Talking Codenames Duet with Scot Eaton

The Inquisitive Meeple interviews Scot Eaton, co-designer of Codenames Duet. For 2-playersCodenames Duet keeps the basic elements of Codenames — give one-word clues to try to get someone to identify your agents among those on the table — but now you’re working together as a team to find all of your agents.”

Hey Scot. Thanks for doing this interview. Last time we spoke it was for Blend Off (which my kids love to play btw). Now that the game is on the market how is the feedback?

Scot: Hi Ryan. Blend Off has been… interesting. It is a game that has struggled to find its target market. The demographic on the lookout for new games does not overlap very much with the demographic interested in speed games. That being said, when the target demographic DOES try Blend Off!, it’s generally an instant buy. A lot of times Kickstarter games do very well up-front, and then peter out. For Blend Off!, it’s been the opposite. We barely reached funding on Kickstarter, but it’s picking up steam now that it’s on the market. Word of mouth has been huge, but we’ve also had a lot of luck with distributors picking it up for distribution too.

Scot Eaton

Now you’re back with a new design, Codenames Duet. Codenames for 2-players. How is this game different from the 2-player variant found in normal Codenames?

Scot: The 2-player variant and Codenames Duet are completely different approaches. The original game is designed as a competitive game for 4+ players, so the included variant has you competing against a dummy team. One player is the clue giver, and the other is the guesser. Like any games with a dummy player/team, the assumption is that the human players will win, and you’re given a score based on the margin you won by.

Codenames Duet takes the normal rules of Codenames and converts them into a Co-op game. Players switch off being the clue giver/guesser, and they are working together to complete a grid in which each player only has around half of the information before time runs out. This is accomplished by having a double-sided keycard with different grids on each side. Some of the information is shared between the grids, but you and your partner don’t know what is shared until you find it. The timer starts with 9 turns (4 for each player and 1 that can go to either), but optional challenge missions can change that number. Oh, and Codenames Duet is tough. Really tough. Expect to lose at least 3 times before you get your first win.

The original idea for Duet came out of a Christmas present for your wife, correct? Could you Tell us more about this story and then how you got hooked up with CGE?

Scot: My wife and I love playing games together, but with young kids, we never get to go to game night at the same time. If we want to play games together, it is almost always the 2-player version. We have found that 2-player games that include a dummy hand are almost never worth playing, so we have become quite adept at modifying them, or sometimes just writing our own 2-player versions from scratch.

Last November, we picked up Codenames, and she immediately proclaimed it one of her favorite games. Like all of her other favorite games, it required a high player count, meaning we would never be able to play it. We tried the 2-player variant, but knew after 1 play that it didn’t come close to the full game. I decided then and there that I would re-design the game as a co-op to give to her at Christmas.

All of my previous 2-player redesigns had used all of the same components as the base game, but I knew that wouldn’t work with Codenames. The idea for a double-sided card presenting different information to each player was taken from Perspective, by my good friend Andrew Voigt. So, I created 20 double-sided key cards for Codenames and had them printed through The Game Crafter, which I gave to my wife for Christmas.

That left me with a problem though. Because I had created new components using CGE’s copyrighted iconography, I couldn’t just go onto the Board Game Geek forum and post my 2-player version, like I had done with previous games. This made my re-design a “fan expansion”. I did fan expansions back in the day before I became a designer, and one of my personal rules is that I always ask permission from the original creator before posting my ideas. So I contacted CGE via the general email on their webpage, and presented with them with 3 options:

1) posting it as a print-and-play on Board Game Geek
2) posting it as a print-on-demand on The Game Crafter
3) working together to release the 20 cards as a promo pack at a convention
(The fourth option was for them to shut down the entire idea, but I didn’t think I needed to say that.)

Now we have to jump over to CGE’s side of the story. They had released Codenames and Codenames: Pictures, and had considered the Codenames family to be “complete”. They were not planning any in-house Codenames releases in 2017. In fact, they had just finalized their most ambitious production schedule yet. They had gotten requests to release a word pack, but were not interested in going that route unless they had something new to offer customers. Then along comes my email.

A picture Scot sent CGE in his original pitch

About a week later, I got a short email from CGE: “Please don’t post this expansion online. we want to release this as a standalone game at GenCon!” My jaw about hit the floor when I got that email. Turns out that when they played “Codenames For Two”, as it was then called, they decided that they couldn’t not publish it. They hastily re-arranged their production schedule, combined the co-op rules with the 400-word expansion everyone was requesting, and announced “Codenames Duet” for an August release.

That has to be a mindblowing experience, you were requesting to post a fan expansion, they wanted to sign it – so bad that they even redid their production schedule for it. That has to be a crazy experience. Do you remember what you were thinking?

Scot: Pretty much what you’d expect. I was mindblown. There are so many good designers out there who consistently churn out amazing games and never get recognized for it. In order to really make it in the industry, you need luck. I thought my luck might have finally come.

Codenames Duet set up

You mentioned 400 words – are these all new words , that can even be combined with normal Codenames (or vice versa), correct?

Scot: There are no overlaps with the original Codenames or any of the promo packs released. The new cards will have two dots in the corner so that you can mix them together and later separate them out.

As for the games that use the Codenames license, a number of the more family-friendly words from Deep Undercover are making their way into Codenames Duet. I haven’t heard if there will be any overlap with USAopoloy’s Disney/Marvel version.

Will players be able to play 2-players codename pictures with Codename Duet or even have a mix of words and pictures?

All of the grids will be 5×5, so though it will be possible to use the Duet rules on Codenames Pictures or the Word/Picture hybrid game, it will be very difficult to win.

How many key cards can we expect and will the Assassin be making a comeback?

Scot: There will be more key cards than the original Codenames. Because these keycards can only be rotated 2 ways (instead of 4), we had to include more to make sure people did not memorize them.

As for the Assassin, he will be making a comeback in a big way. Each side of the card has 3 words that trigger the Assassin. of those 3 words, one is also an Assassin on the other side, one is a bystander, and one is one of your partner’s words. So at some point in each game, you will have to choose one of your own assassins. It’s always a tense decision.

Ohh that does sound tense. How did that gameplay choice come about?

Scot: The original prototype I sent used the same pieces as Codenames, so the blue and red player both had 8 agents. Then there was a double agent that was a 9th word shared between both sides. This went over very well in playtests, so it gradually got increased to 2, and then 3, for balancing purposes. (Note: even though there is only one color now, the double agent mechanic still exists.)

At the same time, the original prototype had 2 assassins, one for each side. The increase in double agents dropped the total number of words from 17 to 15 though, so the game got a bit too easy. As we looked into adding more assassins, Vlaada came up with the brilliant idea of having 3 different types of assassins, one of them being a word you had to guess. I loved the idea and knew we had to pursue it, but balancing was going to be tricky. Once you know that one of your assassins is a word on your opponent’s side, you create a solvable situation, which is not in the spirit of the game. However, 3 assassins was really tough! In the end, we had to include the assassin/bystander and assassin/agent combo, meaning the only one we could have cut was the assassin/assassin, The thematic hook was too strong though, and our playtesters wouldn’t let us. We re-balanced the difficulty in other ways.

Speaking of playtesters. When you were still prototyping Codenames Duet, what was the best piece of feedback you received from a playtester?

Scot: The best piece of feedback was to increase the number of double agents. It made me re-think the whole concept of what I was doing.

CGE didn’t just pay you for your idea and leave it at. They kept you on and you really got to develop the idea with them and Codenames creator Vlaada Chvátil. How was that experience and what new game design lessons did you learn?

Scot: Hmmm… I wouldn’t call this the standard co-designer relationship. There were language and timezone differences that made communication challenging. What ended up happening is that Codenames Duet went into parallel development, with both Vlaada and I working on it separately. Interestingly enough, we both came to the same conclusions about what needed to change, and made most of the same changes. For example, we both added a 9th turn, additional double agents, and additional assassins. It’s just that I added 2 of each, and Vlaada added 3 of each.

I just couldn’t keep up with CGE though. The are all full-time, and put in 20 playtests for every 1 that I did. So in the end, most of the co-development was them giving me veto power… something they definitely didn’t have to do. But let me tell you, I’ve worked with Hasbro, Wizkids, and Z-Man on projects that ultimately never came to fruition, and none of them hold a candle to the professionalism, consistency, and quality of the CGE team. Language and timezone issues aside, I would work again with them in a heartbeat.

For players looking for even more of a challenge there is a Mission Map variant included in Codenames Duet box

So, there were language differences that you had to overcome?

Scot: So, one interesting thing we discovered early on in development was that Codenames is significantly easier in Czech than it is in English. Czech doesn’t have nearly as many homonyms. English also has a habit of compounding words… taking 2 words and smashing them together to create a 3rd word with a different meaning, like “pinecone” or “sea lion”. Of those two examples, “pinecone” is allowed, since it is one word, but “sea lion” is not. This wasn’t an issue in the original Codenames, since both teams faced the same level of increased difficulty. However, when trying to balance a co-op, it became significant.

In the end, we added a section to the rulebook about “relaxing the rules”, saying that if both players agreed on it, they could include all compound words, whether or not there was a space or dash in-between. Players could also use full names and titles, like “George Washington”, “The Grand Canyon”, or “The Great Gatsby”. Some of the new words even follow these relaxed rules.

Something that has to be really cool for you is they are putting your name on the front of the box. Was this a surprise at all or something you had in your contract with CGE?

Scot: Yes and Yes. Because of the adjusted production schedule, the contract was not finalized until after we had sent the files to the printers. Our pre-production cover had just had Vlaada’s name on it, so when I came across the line in the contract specifying that my name would be on the front cover, I notified the team that they would need to change it. That’s when they realized they had never sent me the final cover with my name on it, so it was quite the pleasant surprise.

Codenames is a relatively new game series starting only in 2015. Yet it quickly rose to #1 party game and currently #32 overall game at BGG. What do you think about Codenames really clicks with people?

Scot: Codenames feels like a game you grew up playing, even though it’s relatively new. In many ways, it takes the clever wordplay of something like Catchphrase and combines it with slower social aspect of something like Apples to Apples. This gives social people their fix, but it allows people who are nervous in social settings to take their time and really show off their cleverness. In many ways, I find it to be the perfect bridge for a diverse group of people.

Scot’s wife

What was your favorite part of this whole experience?

Scot: Honestly? Usually I’d say something like “Seeing people connecting with each other and having fun.” But this one is a little more personal. My favorite part has been that my wife is able to play her favorite game whenever she wants.

What do you think the biggest lesson you’ve  learned through this experience has been?

Scot: That it never hurts to ask.

As we wrap up. Is there anything else you would like to add or anything else coming from you soon we should be on the lookout for?

Scot:  You know, the game industry is in the midst of a lot of change. Many traditional publishers have made the switch from direct publishing to being a development house under a larger publisher, meaning that they internally develop for while, then bring it to the parent company to get the golden stamp of approval. I’ve got a couple of games with the development houses, but nothing that’s been given the golden stamp yet. That could come next week, and it could take 6 more months. Just keep an eye out for my name!

Thanks Scot for taking the time out to do this interview.



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