I wouldn’t call Codenames the best game I’ve played in the past couple years, but it’s probably one of my most-played. This is partially due to its length, short enough that almost no one plays just one game, and its flexibility with player numbers. It handles ten people as well as it handles four. I’ve even gone higher than that, and it’s been fine (your results my be different). But probably the biggest factor has been that it can be pulled out with just about any group at all, regardless of experience level. These days I bring it to just about any gathering where games might be played. If people have played it before, they’ll probably play it again. If no one has heard of it, it almost always ends up with someone asking me where they can buy a copy. It’s cheap too, so people don’t balk at the price like they do with most hobby games.
Since Codenames is designed by Vlaada Chvatil, who is usually known for his enormous, crazy, and complicated designs, it makes me wonder why more prominent designers don’t try their hands at party games. There have been a number of party games to originate from the ranks of hobby gamers, but really only Dixit and Codenames have received much traction. Obviously those aren’t the only ones, but a lot of them tend to be surprisingly thinky (like Concept) or basically packaged versions of games you can play with a pencil and paper (Telestrations or Time’s Up). It feels like the realm of designed party games is kind of a thin one.
I wonder why this is, because it strikes me that this could be one of the very best ways to build the hobby. For most non-hobbyists, “game night” usually means “party game night.” They don’t want to break up large groups, they want something with maybe a page of rules, and there needs to be a heavy social component. It does feel like a lot of hobby gamers aren’t really all that interested in party games, which might explain it. Publishers are generally more inclined to publish for serious gamers rather than casual ones, since they spend more money and will evangelize good games. But party games sell a lot easier at Target, since they have high-concept one-line descriptions and low price points.
Of course the distinction between “party game” and “big social, but not quite a party, game” is pretty thin. This weekend I played Bruno Faidutti’s wonderful Mascarade, one of my favorite hidden role games. It’s awfully goofy, but it feels just a touch heavy on rules to be classified as a party game. For that matter, most hidden role games ride that line. The Resistance in particular dwells in that shadowy area. But games like that lack the raw accessibility, since they require a certain amount of social deception that might not appeal to more casual players.
I don’t know, as I think about this line of thought a lot of other possible examples float to the top. There’s stuff like Werewolf, Wits & Wagers, Say Anything, and several others that have found at least a little success. But it still feels like an under-explored genre from the direction of designer games, at least in our current environment. Maybe there’s something about the genre that makes them challenging to design. Then again maybe we haven’t yet seen what all is possible. I know that Codenames has forced me to reassess how I approach the genre, which means it might do for party games what Catan did for strategy games.