by Ray Billings
The Origin of Codenames Online
We at Czech Games Edition had hoped Codenames Online would be popular with existing board game fans…but we never could have guessed that it would end up in the hands of some of the world’s biggest content creators, being played in front of hundreds of thousands of live viewers.
So why was Codenames Online made in the first place? Why make a completely free browser version of a game that sells millions of physical copies? Well, in 2020 it was hard to deny the impact Covid-19 had on our hobby, which is entirely built around in-person gatherings. We wanted to create a way for our existing fans to access their favorite party game even when miles away from their loved ones and gaming groups. You can read more about this initial process in Tomáš Uhlir’s developer diary from December 2020.
A New Kind of Codenames Fan
Codenames Online remains a completely free browser option for Codenames fans to this day — but the concept of “Codenames fans” has taken on an entirely new meaning in the last two years as a result of this side-project site. To our surprise, around October 2020, Codenames started making an appearance on the live-streaming platform Twitch. Even more surprising, the channels playing the game weren’t from the board game community as you’d expect. Instead, the Codenames category on Twitch was starting to be populated by major mainstream creators like Chilled Chaos and eventually the likes of Pokimane (9 million followers), xQc (11 million followers), and Sykkuno (3 million followers), who are considered to be among the top streamers in the world.
Codenames Online viewership stats from July 2018 to April 2023
Codenames Online has truly taken on a life of its own. I constantly come across comments from viewers and streamers alike who are surprised to find out that Codenames is a board game and not just an online game.
Why Is Codenames So Popular on Twitch?
So the big question is obviously how did this happen? Well, as with anything on the internet, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact beginning of a trend, but what I can speak to is why this happened. Once that initial spark was created — some streamer somewhere picked it up, and showed it to their friends — why has the game stayed popular on Twitch for over two years?
Beyond being a fun and easy game to play, there are several factors at play that make Codenames Online very streamable:
• It is easy for the streamer to understand and explain, and audiences can usually intuit what’s going on even if they join the stream after an explanation has been given.
• It’s free, which makes it easy to pick up and try without commitment.
• It’s not locked behind a third-party service like Tabletopia or BGA, making it more accessible to a non-board-gaming audience.
• The playtime is relatively short, making it easy to play a couple of games in between other content.
• It can accommodate a very wide range of player counts.
• It involves hidden information.
The last two points are key. These two traits make it so that Codenames fits perfectly into a style of streaming called “lobby content”. Lobby content is when a bunch of streamers get together to play the same game with each other but stream their individual perspectives to their own channels. In addition, streamers like to play games in this format that involve some sort of hidden information because it encourages their audiences to move back and forth between the various lobby streamers to see their different points of view.
This genre exploded during the pandemic. Games like Among Us, Gartic Phone, and Project Winter were suddenly dominating both the Twitch and YouTube gaming spaces. The reason for the rise in this type of content is pretty self-evident: Creators were isolated just like everyone else, so they were more drawn to party games with their friends than usual. In many ways, Codenames Online rode a similar wave. You can see it frequently being streamed alongside these other lobby games:
Changes that Helped Codenames Online Grow with Streamers
As Codenames Online grew in popularity — both with streamers and regular players — we started receiving more feedback and higher expectations for the game. If any readers are hoping to create their own online board game, here are some things to keep in mind if you want the game to be successful with streamers. These are all additions we made after the initial launch due to feedback we received that turned out to be very useful for our streaming audience:
• Make a dark mode. Streamers stare at screens all day and will often be deterred from a game if it’s overly bright.
• Give people the option to hide their game’s URL. If the URL for a game is visible, large creators will often have audience members join the game in an attempt to disrupt the game.
• Provide outlets for creativity and customization. Streaming communities are built around a shared sense of humor, in-jokes, and audience participation. The custom words feature quickly became a favorite among streamers.
How Do We Engage This New Audience?
Once we adapted the game itself to the needs of streamers, we needed to adapt our marketing as well. This was a challenge I took on when I first started working at CGE. The tricky part is that, as I mentioned, many of these creators and their fans are unaware of the Codenames board game, not to mention the board game community. CGE might carry a decent amount of name recognition and cachet in the board gaming world, but to these creators, we’re just a random indie company trying to get their attention.
So we needed to A) help raise brand awareness for the actual Codenames board game and B) forge relationships with these creators who are the backbone of the game’s continued success online.
Here’s how I hit those two birds with one stone.
Before traveling to US TwitchCon 2022, I had our art department make Codenames agent cards depicting two prominent Codenames streamers who I knew would be attending: KaraCorvus and Julien.
During the show, I tracked down where their meet-ups were happening and waited in line to talk to them and show them their customized cards. This gave them something from the physical board game to show off to their fans, and most importantly it was a memorable and genuine first contact. (I literally stood in line in the California sun for two hours.) I can’t imagine how many soulless “Dear Creator” emails these streamers receive, so it was incredibly important to me that we didn’t get lost in the shuffle. I wanted us to stand out as developers who truly care and are grateful for the work that streamers have done to make our game popular.
The response from Julien and Kara’s communities was overwhelming, to say the least. I knew we had done something right and that this was the approach to continue.
The Codenames Streamer Celebration
After TwitchCon, I got to work planning a larger event built off this experience. I spent the better half of a year digging into the Codenames streaming community and picking out creators who have large audiences and a history of streaming the game consistently. I then reached out to them individually asking whether they would like cards made for them in the same style as Julien and Kara’s and whether they would be okay with those cards being featured in the online game for a limited time.
Almost every creator I reached out to came back with an immediate and resounding “Yes!” And from now until June 12, 2023, you can see these creators’ agent cards featured in Codenames Online. The featured creators include ChilledChaos, Sykkuno, WhatifJulia, and many more!
Our hope with this promotion is to continue to foster a supportive relationship between us and Codenames live-streamers. The event is only in its first week, but the incredible uptick in social media conversation surrounding Codenames is real proof of the power of influencers.
Where Do We Go from Here?
There are many interesting avenues to explore after this promotion. Should we continue to try to retroactively push the physical Codenames board game by perhaps creating a “Streamer Edition” of Codenames as many fans have asked for? Or should we embrace the digital future with the upcoming release of the Codenames app? We’ve added several features to the app that should open up tons of new possibilities for streamers to engage with their audience over Codenames. Maybe we’ll do both! Perhaps I’ll write another diary when we’ve decided…
What Does This Mean for the Board Gaming Community?
Covid-19 pushed the board game industry to adapt in many ways, one of the most notable being that we were forced to learn how to play online board games and how to make them better. I think continuing to pursue digital adaptations is the key to expanding the board game hobby. Obviously, board gaming will always be an in-person pastime at its core, but there clearly is a need and a brand new market for easy-to-learn digital party games. Even Gartic Phone, which I mentioned previously, is basically a browser version of Telestrations. I think, if approached correctly, other games of similar weight and structure could definitely follow in Codenames’ footsteps and become a hit with live streamers.
Thank you for reading my thoughts on the Codenames Online phenomenon! Come join us in playing with these limited-time streamer cards from now until June 12, 2023 at Codenames.game. You can learn more about the featured creators on our website here.
Ray and the CGE Team