Codenames Pictures (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer:  Vlaada Chvátil
  • Publisher:  Czech Games Edition
  • Players:  2 – 8
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  10-20 Minutes
  • Times Played:   > 5


Codenames Pictures is the much-anticipated follow-up to Vlaada Chvátil’s Codenames, winner of the 2016 Spiel des Jahres.  Czech Games Edition released the game at Gen Con, where it was piled high and selling well.  Codenames Pictures topped the Geekbuzz leaderboard for the convention, and it seems like this game is on its way to being a hit.  

Gameplay Walkthrough

If you know how to play Codenames, then you already know how to play Codenames Pictures.  The only differences are that the game is played with pictures instead of words, and the grid is now 5×4 (instead of 5×5).  If you’re unfamiliar with Codenames, however, both it and Codenames Pictures are easy to learn.  Dale wrote a review of Codenames last year.  

Two teams play around a 5×4 grid of 20 pictures.  One team is the red team, and the other is the blue team.  Each team has a “spymaster” who knows which pictures belong to his team, as shown on the “key” that is facing only the spymasters.  The other players on each team are called “field operatives.”  

The team going first will be the one one with their color showing on the outside of the key.  That team must guess 8 words; the other team needs to guess only 7.  

On his team’s turn, the spymaster will offer a one-word clue and the number of pictures in the grid two which it applies.  In other words, he says one word, followed by one number.  

Each team’s goal is to guess their team’s pictures on the key by touching them.  For example, let’s say that the spymasters had the following key:

Clue Card

In this case, the red spymaster might give the clue “Monster 2,” aiming for the third and fourth cards in the third row.  
Codenames Game Board

Once the clue is given, they must make at least one guess.  The field operatives would debate which pictures to touch.  If they were correct, the spymaster would cover up the correct picture.  The field operatives may then continue making guesses, or they can choose to pass.  They may ultimately guess one more picture than the number the spymaster had referenced.

If they touch the other team’s card, that picture is covered by the other team, and their turn ends.  The same happens to an “innocent bystander,” which is one of the neutral squares on the key.  If the team touches the “the assassin” (i.e. the black square), the game ends immediately, and the team touching it loses.

Otherwise, the game ends immediately when one team has all of their pictures covered.

There are also rules for a three-player game (using a neutral spymaster) and a two-player game (in which you compete against a simulated opponent).  

My Thoughts on the Game…

Codenames Pictures is an excellent successor to Codenames.  It captures all the fun of the original design, but adds a clever twist by using exceptionally-well designed pictures.  I love so much about this game: how quickly it plays, how easy it is to teach, how tense it is, and how it appeals to both gamers and non-gamers alike.  This is sure to be a hit!

The pictures are beautiful, and they intentionally feature a mashup of several different elements, opening the game up to more creative interpretations than its predecessor.  Some pictures are charming, some are creepy, and others are outright weird, but they’re all fun, and they’re all cleverly ambiguous.  

In one way, Codenames Pictures seems more challenging than Codenames.  You have to hone in on what your teammates will focus on in the image, not necessarily what you see.  Put differently, rather than just making word associations, you have to take the pictures, convert them to words in your mind, and then hope that comes through in translation when your teammates examine the images.  But Pictures is easier in another regard: there are fewer “neutral” spaces, so as the game approaches its end, it gets simpler since there are fewer choices.   

There seems to be more room for big clues here.  As a result, gameplay per turn seemed slightly slower here than in Codenames.  The smaller grid does accelerate the game quite a bit (it is a 4×5), though, so the game overall isn’t longer.

As I’ve said before, the “assassin” element is what makes the game, supplying most of the game’s tension.  It is technically optional, but I highly recommend it.  

There’s a lot of value in the box, and this is a great buy for gamers on a budget.  The MSRP is around $20.  Given the sheer number of picture and key cards, Codenames Pictures has virtually endless replayability.  I’ve played Codenames more than 75 times, and I still haven’t tired of it, nor has my group.  I think Codenames Pictures will be the same way.

In short, I love Codenames: Pictures, and I think this will have a spot on my shelf for a long time.  Vlaada Chvátil has once again shown his game-design genius, and CGE has once again shown their penchant for high-quality production.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Erik Arneson: Outstanding. I’m a huge fan of Codenames, and Codenames Pictures brings an entirely new feel to the game while maintaining everything I loved about the original. (I’ve only played the prototype.)

Joe Huber: Codenames Pictures is certainly enjoyable; I have only played a prototype, but it worked every bit as well as the original.  But for me, it’s essentially the same game.  I don’t see any need to have both – but, of course, I’m not likely to play the game enough as to result in the original losing steam for me.

Larry:  I’ve played the prototype of Codenames Pictures, which probably meant the art wasn’t as good or as involved as in the final version.  It’s a good game, but I think the original Codenames is a great one.  For me, at least, words are so much more plastic than images, with multiple meanings and wonderful connections between seemingly disparate concepts.  If the group really was intent on playing the pictures version, I’d be happy to go along with them, but secretly, I’d be wondering, “Why don’t we just play Codenames?”

Nathan: I’ve only had a chance to play this three times, but my experience with it seemed to be echoed back to me by most of the people at the game day where I played it (and by Larry). It felt like the pictures, while often having two different hooks to clue against, didn’t offer the same kind of ambiguity that a lot of the words did. Both as a guesser and a giver, it just felt a little less interesting. Granted, it was still Codenames, and we still had fun. But I prefer the original.

Ted: After about 10 plays of Codenames: Pictures, and more than 25 of the original Codenames, Pictures holds up well, with one strikingly large caveat: Pictures is much harder for the spymaster (especially on the first turn), and will result in either (1) clues that inadvertently work with cards that he didn’t intend, or (2) an excessively long amount of time for the spymaster to absorb the set of pictures and how they all relate to each other. It’s never enough to just find tenuous or even solid connections between your team’s set of pictures; you have to absorb what all of the pictures are on the entire board so that your clue doesn’t point your partner to a card that is your opponents, or worse, is the assassin. This concept is no different than in the original Codenames, but there are many many more (remember, a picture=1000 words) possible connections for each picture, much more than there are connections for a single word. This is counter-intuitive to most players initially, who will probably think that pictures going to be easier than the original. I’m fairly certain that the game design choice of removing a row of cards was done to help mitigate this issue, which was smart, but it still results in a game that is slower (or more random feeling, depending on the spymaster) than the original.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris Wray, Erik Arneson, Craig Massey
  • I like it. Lorna, Joe H., Larry, Nathan Beeler, Ted
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…


Gen Con Bonus Tiles:

For you completionists out there, here are pictures of the bonus tiles handed out at Gen Con.

Codenames Pictures

Also for the completionists, the Broken Token is giving out the below promo card if you order the Codenames organizer, which allows you to organize both Codenames and Codenames Pictures in the same box.

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 7.28.43 PM


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4 Responses to Codenames Pictures (Game Review by Chris Wray)

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  2. ianthecool says:

    As ambiguous as the pictures are, it still seems far too limiting to make codenames work. Larry and Nathan seem to have the truth of this.

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