Codenames, Takenoko, & Unstable Unicorns: An Experience Analysis

Codenames: Pictures 

  • Learning Process – 5/5 spies
  • Material Interface – 4/5 spies
  • Gameplay and Interaction – 4.5/5 spies

Being a seasoned Codenames player in my youth, I felt somewhat confident in interacting with the games set of rules. It seemed the players around the table had a similar idea on what Codenames Pictures was loosely based off, so we took to unboxing the game with instructions manuals, varying cards, and a piece I had no clue about, I knew it was time to consult the internet while other players read the manual. The material component of the game was too convoluted to understand so early in the morning, and we were in need of a more concise explanation. 

I immediately regretted having any semblance of confidence in how to play the game as soon as I started reading the rule book. Thus began the experience of learning how to replay the game. Each member shared small pieces of information on what we found integral to gameplay (in the manual and online), such as the arrangement of cards and material aspects (such as the key card, which stands in between the spymasters) and the purpose of each.

After twenty or so minutes, we’d read manuals and discussed among ourselves how we’re supposed to play, agreeing to jump in while still firmly planted in the liminal stage of ambiguity, imperceptibility, and intermediacy (as described by Harvey (2006). It learning felt bizarre, but strangely less daunting due to its shared nature. Drifting in and out of the overlap of reality, or Magic Circle (Salen and Zimmerman, 2011). Codenames offered relief to players, allowing them to question components, systems, or the placement of cards at any time.

We all had little idea what we were doing, but the shared nature of this made it less intimidating to approach after learning about the setup and materials in the same space. As we approached play, we made errors, and consequently consulted the rulebook, which provided ‘concrete play behaviours’ (Salen and Zimmerman, 2011) unique to each role (spymaster and operative). Our attitudes shifted from the liminal learning space to the lusory space, with my operative and I determined to guess multiple pictures with the one word, laughing, and celebrating our wins with niche words and identical interpretations. 

Any and all reservations I had about not being able to remember how to play the game vanished once it all clicked, and we were able to adopt the playful, lusory attitude that renders board games most fun.

Conversely, playing Codenames and Codenames Pictures in the week two tutorial (with another experienced Codenames player) was easier. The two teammates who hadn’t played before grasped the system mechanics in under five minutes, with lusory attitudes kicking in almost immediately. One of the players who didn’t understand/couldn’t control themselves trying to hint to their operative, adhering to the ‘ambiguous behaviours’ of informal play.

The affective register of the operative guessing an opposite team or assassin card expressed deep engagement in a lusory attitude. The operative knew what selecting the ‘wrong’ card did, but the affective response from the spymaster (laughing, gasping, exaggerated facial expressions) added an element of hilarity and rowdiness to the experience. Both to the operative trying to guess and the spymaster trying to hint. 


  • Learning Process – 2/5 pandas
  • Material Interface – 4.5/5 pandas
  • Gameplay and Interaction – 2.5/5 pandas

After playing Codenames, it seemed most of my capacity to absorb and process complex information was a shortfall, and my attention span was dwindling. Loading the game code into my brain after spending almost an hour and a half on Codenames seemed arduous. The game colours were outstanding, the miniature figures were beautifully crafted, and each piece effortlessly fit in the box. Like a cat with a string of fairy lights, I was mesmerised. We unfolded the instructions, and spent an inane amount of time reading and processing the instructions. With no straightforward setup like Codenames, it seemed as if we had to set up as we went along, adding pieces to the board to fulfill our individual goals. 

At this point I was still looking at how aesthetic the box and miniatures were, unable to express interest in whatever convoluted goal the game promised. Jumping straight into play didn’t work quite as well with Takenoko. Even though we were all in the same learning process, we had vastly different experiences. While I was familiar with the concept of a card (or dice in Takenoko) providing a new mechanic (like an action), it felt drawn out. 

The fantasy board game Talisman and Unstable Unicorns executes this well, as there are cards drawn every turn, for player advantages, disadvantages, and the like. Cards that demand battles, gameplay, and player interaction – but it felt unnecessary in Takenoko. Like it was just an added element to try and make play more interesting. 

Unstable Unicorns

  • Learning Process – 4/5 unicorns
  • Material Interface – 5/5 unicorns
  • Gameplay and Interaction – 2.5/5 unicorns

The learning process of Unstable Unicorns was straightforward and easy. I was familiar with the game and felt drawn to explaining the bare concepts of the game to fellow group members. That was, until they started asking niche questions about particular actions, and I handed out the rule book for a more comprehensive explanation.

I enjoyed the action cards in Unstable Unicorns, as they were used to decrease, increase, and change the power dynamic of players with every turn. There’s an inherent structure of power present in the game (Pratto et al, 2008), as the person holding the most Unicorn cards is closest to winning. The predetermined action someone has at the start of their turn can be completely abolished by the next, with the play of an action.

The basic system of rules in the game, which dictated the player holding seven unicorn cards as the winner, felt fun to intimidate and direct group strategy as stopping that player from winning. This was the way I normally played with friends, and found it enjoyable to coordinate all our turns into robbing one player of their power – that is, until another threat was presented. 

However, this group didn’t seem too thrilled at that idea. Each person’s turn as a concept transitioned from something they can use to take down another player, to something they can use for their own advantage, or to finish the game faster. There wasn’t an element of competitiveness, and no one was interested in embracing the possibilities of the Magic Circle Unstable Unicorns could provide. and this seemed to influence the dynamic of players. There was no player ‘ahead’, engaging in the structural power dynamic because most people neglected to play their action cards. 

However, one particular player took it upon themself to hide their stable and hand from other players, making it known that was the ‘correct way’, despite never having played before. Consultation of the rule book said otherwise, but they continued to play, hiding their cards from all players. This interrupted the ability and choices of other players, they had an advantage of looking at everyone’s cards, but the rest of us not being able to do the opposite. This changed the power from a structural to a relational type (Pratto et al., 2008). While this practice had the potential to be a new way of playing, generating a new practice and refiguring its system of play (Malaby, 2007), it seemed more like a way to increase individual power without discussion.


Harvey, A., 2006. The Liminal Magic Circle: Boundaries, Frames, and Participation in Pervasive Mobile Games. Concordia University,.

Malaby, T., 2007. Beyond Play: A New Approach To Games. Games and Culture, 2(2), pp.95-113.

Pratto, F., Pearson, A., Lee, I. and Saguy, T., 2008. Power Dynamics in an Experimental Game. Social Justice Research, 21(3), pp.377-407.

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E., 2011. Rules of Play. TPB.

1 thought on “Codenames, Takenoko, & Unstable Unicorns: An Experience Analysis”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s