I first came across Codenames on Watch it Played (I highly recommend this YouTube channel, by the way.) Only a few days later, I discovered a copy of the game at our local library. Thankfully, my family was with me at the time, so I roped them into playing with me for a few rounds. Believe it or not, we managed to complete three games in under 45 minutes. I was thrilled.
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Suggested Age: 12+
Number of Players: 2-10
Playing Time: 15 minutes
Codenames is a word-association game that divides players into two teams: blue versus red. During the setup phase, twenty-five words will be randomly chosen to form a 5 x 5 grid, and one color-coded key card will also be selected. Each card game corresponds to either a blue agent, a red agent, an innocent bystander, or the assassin. So using the arrangement shown below as an example: BOLT would be a red agent, PRINCESS would be a blue agent, BUG would be a bystander, GREECE would be the assassin, etc.
The object of the game is to find all the words that match your team’s color before the other team finds all their words. However, only the two designated Spymasters (one player from each team) can see the key card. Spymasters will give one-word clues that should relate to one or several words on the table. Their teammates will then make guesses, one at a time.
If you’re playing as Spymaster, there’s a decent amount of pressure on you to give good clues. Not only are you trying to give a one-word hint regarding a specific word(s) on the board, but you also need to make sure that none of the other team’s words relate to your clue. (And if that wasn’t difficult enough – if your team guesses the assassin, then you automatically lose!) For instance, if I was the Spymaster for the blue team and I wanted them to guess the words, CALF and EAGLE, I might not want to give the clue, animal, because the red team has BARK and MAMMOTH.
When you play this game, it’s important to remember that the Spymaster is not permitted to give any facial, physical, or vocal clues. This is especially difficult for some people! I’ve played many games in which team members were discussing possible guesses and the Spymaster would give a visible reaction upon realizing he had inadvertently given them a bad clue.
What I Like
This game plays incredibly fast. I’ve played Codenames at least a couple dozen times and the longest game lasted 30 minutes (and that’s considered a long game). Sure, sometimes the Spymaster will need extra time in order to give a good clue, but remember that this can sometimes result in 2, 3 or even 4 correctly guessed words. And since each team needs to only make 8 or 9 correct guesses (based on which team goes first), the game can end in as short as 10-15 minutes! I’ve also played lots of games that ended prematurely because the assassin was guessed, and then both teams would almost always want to play again.
This game is highly replayable. Not only does the game include 200 double-side word cards, but the game also includes 40 keys cards (each of which can be oriented 4 different ways) for the Spymasters. That means the possible combinations of game setups are practically endless. If I’m playing my second or third game of the night, I’ll often just flip over some of the word cards and then grab a new key card for the Spymasters.
It’s a highly interactive party game. This game works really well if there are lots of players, because then you can get multiple opinions on every clue. I’ve played several rounds of Codenames where everyone was so excited that they were talking throughout the entire game. Don’t be surprised if you hear your teammates (or even your opponents) constantly ask, “What if he meant this word?” or “What if she meant that word?
What I Dislike
There may be brief periods of absolute silence during the game. This is especially common in groups that aren’t super talkative. Usually this happens when everyone is waiting for Spymaster to give his or her clue. To be fair, the Spymasters have the toughest task, so it’s important that they are given ample time to come up with an suitable clue.
Solution: Use the timer that comes with the box to limit how long the Spymaster is allowed to think up a clue. (According to the rules, it’s an optional game component that can be used for any player who’s taking a long time to think.) There’s also a timer app you can download for your phone.
The words on the word cards are different sizes. Regardless of whether I’m the Spymaster or on the guessing side, I find that it’s much easier to read the side with the words printed in larger font (on the white background). Maybe it’s just me, but when I’m scanning through the 5 x 5 grid of words, I find the smaller, italicized words much more difficult to read. To be fair, this really is a minor problem, but it’s worth noting that other people I’ve played with have also pointed that this bugs them, too.
Solution: When setting up the game, have the Spymasters sit on the side with the larger font facing them. Or arrange it the other way, if the guessing players are having problems reading the words.
Codenames is one of those games you should play when you’re with a fairly large group of people. Though this game can be played with a smaller group, I’ve always had more fun when there’s been more players (like 8-10). Too few people and you lose some of the back-and-forth banter that often ensues when one team is trying to figure out which words to guess. Too many people and then you’ve got too many voices in the room (meaning the louder ones will dominate and the quieter ones won’t get much say in the decision making).
I also should add that this game plays extremely well in multi-generational groups. Last spring I played a game with players as young as 12 to players in their late 50’s. It’s very hard to find games that appeal to such a wide age range and Codenames happens to be one of them.
It’s easy to see why Codenames is considered the top party game (out of 400+ games) on Board Game Geek. This game is incredibly accessible, and it will appeal to both the competitive gamer and the non-gamer who just wants to have a good time. I especially appreciate that Codenames doesn’t require a lengthy time commitment. It’s also a game where people can join in or drop out at any point and you’re still going to have a great time. If you’re looking for a fast game that lots of people can play together, then I highly recommend you add this one to your collection.