Life’s difficult as a spy. Nobody knows your name and you don’t know anybody else’s either. In order to communicate, your spymaster will have to give you clues to guess your fellow spies’ codenames without leaking any vital information to your rivals. Be careful though, there’s an assassin lurking in the shadows that you’d best avoid or it’s all over for you.
Party, deduction, word game
Number of Players
With 2 or 3 players you need to use a variant that loses the party deduction element, which is Codenames’ big selling point. With 4 players, each team at least has one spymaster and one guesser, but it’s much more fun with more than one person guessing per team.
Codenames plays best with 6-8 players, but honestly, you could easily play with more than 8 players. The more people you add, the more chaotic it can get though. First, it might be difficult for everyone to even see the cards if there are more than 8 players. It also might get difficult to decide on which words to guess since everyone has different ideas. Also, the more timid players sometimes get sidelined if there are too many people.
It depends on how long people take to think of clues/decide on answers, but it’s a really quick game so maybe about 15 minutes.
If you don’t use the included timer, there can be a lot of downtime. Thinking of clues is really hard sometimes and often leads to analysis paralysis. Guessing usually goes a bit quicker as long as there aren’t really indecisive people playing, but even that can still take a while to debate which words might relate to the clue. I personally don’t like using the timer often, but if somebody is taking too long it can always get flipped to speed the process up.
You also have to factor in that while one team is thinking of clues and guessing, the other team isn’t doing anything (except maybe trash talking or leading people astray) so that’s all down time. It’s still such a fast and fun game though that the downtime doesn’t play a huge factor.
How Does it Play
The game starts by separating into two teams and choosing a spymaster from each team to give clues. Then 25 word cards are laid out in a 5×5 grid. The spymasters pick a key card which basically decodes that 5×5 grid for them. The key shows red, blue, white, and black squares that correspond to the word cards in the 5×5 grid.
The red team’s spymaster only wants their team to guess the words that are red on the key while the blue team’s spymaster only wants their team to guess the blue ones. The white squares are neutral, so they don’t harm either team, but they will end the turn if anyone guesses them. The most important square on the key is the black square. That’s the assassin and the spymasters must always ensure that their clues don’t lead their team to guess that word. If either team guesses the assassin, they lose and the game is over.
Having one word players absolutely can’t guess seems like such a simple concept. Obviously the spymasters wouldn’t give a clue that would lead anyone to the assassin, right? Well, that’s the fun part about Codenames, everyone’s way of thinking is different. A clue the spymaster thinks doesn’t match the assassin at all might seem perfectly sensible in the guesser’s mind. It’s agonizing being the spymaster and hearing your team discuss guessing the assassin! The spymaster can never react with any emotion though, good or bad, since that would give it away and ruin the spirit of the game.
Giving clues is actually really difficult sometimes and a lot of people don’t like being the spymaster because of that. The goal is to look at all the words your team needs to guess and think of one word that links as many of them as possible. Once the spymaster thinks of a clue, they say the one word and a number. That number states how many words they think their clue relates to. For example, geek:2 would mean that 2 words related to geek. As the players make guesses, the word cards in the grid get covered up with blue/red/white tokens.
If a team guesses one of their correct words, they’re allowed to keep guessing until they hit the number of words the spymaster thought their clue related to or until they guess a word that isn’t theirs (the other team’s, neutral, or the assassin). So if the clue was sun:3, the team would be able to guess 3 words. If they guess all of them correctly, they’d even get a bonus guess. This bonus guess can be extremely useful since it allows players to guess a word they might have missed in a previous round. For example, if the clue had been food:2 and they only correctly guessed 1 word relating to food, that means there’s one more food related word they can try to guess with a bonus guess.
The more words a spymaster tries to link to one clue, the more misunderstandings there tends to be. That’s where a lot of the ridiculous fun comes into the game though. Trying to decipher what on earth your spymaster was thinking when they gave you certain clues can get seriously entertaining.
It’s hard to keep a straight face most times listening to your team talk about your clue and have them be so far off base. That’s actually where physically touching the word cards comes into play. Too often the players are discussing what word to guess and the spymaster accidentally reaches for the red/blue/neutral tokens to cover the word card with before the team had officially made a guess. This slip reveals far too much information so it’s best to make the players physically touch the word card they’re going to guess each time to be sure they’re ready.
Sometimes a spymaster is perfectly in sync with their team and even if they say a crazy clue, somehow the team guesses everything perfectly. Most of the time that doesn’t happen though. Codenames can get less fun if the spymaster doesn’t even try to think like their teammates and the clues never make sense. Usually there’s a happy medium though where some of the clues are great and some of them aren’t, but overall everyone still has a great time. Often the bad clues end up being the funniest.
Some players might find the spymaster role daunting and try to always assign it to one or two people, but once you give it a try it’s not so bad. Even the best spymaster can fall victim to tunnel vision or analysis paralysis in Codenames. Tunnel vision happens when spymasters are so focused on the words they want their team to guess, that they overlook the neutral words or the other team’s words when giving clues. This can happen easily since 25 words is a lot to keep in your mind at all times and it’s much easier to just focus on the 8 or 9 words your team needs.
It’s best to think of the clue and then glance over the rest of the cards to verify it doesn’t fit any other word too perfectly. For example, I gave a clue of dead:3 without realizing ghost was a neutral word on the table. My team had a few choice words about that clue once they guessed ghost and it was incorrect haha
Codenames is a very simple game that can be taught in just a few minutes. If the players want to get technical, there’s a lot of specifics on what types of clues the spymaster is allowed to give and which ones they aren’t. Everyone should decide in the beginning of the game which rules for clue giving they’re going to use.
For example, some people play with compound words counting as one word, but others like to play that they’re multiple words so can’t count as a clue. As long as everyone agrees to the rules to start with, there shouldn’t be any issues. Any other complexity is all up to the player’s imaginations and ability to think of great clues.
There aren’t a lot of components in Codenames, but the pieces it does have are nice. The cards are of good quality and I love that they’re double sided with different words on each side. That adds a lot of replay value without needing more cards.
The agent cards are heavier than the word cards. They also have nice artwork, with a male side and a female side for more visual variety. This is one of the only areas Codenames feels like it has a spy theme
There is also a timer provided and a stand for the key. The stand is important to make sure the key card doesn’t accidentally get flipped to a different orientation, since that would change which words were what colors.
Everything fits in the box well, but it doesn’t have any organizational system besides bags. There is enough room for expansions though.
The spy theme doesn’t feel very important to how the game plays and it doesn’t make me enjoy the game any more or less. Basically, the only connection Codenames has to a spy game is the artwork. Other than that, I think any theme could have been tacked on and the game would play exactly the same, just with different terminology.
Codenames comes with 200 double sided word cards, which provides 400 unique words. That’s a lot of replayability. Even if one word comes up multiple times, it won’t be paired with the same alternate words as before so your clues will still have to change.
For example, if the word white and snow were out you might give the clue winter:2. However, if white and paper were both out you’d give an entirely different clue. In addition, different spymasters probably won’t give the same clues since everyone’s minds work differently. As long as you like the mechanics of Codenames, it won’t get old.
Codenames can make you feel really intelligent, like you’re the master of the English language. Well, of word games at least. Giving a clue that links four words together and actually having your teammates guess them all is a great feeling. A very rare feeling, but a great one. It’s also fantastic to realize how similar/different your way of thinking is compared to your friends. Codenames really shows the weird ways people’s minds work and it’s fantastic.
Least Favorite Part
Being the spymaster is difficult already, but trying to keep a straight face and not reveal anything at all to the other players is something most spymasters slip up at on accident. Half the time you want to nudge your teammates in the right direction or are in shock that they’re so bad at guessing your clues, but you’re not allowed to react. You also get left out of the fun of guessing and really talking at all except for your tiny clues. Even saying things like “it’s a stretch but…” or “that wasn’t what I was thinking, but good job” reveals a lot that the players shouldn’t know.
Games Like Codenames
Dixit is more focused on giving clues about pictures, but the art is gorgeous. It’s another easy to learn shorter game that can play up to 6 players.
Taboo is another party word game that reminds me of the assassin in Codenames. Basically you have a list of words you’re not allowed to use in the clues you’re giving to your team. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there’s a newer version of it so the words might be a bit dated.
There are a few smaller expansions for Codenames that add new cards. One of the most notable is the Authors & Games expansion since it adds cards with board game names and designers.
There’s a standalone version called Codenames: Pictures that uses picture cards instead of word cards. This one is much more difficult in my mind since the pictures have so many little things in them that it’s harder to give relevant clues. For example, I wanted to use the word flowers for a clue, but then I realized half the pictures on the table had some form of flower or plant in the image.
The other standalone version is Codenames: Deep Undercover which is basically dirty Codenames. I haven’t played it, but I’ve read that many of the word choices are extremely questionable, with some negative and gross terminology that many people won’t want to play with.
The Bottom Line
Codenames is the only 15 minute game I can think of that satisfies so many people even after the fifth play in a row. Once you finish a game, it’s almost guaranteed that somebody will demand to play it again. It’s actually completely taken over multiple game nights for just that reason when it was intended to just be a filler game. It’s a must buy if you like word games and party games.
For Codenames, none of the rules are too confusing so instead I’m going to point out helpful tidbits that often get lost when teaching new people. The game falls prey to too many house rules and varieties sometimes so if you want to play the legit rules, here’s a couple things I hadn’t been taught the first few times.
Using 0 for a clue: On page 7 of the rules, “You are allowed to use 0 as the number part of your clue. For example, feathers: 0 means, “None of our words relate to feathers .” If 0 is the number, the usual limit on guesses does not apply. Field operatives can guess as many words as they want. They still must guess at least one word.”
This seems like an extremely handy little rule that I think everyone should get taught.
Proper Names: On page 7 of the rules, “Proper names are always valid clues if they follow the other rules. George is a valid clue, but you might want to specify whether you mean George Washington or George W. Bush . Your group can agree to count proper names as one word. This would also allow titles such as The Three Musketeers . Even if you don’t allow multiword proper names, you might want to make an exception for place names like New York.”
Being able to use multiple word proper names for places or titles is a huge game changer, so decide on how you want to handle these situations before play starts.
Clues on the Table: On page 4 of the rules, “Your clue cannot be any of the codenames visible on the table. On later turns, some codenames will be covered up, so a clue that is not legal now might be legal later. ”
Meaning of the Word: On page 6 of the rules, “Your clue must be about the meaning of the words. You can’t use your clue to talk about the letters in a word or its position on the table. Gland is not a valid clue for ENGLAND. You can’t tie BUG, BED, and BOW together with a clue like b: 3 nor with a clue like three: 3 . However … Letters and numbers are valid clues, as long as they refer to meanings. You can use X: 1 as a clue for RAY. You can use eight: 3 as a clue for BALL, FIGURE, and OCTOPUS.”