Codenames Pictures review

Codenames Pictures (2016)

Game Details
NameCodenames: Pictures (2016)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityLight [1.24]
BGG Rank434 [7.19]
Player Count (recommended)2-8 (4-8+)
Designer(s)Vlaada Chvátil
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's basically okay!

We very recently reviewed Codenames for Meeple Like Us – if you’ve already read that review, you can skip through an awful lot of this post. Here’s your one sentence review – Codename Pictures is exactly like Codenames, but with pictures. This review then you should probably think of as a ‘companion piece’ or an ‘extended director’s cut’ of the original. 900ish words of extra commentary, which will resolve once and for all how we managed to flag a ride on a submarine all the way to Nazi Germany without drowning in the Atlantic.

Thanks for reading everyone! Roll credits!

Codenames box art

How do you like your Dali in the morning?

You’re still here? God, I’ve already taken my trousers off ready to slip into my pyjamas. Fine, we’ll talk a little bit more but you’ll have to do so while I’m sitting here in my stained, torn underpants.

There are a handful of changes in Codenames Pictures. It uses a different grid layout (4×5 rather than 5×5) and it has slightly more relaxed rules for clues. You can just say what a card shows, no need to dance around it. Almost all of the difference though comes down to the pictures.

What's in the Box

It’s been a year since the original Codenames, and that bystander still looks amazed at what’s going on.

It certainly seems like the runaway success of the original has led to a corresponding increase in production values. The new pictures extend to agent and bystander art, and now instead of a stable of doppelgangers each of your agents is unique:

The red agents

Das Commies

That is, of course, except for the double agent that acts as the extra card for the starting spymaster.

Blue agents

The Jedi

Even the bystanders get a couple of new recruits, including an elderly man and a child with obnoxiously large sunglasses. Take them off, kid. You’re not Jackie O.

Bystanders and the Assassin

Look how unphased that old guy is. He’s seen some shit.

Play works exactly as it does in Codenames itself, but the task is somewhat different. Instead of searching the dusty recesses of your embarrassingly limited vocabulary you are searching the dusty recesses of your embarrassingly limited pattern library. Codenames adopts a kind of ‘lazy Dixit’ approach to art design. It has each picture represent a pair of conjoined concepts that it expects you to be able to thread together into actionable intelligence.


My First Art Exhibition, 2016 edition

Look, there’s a bathtub with wheels. A bird-cage with a clawed foot. Black and white origami swans. A trashcan filled with letters. These pictures obviously lack the artistic nuance of the art-work in Dixit or Mysterium, but they make up with that in sheer volume. The clues you can conjure for your handlers are limited by the lack of expressiveness represented in the grid. You won’t likely find yourself suggesting ‘the whimsical melancholy of the changing seasons, 3’. The art is simple greyscale and focuses on relatively simple representations without offering abstraction or impressionism. You’ll find it tough to be too creative.

As with the original game, all the cards are double sided. Flip them over and you get a whole new grid to explore and fret over:

A flipped over grid

‘Deliberate’ Mistake, 1

‘Travel, 2’ says the blue spymaster. The blue handlers touch the cards they think that clue represents and they get covered up with the appropriate colour. Avoid the assassin, and try not to hit bystanders or enemy agents. It’s simple.

Selecting agents

‘Phew, I meant the fishbowl and the spaceship. Lucky those were ours too. ‘

Having made all their guesses, play passes to the next team who then try to contact their agents before their opponent, making use of the same simple clues as expressed in the same spymaster answer grids.

Contacting a red agent

Any one of these agents could kill you with their pinkies.

This isn’t a meaningfully different game to play from original Codenames. In a sense, this version of the game was inevitable. Since Codenames came out, people have been playing it using Dixit cards, or the Mysterium artwork. Creating an official variant with bespoke art was an obvious choice on the part of Czech Games. And it works – it’s every bit as good as Codenames itself. As you will recall from our review though, our contrarian opinion is a somewhat lukewarm ‘It’s basically okay’.

And so is Codenames Pictures – it too is basically okay. Using pictures instead of words changes the cognitive processing associated with play, but it doesn’t change the underlying mechanics of the game itself. It feels like it’s had a few of its edges sanded off, with the smaller grid and less pernickety rules for clues. I wouldn’t go though as far as to say it’s meaningfully better. If someone said, ‘Let’s play Codenames’ and asked me which one I’d probably say ‘Pictures’. I wouldn’t feel at all aggrieved if the majority vote went the other way. I’m going to have a passably entertaining session regardless.

It’s probably a more approachable game than the original, which did put a lot of emphasis of linguistic dexterity to make connections between words – or at least, the kind of clever connections that make play hilariously good or hilariously bad. That was never much of a barrier to entry for me (leaving aside the accessibility issues which we discussed in the teardown) but I can certainly see this one being easier to convince people to try. There’s something about a grid of Fisher Price artwork that is just more inviting than the stern austerity of a brutally dismembered dictionary. One looks like an expression of play. The other looks like an exam for which you didn’t study because nobody told you it was scheduled.

The conclusion then remains the same – Codenames Pictures is fine. It’s absolutely okay. It’s the same fundamentally agreeable experience, but with pictures instead of words. Let that inspiring summation guide your consumer behaviour.