Review: Codenames

The key to a good party game seems like a no brainer: you want everyone to have fun. It doesn’t hurt if the game doesn’t take a long time to play, and the rules should be short and straightforward. Most board game aficionados prefer a game that has a good deal of replayability as well. Today we look at Codenames, and you’ll find that it hits all those marks and then some.

Codenames, by Vlaada Chvatil, plays from two players up to…well, however many people you can fit around your table, and takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Players divide into two teams, and everyone will take turns as their team’s Spymaster. Setup only takes a minute. From the 200 codename cards, select 25 and make a 5×5 grid. Then the Spymasters select a key card and put in in the stand so only they can see it. Play will start with whichever team is indicated on the key card.

I’ve mentioned codename cards and key cards…so let’s talk for a minute about the cards in this game. The 200 codename cards each contain one word which is the “codename” for that secret agent. They are double-sided, so you’re getting 400 codenames to choose from. The words are all commonly known, like bat, beach, tree, Africa, kiwi, etc.

The 40 key cards are what provides the structure of each game. Each card will show the location of each team’s spies, along with the lone assassin. As the words are in a 5×5 grid, you can flip the orientation of the key card which will give four different placements for the various spies.

The object of the game is for the Spymaster to get their team to successfully guess the location of all their secret agents, while avoiding the other team’s spies as well as the assassin. The first team to reveal all of their secret agents wins!

Easy, right?

Not quite. See, the Spymaster is only allowed to say two things: a word, and a number. Nothing else. Ever. The word is a clue to get her team to point at the right word or words, and the number is how many codenames will relate to that word. So if my Spymaster says “country : 2” and I see “America” and “England”? I’m probably going to point at those as my guess.

IMG_3726Chances are that your clue might not have been as good as you thought it was…or you were too damn clever for your own good. After you give your clue, your team will confer and look at the available codenames trying to discern what you were getting at. Then they will point at a word which will have one of four outcomes (let’s pretend you’re on the red team):

  • If the codename pointed at belongs to your team, you’ll take one of the red spy cards and cover up that word. Your team may continue to guess codenames until they have guessed one more than the number you said after your clue.
  • If the codename belongs to the other team, you take one of the blue spy cards and cover up that card. Your turn is now over and the blue team has one less spy to uncover.
  • If it is a grey card, you place one of the innocent bystander cards on top of the codename. Your turn is over.
  • If it is the assassin, the game ends and you lose.

Since three out of those four outcomes aren’t exactly stellar, you’re going to do the best you can to avoid getting near the other words. I’ve seen games where “water” was the assassin and someone was trying to get their team to guess treasure and beach. So sometimes those codenames are kinda tough to work around.

So, while you’re trying to be careful, this is what usually happens in a typical round of Codenames:

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The Blue Spymaster looks around and sees that Kiwi and Bark are both blue codenames. That shouldn’t be too hard – “Brown: 2”

Blue team: “Okay, well, we can rule out ‘kiwi’ – those are green.” “What about ‘bat’?” “Bats are black.” “Not if they are BROWN BATS!” and so on…

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And that is what makes Codenames so much fun to play. There’s something so hilarious about spending a couple minutes thinking about a great clue to give and then having someone scuttle it in the first three seconds with a connection you didn’t even think of. The Spymasters try to keep a straight face, the rest of the team winds up getting silly over possible connections, and every really enjoys themselves. Isn’t that what a party game is all about?


I want to take a second to talk about an app you can download for your smartphone or tablet which makes playing this game even easier. The Codenames Gadget, which can be found on the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, will take the place of your key cards. Not only that, but it will provide you with different timers to help speed things along. While it’s not NEEDED, it’s a great addition to the game.

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iOS Review: Galaxy Trucker

It goes without saying that there are obvious differences between a physical board game and a digital version that you play on a tablet. I’ve often said that while they aren’t substitutes for in person gaming, apps allow you to play games when you normally would be unable. And, you know, it’s a LOT easier to set up. But you do miss out on the social aspect, there’s no doubt about that.

So when I heard that Czech Games was making Galaxy Trucker into an app, I was a little hesitant. If you’ve played the cardboard version of the game you know that the ship building phase of the game is chaotic and crazy, mostly because everyone is simultaneously pulling from the same pile. I wasn’t sure that you would wind up getting the same feeling from the app, and that’s a big part of the game. But I do enjoy Galaxy Trucker, so I made sure to pick this one up when it was released.

IMG_0096There are two main modes of play here – singleplayer and multiplayer, and you can choose several styles of play within those modes. If you choose singleplayer, you’ll have three options: Campaign, Custom Game, and the Tutorial. Since I’m fairly certain you’re all familiar with what a Tutorial is, I’ll skip to the other choices.

The Custom Game will allow you to play against three different levels of AI, and they’ve done a pretty good job with each one. You can also choose the number of flights that you’ll participate in, from one to three. But the best setting of all is choosing between a real-time or a turn-based game.

The real-time mode is just what it sounds like and plays much like the board game. You grab one piece at a time and choose whether or not to put it on your board. Once you drag another piece over the top of your spaceship, the previous one becomes “welded” there and is now permanent. Each player is doing this simultaneously, and when you’re finished you pick one of the turn order tiles.

The turn-based mode uses an action point system to drive gameplay, with each action having a cost associated with them:

  • Turning up a new component – 1 action
  • Add a component to your ship – 2 actions
  • Store a component for later – 1 action
  • Look at the card stack – 3 to 5 actions depending on flight level

Each turn you receive 10 action points (except for the first player on the first turn – that player receives 7 points) and may spend them as you see fit. Each player may also hold back no more than three action points for future rounds. As pieces are revealed the will move onto conveyor belts, and when it is your turn they will show you which ones you’ve revealed and which ones others have revealed.

It’s really quite slick.

If you’re looking for something that’s a little more story based, you can select Campaign mode. In this mode, you wind up going on missions with specific objectives which will lead you to bigger ships and better equipment. For example, you’ll have to escort a business man from one planet to another while arriving with a certain credit amount in cargo. They aren’t easy, and there are many hours of fun in the campaign mode as the paths are branching instead of linear.

IMG_0093Since I’ve already gone into detail about how the turn-based game operates, you should be able to guess how well the multiplayer mode works. This was the thing I was most concerned with, and Czech Games handled it brilliantly. Designing a new way to play the game that preserves the spirit of the original while allowing for asynchronous play was a huge undertaking and they crushed it. Of course, if you’re able to find willing opponents, you can still play real-time using the classic mode…or just do a pass & play with some friends in the same room.

The app also allows you to change which card deck you use…the standard one that comes with the game, a digital version that has more cards, or the Hardcore deck which will challenge even the best Galaxy Trucker players. This, along with settings for “autopilot flight”, number of flights in a game, and many others make this app one that you will play for many many moons before you find yourself bored.

Settings aside, the presentation is top notch here. The graphics are exactly what you would expect out of  a Galaxy Trucker game, and they’ve paid attention to little details like asteroids and slavers, making them really come to life. The ships animate when defending themselves or moving to the surface of a planet, and it really gives a whole new spin onto the flying phase of the game.

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Between the extremely robust single player campaign and the ability for asynchronous multiplayer, this app is one that will be hard to beat. CGE really did an excellent job preserving the fun of the board game while giving us so many options and styles of play that the game will be fresh for years to come.

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Galaxy Trucker is available for $7.99 in the App Store. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/galaxy-trucker/id904013027?mt=8

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Review: Pictomania

When I hear the name “Vlaada Chvátil” the first thought I have is that he must not get calls from telemarketers. Of course then I think of the games he has designed like Through the Ages, Mage Knight, Dungeon Lords, Galaxy Trucker…all amazing games. Many things pop into my head when I hear his name, but one thing never did: the words “party game”.

That all changed at BGG.CON 2013.

Pictomania - BGG.CONOur group was a large one that year, six of us, and we tried our damnedest to find games that would accommodate everyone. Thankfully, the library at BGG.CON is massive and it’s easy to find a game that almost everyone will enjoy. At one point my friend Raquel came up and said “have you heard of this game?”

She was holding Pictomania. I told her that I hadn’t heard of it, but the designer was…well, he was quite well known. But not for party games. Little did I know that this would become one of my favorite party games of all time!

Pictomania, published by Stronghold Games, is a game where 3-6 players try their best to draw words that are found on clue cards. But, unlike most drawing games, there’s a twist: while you are drawing your own word, you want to make sure you are looking at what everyone else is drawing. The only way to score points is to correctly guess someone else’s drawing…and the only way to score lots of points is to do so quickly!

The game starts with six clue cards being placed into the card racks. Each card will have seven words on it, numbered accordingly, and the six slots on the card racks have symbols underneath.  In this way, each word winds up having a number and symbol so it is uniquely identified. Now each player is dealt two cards: one with a symbol and one with a number. This is the word they will attempt to draw. Bonus tokens are placed in the center of the table and the round begins.

PictomaniaAnd then the real fun starts as everyone begins to draw. But as you’re drawing, you’re also keeping an eye on what other players are drawing. If you see that Bob is drawing a fork, and it’s clearly a fork, you put your marker down find your “5” card, and slap it in front of him. Other players will do the same, placing their guess cards on top of yours. Once you are done drawing and guessing, you snatch up whatever bonus tile is left in the center. If it’s the last one, say “stop”, and the round is over.

Then we score the round. First each player goes around and reveals what they drew, and figures out who guessed correctly and who did not. If you guessed correctly, you collect a point token from that player. If you did not, your guess card goes in the center. After everyone has revealed their drawings, scores are counted up. You get positive points for any bonus tokens and point tokens you have from other players. You lose points for any of your own point tokens that you failed to hand out. If you have the most cards in the center (the most incorrect guesses) you are the “black sheep” and will also lose points for the bonus token you took. You play five rounds and the person with the most points is the winner.

Now, I know that a review of a party game can only be so helpful. Most of the success that you’ll have when bringing a party game to the table depends greatly on those who are playing it, so your milage may vary greatly from mine. So what I will do is tell you the things that set Pictomania apart from other drawing games. The things that make it very, very special.

First, we have the clue cards. These are truly the heart and soul of Pictomania, and they are so cleverly crafted that you might not notice how much work went into them at first. To fully explain the genius, let’s look at the voting cards. Everyone has seven voting cards, one for each number. You don’t need more than that because numbers cannot be duplicated – there’s only one person drawing a “2” clue, and one a “3”, and so on.

PictomaniaThis becomes important when you notice that the clue cards, while having unique things on them, have things that could kinda sorta look like other things on the same card. So while a drawing might scream “sunlight” at you and get you to pull the trigger on a guess, maybe that person hadn’t added stars yet – which makes it “moonlight”. And now you’ve tossed the wrong number down, which could very well mean you’re doomed to screw up at least one more guess as well.

The game also gives you four different skill levels of cards ranging from easy to “very difficult”. Although I’m pretty sure “very difficult” is Czech for “good fricken luck”…because if you thought trying to draw a hippo was difficult, wait until you try to draw “mistrust”. There are 99 cards in all, so there’s a lot included in this box.

Secondly, the simultaneous actions in this game are head and shoulders above any other drawing party game. We talk about games creating tension, but this one creates…well, all sorts of emotions: laughter, frustration, panic, glee, and then more laughter. You’ll be trying to look across the table at what your friend drew while she’s peeking at someone else’s drawing and all the while you’ve gotten about three lines drawn of your “park” scene.

Finally, the scoring is well handled and adds to the flow of the game. You want to draw enough to get people to guess what you’ve drawn, but not so much that you don’t have time to throw down your own guesses. There’s a balance there and you might find yourself drawing a little, doing some guessing, and then returning to your drawing. You’re trying to rush all of this because the first person to guess a drawing gets more points than the last person. And then there’s that sinking sensation you get when you see blank stares looking at your drawing…

As a side note, I should mention that Stronghold Games did an amazing job with this reprint. The component quality is fantastic and the insert is one of the most functional I’ve ever seen. The erasers included in the game aren’t the best, but paper towels work just fine.

Pictomania is the drawing game that gamers should want to play. There’s a party game here, but it’s got the stylings of something more, and it pulls it off nicely. You can tell this was a labor of love and it’s been a hit since the first time I played. So if you’re looking for something light that will provide a ton of laughs, look no further!

Pictomania