Codenames: MDA & 8 Kinds of Fun

A game that I love to play is Codenames — something I picked up at the beginning of quarantine. It’s filled with tension, creativity, and can be played with a close group of friends or as an ice breaker!

Codenames utilizes a board of words, and all the words are assigned a color — red, blue, grey, or black. The players form two teams, a red and a blue team. Each team will also have a spymaster, someone who can see all the colors on the entire board. Each turn, the spymaster will give a hint to their team in the form of a word and a number. From this hint, that team will have to guess a certain number of words based on this clue and hope they’re picking words that are assigned to their team’s color. If they choose a black word, they lose immediately, and if they choose a grey word, their turn ends. Whichever team correctly guesses all their words first, wins.

Within the MDA framework, mechanics are defined as rules and systems, or several different actions and behaviors that a player can utilize within the context of the game. The mechanics of Codenames are unique and lend to the game’s ability to build tension among players. Some mechanics include giving one-word and one-number hints, winning the game once a team guesses all their words, discussion amongst team members, guessing words one at a time, limited communication between a team and spymaster, and a turn ending after an incorrect guess. These all serve as mechanics because they describe the baseline actions and rules present in the game space.

Dynamics are defined as an experiential play that is entirely based on mechanics. In other words, if the mechanics are the rules of the game, then the dynamics are how the players use or engage with those rules. The mechanics above lend to the dynamics created in the game; one example of this is the tight restrictions when it comes to giving hints, which leads to some spymasters giving a very broad word with a higher guess number so that their players can guess as many words as possible. The limited communication for the spymaster, discussion amongst team members, guessing one word at a time, and a turn ending after an incorrect guess, leads to players methodically discussing what they think the spymaster intended by the clue. This also leads to the dynamic of ranking which words are most likely related to the clues and choosing words in that order so that as many correct guesses as possible can be garnered. Finally, the mechanics of winning the game lead to the spymaster and players acting with a great deal of thought and caution, when they give hints and guess words respectively. The gameplay isn’t quick and rushed, but instead is prolonged with thoughtfulness.

This finally brings us to how these mechanics and dynamics are able to build on each other to create fun. Within the MDA framework, this is more formally referred to as Aesthetics, or the specific emotional responses in a player when they interact with the dynamics of the game. In other words, the dynamics of a game will work to produce aesthetic experiences. One type of fun created by the dynamics in Codenames is Fellowship because players must engage heavily in discussion with their team and come together to make decisions. A sense of comradery is formed in Codenames due to this methodical discussion of thought and caution. Since there is so much ambiguity with what the spymaster is suggesting to their team, the teammates must band together to make their best guess in order to beat the other team. Also, the winning conditions here are more difficult to achieve alone — because it would be harder to guess without someone to brainstorm with — so that sense of Fellowship is further strengthened.

Another type of fun that Codenames creates is Challenge. Because the created dynamic is one of thoughtful discussion amongst teams, methodical choosing and ranking of words, and in-depth analysis of the spymaster’s clues, players are faced with a lot of tension and pressure when finally choosing their words. This lends to the aesthetic of Challenge, because players are able to engage in the ambiguity in not knowing if their guess is correct, while also becoming absorbed in the tension of it all.

Finally, a type of fun that Codenames creates is Expression. Because of the ambiguity of the given clue, spymasters often get more creative when giving clues, while players get more creative when deciphering clues. This often leads to a lot of abstract thinking and creativity, where players can begin to guess what the hint means, based on who they know the spymaster to be as a person.

Codenames is one of my favorite games, and after breaking down its elements, it’s clear to me why I enjoy it so much. All of its aspects of fun, creativity, challenge, and teamwork, are aspects of games I love. If you’ve played this game, I hope you can look at it a little differently next time you engage with it! If you haven’t, I encourage you to play and let me know if you agree with the types of fun I’ve laid out!