One Change, A Thousand Possibilities - Codenames: Pictures Review

I did a review for Codenames and I respected it for what it was, but wasn't bowled over by it like the masses. I like it and think it's fine, but not perfect, but that didn't stop me clocking up 30+ plays of it before I burned out. And side note I'm on the team that says Codenames isn't a party game, it just doesn't feel like a laugh out loud affair compared to something like Times Up or Telestrations - not a criticism, just a question of classification. You could argue that the new adult version called "Undercover" is a party game, but personally I don't see the point of it, it doesn't really feel that "adult" and I'd rather we had less games trying to appeal to the Cards Against Humanity crowd if possible.

Codenames took off like crazy when it came out, don't ask me why as most people don't hype up a word game from experience. Whether it was the publisher advertising or the designers reptuation, who knows? But it's in the Top 20 at BGG (yeah I know, I don't use BGG rankings as a validation, but it's worth mentioning) and it constantly sells copies. Codenames will be an evergreen title for a long time, I guarantee it.
But this one I'm looking at today uses pictures instead of words, which bumps it up a few notches for my interest. I found words to be very limiting in the original for coming up with decent clues - this is subjective I know, but I found that sometimes it got very restrictive to come up with links. I work better with visual imagery than text so maybe this version will be more my cup of tea.

Designer: Vlaada Chvatil
Publisher: Czech Games Editions
Age: 8+
Players: 2+
Time: 15-20 minutes
RRP: £14.99

Pictionary Code Breaking

From BoardGameGeek
What are these strange symbols on the map? They are code for locations where spies must contact secret agents!
Two rival spymasters know the agent in each location. They deliver coded messages telling their field operatives where to go for clandestine meetings. Operatives must be clever. A decoding mistake could lead to an unpleasant encounter with an enemy agent – or worse, with the assassin! Both teams race to contact all their agents, but only one team can win.
Codenames: Pictures differs from the original Codenames in that the agents are no longer represented by a single word, but by an image that contains multiple elements.

You Were Expecting An Exploding Pen?

In terms of the components, you get what you expect from having played the original, except that the red and blue agents are now different on each image and instead of cards you now get some nice square tiles for something a bit more solid to handle, a welcome upgrade. The clue cards themselves are of course now filled with pictures rather than words and to ensure they're easy enough to read, they now appear on larger square cards, which as before are double sided for added variety. Other than that it's exactly as before although unless mine was a odd batch there wasn't an egg timer in this version. Not that I cared anyway because despite the original analysis paralysis issues of Codenames, did anyone bother to use that timer?

One important issue that must be mentioned though. In the original Codenames, the words were written twice on each facing so that you could read the card in an upside down position, which was very useful. Here though you obviously can't do that without making the cards gigantic, so instead you have to accept that each card has a specific facing. There is a handy corner mark to distinguish the correct facing so you won't have issues figuring that out on setup, but you're going to have to come up with a unique table seating arrangement to ensure that not everyone is having to twist their necks "Excorist" style to look at the cards. One possible way is to have the cluegivers stand behind the seated teammates so that everyone looks at the cards from the same direction, but of course eyesight issues can impact on that. Something to bear in mind if the dual-facing aspect was important to you before.


Game play is exactly the same as before except that the grid is now only 5 x 4 as opposed to 5 x 5 previously. I'm uncertain why this change was made, however as small as it is, it actually helps in this instance. Because of the wider range of potential links available for clues, too many pictures might get overwhelming. Also because the number of blue and red agent cards hasn't changed, there is now a greater chance of your team picking an opponents card if you're not careful. The rulebook even claims you can use this variant with the original Codenames if desired and I can only see it being an improvement.
But what really sets this apart is having to deal with the images. They're not just basic stuff like an apple on its own for example. One picture will have a fakir playing a flute while a belt rises from a basket. Another is a giant gorilla being looked on by two tiny elephants. Another is a curled piece of paper in a bottle with a drawing of stick people on it. They're really random and varied and almost remind you of Dixit with their obscure storybook imagery. These aren't quite as detailed and crazy, but there's multiple ways to interpret them.

And there's the best aspect of Codename Pictures. With the word clues I felt like I was very restricted to come up with many different links between them. Here you can come up with lots of clue words for a single picture based on your ability to think outside the box and they are not even in colour so thankfully you won't be constantly using obvious colour schemes as your clues. Therefore linking multiple pictures together also becomes a lot easier and you can even say the actual name of what's on the image itself! For example if the picture has a knight on it you are allowed to say "knight" as your clue. Of course whether that will also link to other images is another factor entirely. It gives the impression of a lot more variety in the game and drastically reduces the annoying part of the previous Codenames where over half your game would consist of single number clues dragging the game out.

Repeating Previous Shortcomings

Now I had two main issues with Codenames before. Firstly the amount of analysis paralysis that you had to sit through at times was beyond painful. No-one used that egg timer because it felt too punishing on the player, but for a game that's meant to be a quick 15 minute affair, it didn't half drag out at times. You're going to encounter that same problem here though because even though there are less cards on the table, they're more varied and the fear of picking an opponent's card or the Assassin is greater due to the smaller grid. So if your cluegiver isn't spending their time thinking up the next turn while the opposing team take theirs, you could end up with those horrible waiting periods that grind the game to a halt.
Secondly the randomness of the grid layout combined with your matrix showing all the blue/red cards that round used to result in some games ending up one-sided because one team got lucky with some clue words that could be linked so easily. Unfortunately there was little you could do to avoid this issue, it's just the nature of the game. Here that flaw still exists, but it's not as impactful given that there are multiple ways to interpret each image so the one-sided issue doesn't happen as often.

Verdict on Codenames Pictures

If you liked Codenames, there's a high chance you'll enjoy the new version as well as they are essentially the same game. It's going to come down to whether you prefer to work with words or pictures as your medium for giving and interpreting clues and whether you can get around the lack of dual facing cards. Personally I very much prefer the pictures. With their almost "Dixit"-esque obscure art style, they allow for so much more room to give interesting clues, but at the same time add that extra element of risk of your teammates accidently picking the Assassin or one of your opponent's cards. I can brainstorm so many ideas just from staring at one picture compared to a single word meaning that I don't end up with so many games where everyone just picks boring one-card clues all the time.

It's still cheap and easy to pick up and teach, but of course retains the inherent issues with the original Codenames in terms of lucky placement and severe analysis paralysis. The latter bothers me more, but you just have to pick your cluegivers wisely. But putting both versions side by side, I have no desire to ever play the "word" version again, I'm officially done with it. Pictures work so much better and I'll even go as far as to hang on to this one in my collection with all the other gateway games, which I didn't do with the original. Will I burn out on this one also, who knows? But this version stands a much better chance of avoiding that fate.

If you are interested in this game you can find a copy at your friendly local gaming store -
You weren't that engaged with the use of words and prefer visual imagery. You enjoyed Dixit as the unusual nature of some of the pictures will feel like a baby version of it. You enjoyed the previous Codenames - despite the images, they're still the same game really.
Having to put up with the lack of dual-facing cards would drive you insane. You like using the more restrictive words and don't want the added openness of images. You hated Codenames to begin with - I don't think it's going to suddenly convert you back.