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Codenames Review

I love me some Vlaada Chvatil. I delight in his imagination and skill in welding together unlikely elements to create brilliant games. He likes pushing dexterity into unlikely place. Or adding depth of strategy to genres and mechanics that have not, traditionally, had much. So it came as something of a surprise to find that his latest game, Codenames, is a simple party game.

Except, of course, this is Vlaada Chvatil. And that means appearances can be deceptive.

The little box is full of double-sided cards printed with single words. Lay twenty five of them out in a five by five grid and divide the players into two teams, each one of which has a spymaster. He knows which eight of those cards will score his team points if they can find them, but he can’t just say which they are. Instead he can only give a one word clue. One word to bring them all. One word to bind them. One word to hopefully indicate as many cards as he can in one go.

It’s easiest to explain with an example. In one game, where I was the spymaster, among the cards my team had to guess were “vet”, “teacher”, “agent”, “spy” and “fireman”. So I said “jobs, five”, with the number indicating how many cards my clue pertains to. Otherwise, had my spies gone over and started guessing the wrong names they’d be handing points to the other team. Or, worse, picking out the hidden assassin card for an instant loss.

One word, five cards. Easy, right? Well, you’d think so. But I’ve given you a poor example in the interests of quickly illustrating what the game is about. Because the reality is that the game is often fiendishly hard. Fiendishly, brow-sweatingly, terrifyingly hard. In my experience finding a single word to tie two cards together is a tough ask. Three is a minor miracle. That five was a one-off, and we won.

What makes it all the more difficult is that if your team picks a word belonging to the opposing crew, you’re hit with a double whammy. Your turn ends and the opposition gets a bonus point. So you must never, ever give a clue that might indicate one of their cards or, worse, the assassin. Easy enough in theory. In practice this is almost impossible.

Say you’ve got “apple”, “sink” and “cook” down. Great, that’s three food-related cards in one go. But there’s also “oil” down there, tagged as an enemy agent. How on earth can you come up with something to link there first three without also risking your team picking the latter too?

These conundrums drive the game. It doesn’t help that your team will instantly turn into dunderheads when you’re the spymaster. Suddenly unable to pick up on even the easiest of your subtle lexical allusions. It can also be slow to try and think of the best clues. There’s an egg timer in the box for good reason.

It’s rare that you can really learn something from a game, let alone one this simple. Yet Codenames illustrates with dreadful ease the vast chasms that exist between the words we speak to one another. The huge gulfs of misunderstanding and confusion into which we often stumble at great cost to our relationships and our jobs. Playing Codenames will make you a better, clearer communicator. That’s a great reason to play it.

Another great reason is that it has vast appeal across groups of gamers and non-gamers alike. That’s because it relies on concepts of language that everyone understands, yet is a real struggle to play well, . It doesn’t even have to be played competitively. With less than four players there’s a co-op variant where you play against the clock, but it upscales to more players perfectly well. You can take it anywhere, play it with anyone, which is a brilliant trait in a party game likely to be owned by gaming geeks.

The one problem that you might find with it goes back to my original example. Remember how I said the four was a one-off? I got that because I was lucky enough to have four cards with a very clear association between them. When I’ve managed to get threes, it’s been the same: down as much to luck and skill. So the difficulty level in the game is very unpredictable. That in itself wouldn’t be an issue except, depending on how the cards fall, it might be that one team has a much easier grid of clues than the other.

It happens more often than you’d want. But on the other hand games only last about fifteen minutes so if you get a one-sided game you just flip the double-sided cards cards and try again. You’ll want to, and so will all the other players too.

Who knows. Maybe it’s just lack of skill that stops me from getting two cards to a clue without a lot of luck. Perhaps I’d better play another game to practice and find out. Perhaps I’d better play another ten.

Space Alert Review


The world of board games is a largely cerebral one, even at the thinnest end. For most games, physical appreciation begins and ends with the tactile nature of the pieces. But just occasionally, you’ll find a game that breaks out of your head and into your body. The first one I discovered was Labyrinth, which made me feel queasy as I planned massive terrorist outrages across the globe. Space Alert is the second. Space Alert gave me indigestion.

After playing nonstop for several hours – a large number of games since most last only 20-20 minutes, I lay in my bed and failed miserably to sleep as stress and adrenaline coursed through my nerves and acid ate away at my intestine. I wasn’t sure if what I’d just experienced was fun or not, but it was certainly powerful, and utterly unique.

Some background. Space Alert is a co-operative game, a genre I’m not over-fond of. Like most titles in this family, it effectively tasks the player with a puzzle to jointly solve. They’ve a spaceship crew who must survive an alien onslaught by powering weapons and shields from a central reactor, taking down the incoming enemies before they blow the ship apart and deal with internal threats like structural damage and a malfunctioning computer.

But the game has a quite evil twist up its sleeve. Rather than allowing players to consider the conundrum at their leisure, the game runs on a timer, placing them under immediate pressure. And it’s no ordinary clock, but an audio track of ever-increasingly urgent alarm klaxons which in punctuated by various computer instructions.

Mostly you’ll be asked to turn over a threat card and add it to one of the incoming trajectories. But there are various other instructions you’ll have to pay heed to: communications blackouts where no-one is permitted to talk, and incredibly brief windows in which players are allowed to swap action cards with one another. Until you’re very experienced with the game, the timing and nature of these announcements will come as a surprise, creating a delicious mixture of thrills from what’s mechanically a fairly deterministic game.

These action cards are they key to the game. Each one shows a movement arrow or an action, and players plan for the mission within the time limit by placing them on a board to indicate the actions they’re going to take during the resolution round. So, if you’ve got a hand full of actions that deal with energy transfer that’s going to be your major role for that mission.

But the geography of the ship being what it is, it’s more efficient if you can get to a station and stay there, raising the shields and then manning the cannons or whatever. But often you can’t: you don’t have the cards for it. And card swaps don’t always help because they occur before you can properly digest all the threats you need to deal with, or the actions you’ll have available later in the round.


This is fairly common and it’s incredibly frustrating. The game is a hideous pressure cooker as it is, and trying to do the basics like get players to stop, think and co-ordinate their actions when everyone is panicking and shouting and running around like headless space-chickens is quite enough to induce terror and despair without the additional barrier of a bad hand, a barrier you didn’t make for yourself and can’t do very much about.

Not that you have any time actually think about why you’re close to tearing your useless collection of action cards in half as cryogenic frigates and pulse balls hurtle toward your ship, spitting out ten different flavours of firey laser death, or fissures open beneath your feet and threaten to tear the ship in two or boarding parties rampage around the interior shooting everything in sight. You’re just trying to work out what you can do with your actions and communicate this to the captain, hoping desperately for orders that might never come, as the timer ticks inexorably down to zero and the sirens become ever more insistent.

It’s an incredible experience. And then the silence comes.

Space Alert is a Vlaada Chvatil game, and that pretty much guarantees you’re going to get brilliant innovation, and also makes it likely that you’ll see a two phase game. He’s very fond of an initial planning phase followed by a resolution round, and Space Alert follows this pattern. One of his previous titles, Galaxy Trucker, had a superb real-time round of competitive building followed by what I always felt was a rather tedious exercise in which one player just drew cards and told everyone what was happening to their ships.

I was worried that Space Alert would fall into this same trap, but it doesn’t. While the setup is similar, with one player working through the turns, everyone pitches in with moving their pieces around and adjusting threat tracks. But the real kicker is that most of the time the planning was so chaotic that no-one will have a clear idea of what to expect when the actions are revealed. So all the players are taut with the thrill of waiting to see whether they’re going to survive the trip or not.

One of the things I struggle with in co-op games is the alpha-dog problem, where one player just tells everyone else what to do. Space Alert does absolutely nothing to ameliorate this issue, yet it still works. It took me a good few games to realise that this is because it actually makes a virtue out of the problem, going so far as to assign a specific role, the Captain, to players with this tendency. You’ll need a good Captain to even have a chance of surviving the interstellar bruising that Space Alert dishes out, so it’s perfect for players who want to embrace their inner manager and step up to the challenge of command.

Cracked LCD- Tash-Kalar in Review

tash kalar

If I’m going to be charitable about Tash-Kalar: Arena of Ancients, I’ll state that it’s a highly experimental and sometimes oddly compelling design that feels like superstar designer Vlaada Chvatil test-driving some new concepts somewhat outside of his comfort zone. If I’m going to be a little more direct about it, I’m going to declare that Tash-Kalar is an awkward and frequently fumbling attempt at applying both conceptual and executive level theme to an abstract game that mechanically is no more specific than Checkers. If I’m going to be dead level honest about the new Czech Games Edition/Z-Man title, I’ll tell you straight up that it is agonizing to play. And not in a good way.

Mr. Chvatil, as his legion of acolytes will attest, doesn’t really design bad games. He tends to design games with differing levels of success. The modern classic Mage Knight would be at one extreme and this ill-advised foray into rather hardcore abstract gameplay would be at the other. The design goal was clearly to give an abstract design thematic meaning, but when the rulebook has to tell you to focus on the card’s picture to get its meaning across there’s a problem. That Tash-Kalar is such a spectacular failure is quite surprising, but there’s a part of me that admires him for trying something very different than repeating the successes of Mage Knight, Galaxy Trucker or his other more popular (and larger) designs.

The idea is that the longstanding rivalry between Mages that has raged through countless other games (Wiz-War, Summoner Wars, Mage Wars and so on) has been formalized into a kind of gladiatorial spectacle. Wizards meet in the arena and cast “Kalarite” stones, hoping to form particular patterns that will summon various warriors and creatures into battle from cards depicting the necessary arrangement of units. Each turn, a player gets to do two actions which usually are to place one or two “common” pieces or to identify a pattern of the correct pieces on the board and summon a creature (usually just another common piece) that has a special ability or movement effect.

Game situations or card effects can also cause pieces to upgrade from common to heroic to legendary (call it “kinging” if you must), which generally protects them from being removed from the board when a lower-ranked piece makes a combat move. There are also “Flares”, which are one of the most bold-faced rubber-banding elements I’ve seen in my entire life. The Flares have two this or that functions keyed to how many more pieces the opponent has on the board. So a card may allow a player that has five less commons on the board to place one or two or to make a special move. These get used quite a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever played an essentially abstract game where the board state changes so much every single turn, frustrating plans and causing players to have to reassess strategy almost every turn.

I think it may already be clear from the description where some of the problems with this game lie. Effectively, Tash-Kalar is closer to Go or Shogi than some of the other wizardly duel games out there. The constantly changing, fluid state of the board is really at odds with the kind of tactical placement game that it seems like it wants to be. Some of the summoning patterns are simple and fairly easy to pull off once the board begins to fill up, but others (including a random Legendary creature each player gets at the outset as part of their hand) are very difficult to cast- especially when pieces are coming and going from the board every turn.

Compounding the frustration is the fact that looking at the creature cards and trying to work out if there’s a pattern or potential pattern is absolutely not fun in any way. Turns drag to a halt as players stare at the board, then at cards, then back at the board, then at the cards turned sideways, and so on. Throughout my games- which all seemed excruciatingly long due to downtime- I kept thinking that an IOS version of the game that highlighted the cards you can play along with the patterns would at least make the game feel less mentally punishing.

But there’s still the issue that faction decks, random card draws, and vicious back-and-forth see-sawing do not sit well with fundamental abstract game concepts. It almost seems as if the pattern recognition element is a play for the cerebral aspects of the abstract genre, but Vlaada just can’t let go of more genre-oriented themes. I do actually think that the conceptual theme works here- casting stones into patterns to summon creatures is exactly what you do with the gameplay. But it just doesn’t work as a fantasy battle game because it’s too abstract and it doesn’t work as an abstract because it’s got too much fantasy battle game in it.

I’m also not comfortable with the oddly complicated rules. The “full rules” are on a single piece of paper, front and back, color-coded to incorporate all of the variant rules for whatever mode you’re playing. But the Guidebook (a common thing in a Chvatil game since they usually need some direct explanation outside of a usual rules presentation) is 12 pages long. It also includes some insightful nuggets like the mnemonic bit about the summoning patterns kind-of sort-of looking like the thing that you’re supposed to be summoning. I found myself constantly checking the rules and wondering if the game was really as complicated as it seemed to be or if I was just confusing myself.

The modes are an issue as well. The main game is called “High Form” and for good reason, because it’s really what the game seems to be designed for. It’s a two player contest that includes objective cards that award points for connecting sides of the board, having pieces on colored spaces, killing a certain number of units per turn and so forth. They can be pretty tough to accomplish, again due to the easy come, easy go nature of units. Deathmatch is a straight-up battle for points, and it’s fine for two -probably the most fun way to play since the wholesale slaughter of pieces is the objective. The multiplayer modes for three and four players, including a dreadful team variant, are completely worthless. Playing this game with three or four players placing and removing pieces is a dismal, supremely frustrating experience similar to bludgeoning yourself repeatedly on top of the head with a rubber mallet while someone reads you the myth of Sisyphus.

I do not like Tash-Kalar. I think it’s an almost total miss at a design level and its cause is not helped at all by it being dramatically under-produced and over-priced for a pile of cards and some practically artless counters that you put on a thin, cardstock board. Yet I think this game will have its defenders, mostly human computers who actually like to overthink moves and enjoy the complicated pattern recognition element of the game. But even for that crowd, I don’t think the chaos inherent in the design is going to go over too well.