Board Game Review: Codenames Duet, a team based word guessing game from CGE

One of the things that surprised me the most about Codenames Duet is that it is not just a two-player cooperative word guessing game, it’s actually a team-based cooperative game that can be played with two or more players.

In Codenames Duet each team is trying to get the other team to guess a number of words based on one-word clues. You are working together to find all of the spies before either running out of time or running into one of the dreaded assassins.

Disclosure: CGE provided me with a review copy of Codenames Duet, no other compensation was provided. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What to expect with a copy of Codenames Duet

Codenames Duet was designed by Vlaada Chvátil and Scot Eaton. It features some great diverse artwork from Tomáš Kučerovský. Here in North America, it is published by CGE or Czech Games Edition. Codenames Duet plays with two or more players split over two teams. A single game will take from fifteen minutes to half an hour. Codenames Duet is a follow up to the highly successful party game Codenames

For a look at what you get in the box, be sure to check out our Codenames Duet Unboxing video on Youtube

Opening up the box for the first time, the first thing I noticed was three packs of cards. One of these packs contained a hundred double-sided key cards. These are new to Codenames Duet. The other two packs of cards each contained a hundred new word cards. Each of these cards is two-sided, giving you a total of four hundred new words that are for use in this game and are also compatible with the regular version of Codenames. 

All of these cards are of decent quality and I expect them to last for a large number of plays. My only complaint is with the design of the word cards, which is consistent with the other Codenames games. I personally don’t understand why they didn’t make both halves of the cards look the same. Why is the one “upside-down” word darker coloured and smaller. This is less of a problem in basic Codenames as when you play most players are looking at the cards from the same side but in Codenames Duet players need to be on opposite sides of the cards.

There is a plastic stand to hold a key card. this is placed between the two teams so that each team cannot see the other side of the card. 

In the box, you will also find a surprisingly thick rulebook. The core rules are seven pages long. These are followed by some tips and tricks, a campaign based mission mode and rules for playing with more than two players, bringing the rulebook to a total of twelve pages. 

The game also includes a pad that shows a map of the world, with a number of cities highlighted and routes between them. This pad is used for the mission mode. 

Finally, there are a couple of different punch boards. These were so well cut they were falling off of the sprues as I picked them up. These punch boards held fifteen refreshingly diverse agent cards, one assassin card and eleven timer tokens. 

The game also includes a number of plastic baggies to hold all of these components. 

Playing Codenames Duet

A game of Codenames Duet starts by laying out a five by five grid of random word cards. Players form teams and sit on opposite sides of this grid. A random key card is drawn and placed in the cardholder between both teams so that each team can only see their side.

The goal of this cooperative game is for the teams to contact fifteen agents while avoiding a band of enemy assassins. Each team knows which agents the other team can contact safely and where three assassins can be found. This is indicated on that team’s side of the clue card.

Each round one of the two teams gives a clue. Clues are given in the form of one word and a number, where the number represents the number of words on the table that match that clue. The other team then uses these clues to select one or more of the word cards, trying to find the ones associated with their agents while avoiding the assassins. 

When a correct clue is guessed, a green agent card is placed over the word and a time token is taken. The team can then go on to select another word if they wish. If an incorrect clue is guessed that team’s turn ends. If the incorrect clue is not an assassin, a bystander token is placed on the card pointing at the team that missed the guess. If an assassin is ever selected the game ends in a loss for all players.  

If all fifteen agents are found before you run out of time tokens, then all players win.

What’s important to note here is that just because a card is showing as something for your team it doesn’t mean that it is the same thing for the other team. For example, there will be agents that work for both teams, there will be one assassin that is actually an agent for the other team and there will be multiple agents for your team that are bystanders for the other team. 

In addition to these basic rules, there is also a mission-based campaign that can be played. After successfully completing a game using only nine time tokens, players take a map sheet from the pad, check off the Prague spot on the map and choose a new destination to head to based on the travel lines on the map.

This new destination will add additional constraints to the game, limiting the number of time tokens you get or making it so that you can only hit a limited number of bystanders before losing the game. This is represented by a code on the map.  For example, Berlin shows 11-2. This means you get eleven guesses total but only two of them can result in a bystander being found. If you run out of tokens you lose as normal but you also lose when you select a third bystander.

As you complete games in mission mode, you will mark off on the map, whether you succeed or not, and then move on to another city and a different set of constraints. 

What did I think of Codenames Duet?

The Codenames series of games are interesting for me due to the fact that I just didn’t get the appeal at first.  When the original Codenames came out it became very popular at local gaming events and a weekend didn’t go by that didn’t have a large table of multiple people playing the game. 

I tried it one night and didn’t have a great time. I played a few rounds once as a clue-giver and a couple of times as a guesser and during those games, I think the largest clue given all night was a three. Most of the clues were just one word with the teams easily guessing the answers. Near the end of each game, the team that was behind would finally try out a two word clue in hopes of catching up.  Playing the game like this, I just didn’t see the appeal.

Fast forward a few years and one of our fans sent me a copy of Codenames (the original, not Duet, I’ll get to that in a moment). This was done after hearing me tell the above story. They pointed out that I must have played with the wrong group of people and that the real fun in Codenames was trying to connect as many words as possible with each clue. So, I gave the game another shot.

It was at our 2018 Gaming in the New Year party that Codenames finally clicked for me. The exact moment is when I gave out the clue Spider-Man 2 trying to get my team to guess Change and Webs while totally missing that Octopus was out there and was also an assassin. Sure enough, we lost that game but, right at that moment, I fell in love with Codenames.

So how about this new cooperative version of Codenames? How does Codenames Duet stand up? I’ve got to say excellently.

When I first got Codenames Duet I thought it was a two-player only game. I didn’t even notice that the side of the box said that it was for “2 or more” players. I had no idea that this version of Codenames could also handle larger groups of players. This was a pleasant surprise.

An even more pleasant surprise is just how well Codenames works as a cooperative game and how much fun my wife and I had playing it as a two-player game. While it did take us a few plays to fully grok some of the intricacies, like figuring out that one black assassin on your side of the key card will always be a green mark on your partner’s side, we were enjoying the game from our very first play.

The more my wife and I played the more we found we were in sync with each other and the more enjoyable the game became. Being in sync with the other players is a big part of the Codenames’ experience and due to this enjoyment of the game can be rather player dependant. Playing with someone you have known for a long time is going to open up a lot more clue options based on shared experiences and inside jokes. 

The randomness of the cards can also be a factor for how much fun an individual game of Codenames Duet can be. Sometimes you look at the cards and it’s simple to make multiple connections between them and then other times it feels like you are looking at twenty-five cards that have almost nothing in common and all the ones you need your opponent to guess are completely unrelated. I will say that those games aren’t nearly as fun as ones where you can give five word clues. Most games fall in between these extremes and even a somewhat frustrating set of clues are played through quickly enough that you forget it and move on to the next set. 

Having enjoyed a number of two-player games of Codenames, we also tried out the team rules with our extended family and I’m happy to say that those games went over excellently. With three people per team, players got to take turns giving clues and help each other out guessing. However, with any more than six players, I think the original Codenames may be a more entertaining option. 

In addition to enjoying the team play version of Codenames Duet, my wife and I also enjoyed the mission system. Neither of us expected to have a limited number of clues or only being able to guess a set amount of bystanders to have much of an impact on the game, but it did. When you have a lot of clues you can take your time, giving out small one or two word clues, and still manage to win, but when you are limited to less than the usual clues you have no choice but to shoot for the moon with big four word and larger clues in order to win. The limitations force you to change your playstyle and add a level of tension to the game that we both enjoyed. 

My only real complaint about the game, which I already mentioned when talking about the components, is the fact that the word cards are easier to read from one side than the other.  This makes no sense to me in a game where you know that half of the players will be viewing the cards upside down. 

What I do like about the new word cards is that they can be combined with any other set of Codenames word cards without having any repetition. I found it cool that this means that I now not only have a new Codenames game with Codenmames Duet but I have also gained an expansion for the original game. 

Overall I would go so far as to say that I enjoy Codenames Duet even more than Codenames. My wife, who normally is not a fan of cooperative games, agrees. Duet feels more focused and more intense than the original and I find we get a greater sense of satisfaction when winning a game of Duet over being on the winning team in regular Codenames. 

At this point, I have to strongly recommend Codenames Duet. If you are a fan of the original Codenames you need this in your collection, both as a game that stands on its own and as a source of four hundred new words for Codenames. If you haven’t played a Codenames game I think this is the perfect entry point to the series. Requiring only two players means that it should hit the table more often than the original. If you weren’t a fan of the original Codenames game, I still suggest you give Duet a chance (look for a way to try before you buy by doing a demo at your FLGS, a game con or local event). Even if you didn’t like Codenames you may enjoy this cooperative team-based version. 

There are a number of different Codenames games on the market now. What I want to know is which is your favourite?

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