Codenames: a boardgame to understand common context, or lack therof

I have never reviewed a boardgame before, but I thought I would make an exception for once because this particular game has interesting “social” effects, which might not be obvious at first.

The game is Codenames, which I played a few months ago at the office during one of our unofficial board game nights.

The mechanics of the game is better left explained to the rules, as I suck at that, but the summary is that you get a (random) board of words on the table, and two teams are lead by captains that need to find word associations so that their team chooses the right words, and avoids choosing the other teams’ or the “killer word.”

This might sound boring at first unless you really are in word-association games, which is something that I am, and thus why I joined for this game. But what happened was much more interesting. To understand, let me describe the situation.

As I said we played this at the office, which meant that most of the players were software and systems engineers from my office, but there were at least a couple of SO guests, and one or two people from other parts of the company, around the corner where the “non-Eng” colleagues are. Since I work in Dublin, any random subset of engineers means that you get a nice sample of different nationalities — as sort-of expected, the age sampling is a bit more uniform, but even that was not a complete given, at 31 I was nicely in the middle of the spectrum.

This effectively meant that we had the winning combination: explaining the game was easy, but then at the first board of words, the first curious question “What the heck is pewter?” And after that we even got to the point that there is no word in French to describe pewter, they call it “alloy of lead and tin.” I do wonder how they translated Mistborn.

Things got even more interesting from there. As I said we were an interesting mix of people, even though we were approximately all white, we were all coming from different countries, not even all European, and with a word association games, that counted. Beside trying to figure out what the meanings of various words were, the native English (or American) speakers would point out how some word has more than one meaning, and so it would become a team discussion trying to figure out if the person giving the hint would know this other meaning or not.

I think the nicest example has been at some point when the captain was a visitor from the States, slightly older than me. He gives the hint “Actress”, on the table there is a “Theatre” (easy), and my team gravitates towards “Model”, while I notice “Temple.” And that was probably the longest discussion we had during the whole game. Why did I point at “Temple”? To me it was obviously a reference to Shirley Temple, but more than half my team never even heard of her! For some, a Shirley Temple is just a cocktail, and they never thought of where the name came from. Even so, would the captain know her? Would he choose such a hint knowing his audience? Or would he realize she’s not that well known across Europe?

At the end, he did see “Temple” in there, he thought it might be flagged, but was not aiming for that. He did intend to point to “Theatre” and “Model” — “Temple” was fine, so when we selected it we were still safe.

I had a go to be the captain, I did good (I said I love word association game) and my team won without making any mistakes in choosing the words. Having noted the problem of knowing my audience, I did my best to limit the hints to something I could expect my colleagues to know about, rather than trying to look for very odd, or unexpected meanings.

I have not tried experimenting this again with more people I don’t know, to figure out how well you can play this when you don’t even know which references you can make and which ones you can’t. But I thought I would at least share my take on this.

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