Codenames Duet (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designers:  Vlaada Chvátil, Scot Eaton
  • Publisher:  Czech Games Edition
  • Players:  2 (or more)
  • Ages:  11 and Up
  • Time:  15 Minutes
  • Times Played:   > 9


Codenames Duet is the cooperative, two-player version of Vlaada Chvátil’s Codenames, winner of the 2016 Spiel des Jahres.  Czech Games Edition released the game at Gen Con 2017, where it topped many hotness lists.  For this design, Chvátil partnered with Scot Eaton.  

Essentially, Vlaada has taken Codenames and worked it into a cool version for two.  The game comes with 200 cards with 400 new words, plus a sort-of campaign mode using mission maps.  

Gameplay Walkthrough

If you know how to play Codenames, then you already know most of Codenames Duet.  The big change is that this version is cooperative, meaning both players win or lose together, and there is a limited number of turns.  Though the game was designed for two, you can add numerous players to either side, allowing group play.  

The two players (or two teams) play on opposite sides of a 5×5 grid of 25 words.  They have nine total turns to complete their mission, as indicated by the “timer tokens” that come in the game.  (For an easier game, you can expand up to eleven timer tokens.)  

Each side gets a Duet Key Card, which is double sided.  Each side shows nine words on the grid marked in green.  To win, all nine of these words must be covered.  Each side also has three “assassins” (marked in black): if your partner guesses those words, you immediately lose the game.

On a player’s turn, he or she will offer a one-word clue and the number of pictures in the grid to which it applies.  In other words, he says one word, followed by one number.  

The other player may then make guesses by touching the cards he or she thinks his partner is hinting at.  If correct, the word is covered.  He can keep guessing as long as he gets correct answers.  If he touches a “bystander” word (one marked in beige), the turn ends, and one of the nine timer tokens is placed to show who made the incorrect guess.  The player can also pass after a correct guess, in which case a timer token is set aside.  

The goal is to cover all of the green words on BOTH sides of the Duet Key card.  You have nine turns to do it.  If you run out, you enter sudden death, where you may each guess words (you pick the order) without saying anything until you win or make an incorrect guess.

The “Secrets of the Key Card”

A word you need your partner to guess might be an “assassin” from their point of view!  The colors on your side of the card have little relation to the other side.  

On a given card:

  • Three words are green on both sides.
  • Five words are green on your side, but a “bystander” on your partner’s side.
  • One word is green on your side, but a “assassin” your partner’s side.
  • Five words are “bystanders” on your side, but green on your partner’s side.
  • One word is an “assassin” on your side, but green on your partner’s side.
  • One is an “assassin” on your side, but a “bystander” on the other side.
  • One is a “bystander” on your side, but an “assassin” on the other side.  
  • Seven are “bystanders” on both sides.
  • One is an “assassin” on both sides.  

The Mission Map

The game also comes with a “mission map.”  Each mission has two parameters: the number of turn tokens to use, plus a number of allowable mistakes.  Players play through a sort of campaign of different cities.  I haven’t attempted this method of play yet — to be candid, I’ve had a hard time winning the standard game — but it is a nice touch!  

My Thoughts on the Game…

Note: Many of my thoughts here mirror my thoughts about Codenames Pictures, which I reviewed last year.  

Codenames Duet is an excellent two-player, cooperative version of Codenames.  It captures all the fun of the original design, but converts it into a game where the players win or lose together.  Like both of its successors, 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.  

The first thing you’ll notice about Codenames Duet is how challenging it is.  In nine plays, I’ve only won once (though I’m notoriously bad at Codenames in my game groups).  Nine turns to correctly guess 15 total words (each side has nine to guess, but three overlap) is actually challenging, and you usually have to go at least one clue that applies to three or more cards.  

Having three assassins on each side really ramps up the tension.  There’s less room for errant words.  Both sides will have to touch a card that shows as an assassin on their side, and that’s nerve-wracking, since one of the assassins on your side also is an assassin on the other side!

Though the game is meant for two players, I’ve played it with groups.  It works well: you just need to sit on opposite sides of the table and agree on any clues.  I recommend writing them down before discussing with teammates, as you don’t want the other side to overhear you.

With two players, this might be the fastest version of Codenames, primarily because there’s no discussion, and because we often hit those oh-so-pesky assassins.  (Did I mention I’m really bad at Codenames?)

Like with the game’s predecessors, 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 word and key cards, Codenames Pictures has virtually endless replayability.  Plus, if you own Codenames, you can mix and match the words with Duet.  

In short, I love Codenames Duet, 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 after partnering with Scot Eaton, has taken his hit competitive game and converted it into a brilliant cooperative game.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Yu – I really like this take on the game.  First, it’s a great way to play Codenames when you have only two people around.  But, after my ten-or-so plays with it, I actually have found that I really like the slightly different approach to the game.  The biggest (and best) difference for me is the ability to really develop some good teamwork and inside communication if you play with the same player.  The game is also a bit more challenging as the game forces you to try to get one or two clues with three answers – and you cannot use hints from your partner about the possible assassin cards as they are different on each side of the card!  The addition of the sudden death round at the end is a nice touch – it allows you to possibly wait on your “maybe” answers until the end – but it can be a risky move!  It gives a nice exciting end to each round.

Larry (5 plays with the prototype version) – I’ve really enjoyed my plays of this, for the same reasons I love Codenames–it rewards cleverness, without requiring it, and is suitable for any level of gamer.  Plus, it’s very challenging and really tests your overall knowledge, plus your sense of empathy.  I think it’s going to be a huge hit, just like the parent game.

Melissa (1 play with a mock-up) I tried this at UK Games Expo and really enjoyed it. The teamwork element is particularly fun, and I enjoyed developing the teamwork angle. I wasn’t a fan of Codenames: Pictures, but this complements the original word game nicely.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Chris Wray, James Nathan, Dale Y, Larry, Melissa
  • I like it.  John P
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…


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5 Responses to Codenames Duet (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  1. Nick Stables says:

    “Vlaada Chvátil has once again shown his game-design genius, taking his hit competitive game and converting it into a brilliant cooperative game”

    I feel Scot Eaton needs some recognition too….

  2. For team play we just play it where the first person who comes up with what they think is a viable clue shouts it out, no need for discussion and chancing the other team hearing clues that will never be used. Kerensa and I both really enjoy Duet, so much so that we may be tempted to break it out 9 times out of 10 even in a group setting. This game, and all Codenames can suffer from what we like to call the “Hanabi”, where you tend to give subtle clues outside of the regular clues, it bugs the heck out of me, but what are you gonna do?

    By the way, I think we are 2-7 now.

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