Codenames is a party word game from designer Vlaada Chvátil released in 2015. It quickly gained popularity and climbed the ranks to become the highest rated party game on Board Game Geek. Players split into two teams, and each team’s Spymaster will try to use clever clues to get their team to guess their agents from a grid of words, while avoiding words belonging to the other team, and especially the deadly assassin.
Twenty-five random words are dealt into a 5×5 grid. The Spymaster for each team sits on one side of the playing area, while the rest of the players sit across from them. The Spymasters then draw a random key card that will show them which words belong to each team, as well as the location of the assassin. Additionally, there are “innocent bystanders” that do not belong to either team. The team that has one additional card to guess will get to go first. On their turn, a Spymaster gives a clue to their team that obeys the following rules:
- The clue can only contain a single word, and a single number.
- The word cannot be one of the cards in play.
- The number must represent how many cards the Spymaster is attempting to associate.
There are some additional constraints, such as clues needing to use the meanings of words (as opposed to rhyming or starting with the same letter), and the number must only reference the quantity of cards being linked, rather than being a clue in itself (i.e. 8 to guess octopus would be illegal). More advanced players can also use “0” as their number to indicate that NONE of the words fit that clue, or “infinity” to give their team no limit in their number of guesses, assuming they continue to guess correctly (could be useful if there are still cards from previous clues that have yet to be found).
Once a clue is given, the team is then able to make guesses, touching cards one at a time. When a card is touched, the Spymaster must (keeping a complete poker face) simply place a tile on that card that shows its true identity according to the key. If the team was correct, they can keep guessing, but can only make a total number of guesses equal to one more than the number in the Spymaster’s clue. If the team guesses an opponents card, it will be marked and play will pass to them, moving them one step closer to guessing all of their cards. Guessing an innocent bystander doesn’t have any negative effect outside of ending the team’s turn, but guessing the assassin means an instant loss of the game! Play continues back and forth until one team wins by guessing all of their cards, or if a team loses by guessing the assassin.
What Is It Like to Play?
Codenames is a very different experience depending on if you are playing the Spymaster or are simply one of the guessing members of the team. The Spymaster’s job is very challenging and cerebral, as they wrack their brain trying to come up with clues that link together their team’s words, while not hinting at any words belonging to the other team, and especially not the assassin. So often the Spymaster will feel that they came up with the perfect clue, only to realize that the assassin or a word for the other team can fit the clue as well. Here is an example of this using the layout from the previous picture:
“As the red Spymaster, the words remaining for my team are ‘disease,’ ‘trunk,’ ‘gold,’ ‘pool,’ ‘thief,’ and ‘horseshoe.’ Perhaps I think to use the clue ‘animal 2,’ hoping to link together ‘horseshoe’ and ‘trunk.’ Well that is going to be a problem because ‘worm’ and ‘crane’ are animals, and those are both cards for the blue team. Maybe instead I try to link ‘gold’ and ‘thief’ with a clue like ‘crime 2.’ Seems good, but ‘witch’ is the assassin… Do I feel confident enough that my team won’t guess ‘witch’ for ‘crime?'”
While the Spymasters are contemplating such things, the experience is completely different for their team members. Once a clue is given, it is a game of “did he mean this, or that?” The Spymaster has to sit there with a poker face while his or her team discusses their thoughts; flinching every time someone argues for an incorrect card, and wondering what they are thinking when they start to make really outside-of-the-box connections (this is assuming there are more than four players, the game is great with four but is a much more silent and intense experience). The guessers need to try and get inside the head of their Spymaster, and also remember any past clues that might point them in the right direction.
To put it simply, Codenames has a ridiculous amount of replay value. Every game, a new grid of twenty-five cards will be used from a supply of 200 total cards, all double-sided. Additionally, a new key will be used that will completely change which words belong to which teams. Each of the key cards can also be rotated in any one of four directions. While a lot of these changes may seem minor, they actually have a huge impact on how the game plays out. Clues that may work great in one situation may not work at all if the layout assigns a similar card to the other team. Maybe the game could run dry if people get tired of the mechanics themselves, but the game does its job of providing new and unique play spaces, and I personally have retained a high level of interest even after many (25+) plays.
The box lists the game as 2-8 players, but I think that is garbage. The variants included for two and three players really aren’t worth the time in my opinion, four or more players is where you can truly play the real game. With four players, as mentioned earlier, it is a very quiet and intellectual battle since there is only one guesser on each team. As you add more players, it adds an interesting dynamic of conversation within a team, as they discuss back and forth why they think one card or another is a better guess. Really, there is no hard limit on how many people you could throw on a team if you wanted to play with more than eight, but just realize that the discussion could get a little crazy and some players may feel left out if they have teammates that take control more.
For the Spymaster, there is the brainstorming of clues that you might find in a game like Time’s Up!, but it is really pretty different since Codenames is all about connecting words rather than giving clues for a specific answer. This kind of creative clue giving and the guessing that follows may be most similar to games like Dixit or Concept.
Setup time is really quick. Just deal out twenty-five cards, split into teams, pick Spymasters, and select a key to use for the game. It is worth mentioning that the beginning of the game usually starts with around five minutes of “thinking time” as each Spymaster tries to come up with their first clue. This is less of an issue the rest of the game because Spymasters can think of new clues while it is the other team’s turn. Also, Codenames is a game that often will get played multiple times in a row, with different players wanting to try the Spymaster role. Setup can be really quick for a second game because you can just flip all twenty-five cards in place since they are double-sided.
The constraints for clues and the overall strategy for clue-giving can be a little confusing to new players at first, but everyone will quickly pick it up once you play a couple turns. It also is worth emphasizing to new players that it is totally fine to use a “1” clue where you just try to get a single card, especially if your team is already ahead. It can be a little overwhelming to try and come up with clues from the entire board at the beginning of the game, but it gets easier over time as more and more cards get covered up. I do recommend that any experienced players play the role of the Spymaster first, so that new players have the opportunity to get a grasp of the game before moving into that position.
Things to Like
Usually, party games are synonymous with games that lack strategy and instead focus on social aspects and evoking laughter. Codenames comes as a welcome change of pace as a game that has the rules complexity, game length, and supported player count of a party game, while retaining a high level of interesting decision making. Of the party game genre, Codenames is certainly one of the best options for gamers who are looking for a little bit more depth.
While I tout the strategic depth as a strength of Codenames, that certainly isn’t what a lot of players are looking for in a party game. It would seem that it would make it more difficult to work with arbitrary groups of people that have a mix of experience levels in gaming. The saving grace is that really only the two Spymasters need to be up for the more heavy thinking. Anyone who does not prefer that kind of recreational thought can simply play as one of the guessing players and have a great time. This asymmetrical aspect of the player experiences allows strategic gamers to get their fill, while more casual gamers are satisfied as well.
Not much to say here, but it is a huge advantage that Codenames can play in twenty minutes or less. It can easily be played multiple times in a row, or fit within a small chunk of available time.
I already touched on this point in the FAQ section, but unlike some party games that have a limited amount of answers which will be repeated after enough plays, Codenames’s reliance on word associations and combinations give it virtually unlimited replay value without feeling like you are repeating content.
Things to Dislike
It is inevitable that from time to time a Spymaster will have a really difficult time coming up with a clue. As a result, the game can potentially stall for a chunk of time while everyone waits for the clue to be ready. This can be alright if everyone else is chatting and just enjoying socializing to fill the space, but there is the possibility that players get a little impatient during the downtime.
This is more of a player issue than an issue with the game itself, and it is really present in any game where players are coming up with clues for their partner or team. Since much of the game is about being on the same wavelength with the clues, it opens the door for players to blame others for not “getting it” or for giving a “stupid” clue. Again, this isn’t really a fault of Codenames, but some people tend to take things very personally in games where they have to creatively come up with their own clues, and it is worth acknowledging that those issues could emerge in this game.
Game Design Perspective
When I first played Codenames, I was blown away by how simple but unique the design was. Vlaada Chvátil has proven to be a very versatile designer, dabbling in a variety of genres; he has even done several other party games in Pictomania and Bunny Bunny Moose Moose. The driving force behind Codenames is really so simple: trying to make connections between various words, while avoiding including other words in the association. It is one of those things that is so straightforward, that it is shocking that no game had used the concept before. Party games in general are deceptively difficult to design because the ruleset is required to be so simple. Codenames strikes a sweet spot of meeting the criteria of simplicity in its rules, while providing a cerebral experience with interesting decisions that tend to be foreign to the genre.
Codenames’s rise in power to the number one ranked party game is well-deserved. It will be most loved by players who are looking for a little more thought in their party games, but at the low price point, I really consider it a must buy in any gamer’s collection.
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