choose one of them, and one assassin. You do not want to guess the assassin. If you do, you automatically lose the round. This is great because, even though there’s only one, it shakes up the spymasters’ entire approach to giving clues. You do not want to mention any words even remotely associated with the assassin. In a game where I was the spymaster, I was fortunate enough to have “London,” “New York,” and “Tokyo” all be cards on my side. Unfortunately, however, “Beijing” (or some other city), was the assassin. I didn’t dare say “City, 3” and risk my team picking the assassin. Instead, I had to spend the entire game thinking of ways to get my team to guess the cities I needed them to. It was more difficult, sure, but a challenge that really made me use all of my wits.
Ultimately, Codenames is an ideal board game. It’s easy to explain and learn, but demands creativity. And, thanks to how you reconfigure the cards, is infinitely replayable. It’s a game that presents an intriguing puzzle every time. You’ll laugh while you’re playing it, talk excitedly about it afterwards and want to dive in for more. In other words, it’s totally deserving of the title “Game of the Year.”