#30 – Codenames

Codenames 001

Base price: $20
2+ players
Play time: 15+ minutes per round
BGG Link
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)

I do really enjoy a good word game, and given that I’ve only covered Anomia and Paperback, I imagine another word game review couldn’t hurt. Codenames is more in the Anomia camp, which is to say a word game and a party game, but it’s got the lucky honor of near-universal acclaim (currently), occupying the #1 party game spot on BoardGameGeek (as of when I wrote this).

At its core, Codenames is a game of two rival Spymasters, each trying to help their team contact all of their operatives in the field. However, not everyone in the field is a spy (as some random bystanders have codenames, for some unknowable reason), and one is, well, an Assassin who will kill you so hard, you’ll die to death. Which is, pretty extreme.

Anyways.

Contents

Setup

So, you’ll notice that you have a few different things in the boxes.

Codenames 003

You’ve got a bunch of cards with words on them, which are double-sided. Take those, shuffle them a bit, and set them aside for now.

Codenames 005

Next, you’ll notice a bunch of thicker “cards”. Some are blue, some are red, some are grey, and one is black. These are the Agent cards. There should be 8 blues, 8 reds, 7 bystanders, 1 assassin, and 1 double agent (red on one side, blue on the other). Set these aside as well.

Codenames 006

Finally, you’ll have some key cards. These are for telling the Spymasters which cards belong to which team members. Shuffle the deck and set it aside as well. You’ll notice on a key card that there are four lights (or five) around the edges, either blue or red. If that’s the key card used, then that team goes first and will take the double agent card and add it to their pile. This means that if Blue goes first, they have nine agents to contact, rather than eight.

So, now that you’ve done all that, choose two players to be the Spymasters, and they’ll sit on one side of the table next to each other. Then set out twenty-five of the word cards (with the bold text facing away from the Spymasters), and put the Agent cards and the key card on the other side so that the key card faces the Spymasters (since it’s supposed to be a secret). Your table should look something like this:

Codenames 007

Now let’s go over Gameplay.

Gameplay

Alright, so, how does Codenames play? Well, it’s pretty simple. Each turn, your Spymaster gives a clue like so:

“{$WORD}: {$NUMBER}”.

This could be “trees: 3” or “vague: 8”, but should usually be at least “{$WORD}: 2”, otherwise it’s kind of boring. Bonus points if you can give a clue that works for four or more words. Now, your guessing team can discuss your clue and try to figure out which cards you’re referring to. Then, they can touch a card to guess that card. Once they’ve guessed a card, here are the various options that could happen:

  • They touch the Assassin. Place the Assassin agent card on the word. You and your team lose the game. Cannot recommend.
  • They touch an Innocent Bystander. Place an Innocent Bystander agent card on the word. Your team cannot make any additional guesses, and it is now the other team’s turn.
  • They touch one of the other team’s agent. The other Spymaster places one of their agent cards on the word. Your team cannot make any additional guesses, and it is now the other team’s turn.
  • They touch one of your agents. Place one of your agent cards on the word. Your team may guess again. Note that they may only guess up to the number you specified in your clue, plus 1. You may not give any additional clues.

Note that you must make at least one guess, but you are permitted to stop at any time. This is good if you’re trying to avoid guessing the Assassin by mistake, or if you’re a wuss.

There are also a few rules about valid clues that can be given, as well as other cues:

  • Clues must be about the meaning of the word. This means that you shouldn’t give clues like “top: 4” if you mean the entire top row of the board. Also, it’s kind of unclear if you mean top from your perspective or theirs, so that might not be the best move. It also generally means that you should avoid rhyming clues (unless the rhyme is like “snail” for “mail”, which is a common phrase), but that’s house-rule-able.
  • One word, one number. Note that there are some exceptions to this, but it depends on your group. You might allow “George Clooney”, since George Clooney and Curious George might suggest different clues, so George might not be specific enough. You might also allow things like “gas station” or “well-traveled”. It’s up to you, but my group only allows two-word names as an exception to this rule.
  • Don’t leak information. If you’re trying to play within the spirit of the game, don’t say “alright, this one might be a bit difficult.” Better yet, say only one word and one number. Also don’t give away that you were surprised that they guessed a certain word, especially if they guess an unexpected word based off of your clue. This all tells your team what to expect and not expect, which is technically against the rules. You can always explain your thought process after the game ends.
  • You cannot use any form of a word that’s currently revealed on the table. If HORSESHOE is currently on the table, you can’t say HORSE, HORSES, or even SNOWSHOE. You might be able to say HOARSE, but you might get some serious side-eye from the other Spymaster. Depends a lot on the rules. You can specifically use ROW if SPARROW is on the board, though, because that’s not a compound word.
  • You CAN spell words rather than saying them. Note that this is only really useful if you’ve got like ARROW and THEATER on the board, and you give the clue B-O-W: 2. It’s clever, and people always respect clever people. For certain. That’s another clue that might get house-ruled out.
  • Unless otherwise house-ruled, you must play in English. If you want to play in Spanish or Korean to boost your vocabulary, I actually … totally respect that. Just make sure everyone’s cool with it, and don’t use like, casa if you’re trying to give a clue for the word HOUSE.
  • If your clue is invalid, the other Spymaster can challenge it and you’ll lose your turn. Don’t try to be too clever, I suppose. Or a jerk.
  • You CAN give “0” and “unlimited” as numbers, at your own peril. If you give a clue like “water: 0”, this means that you are asserting that literally none of your words have anything to do with water, which can be dangerous. However, your team is not bounded with a limit on how many guesses they can make, which is pretty nice. Unlimited works the same way, though your team now doesn’t know how many words you think relate to the clue and they can guess as many as they want.
  • In general, just be fair. You can always ask the other Spymaster if they think a clue is valid.

If players are struggling with either giving clues or making guesses, there’s also a sand timer if you want to be a hardass. I highly recommend it if there are more than four players, otherwise you might be there all night. If you are going to use the sand timer, at least give the first Spymaster as much time as possible because going first is difficult.

The game ends when one team gets all their agents covered with their agent cards. If you want to play again, just flip all the cards over! So easy.

This game IS playable with two and three, but the rules change just a little bit:

Two-Player Variant

In this mode, there’s only one Spymaster and one guesser, and every turn the Spymaster covers one of the other team’s agent cards (their choice!). Your endgame score is how many cards on the other team were left when you finished.

Three-Player Variant

You can just play the two-player variant with two guessers, or you can have two Spymasters and one guesser on both teams. (Congratulations, guesser! You win by default. Unless you pick the Assassin, I guess?) Either one works.

Now, let’s talk strategy.

Strategy

Since the roles are so different, I’m going to split my strategy into Guesser and Spymaster strategies. Except for two.

  • Know. Your. Group. If you’re playing with an unfamiliar group, the difficulty of this game spikes pretty considerably. A lot of this game (both as Guesser and Spymaster) is about understanding / communicating intent (“why would they give that clue?”). Also.
  • Read the board. I’ve seen so many teams get stymied because they didn’t actually read all the cards before the Spymaster gave a clue or before the team started guessing words. Do yourself a favor and read every card before you do anything.

Guesser

  • Try to spend some time thinking through the other team’s clues. If you can figure out what the other Spymaster is hinting at, you know certain words to avoid. That’s pretty helpful.
  • Safer bets are better than riskier ones, in my opinion. If someone’s given you the clue “trees: 5”, you’re much better off guessing LEAF, ROOT, GREEN than you are guessing MAP or DECISION (heh).
  • If you’re genuinely not sure, it’s okay to stop. You only have to guess at least once, but you can stop at any time. Better to be conservative than to guess the Assassin, but it’s okay to be a bit enterprising if you think you know what the cards might be.
  • Remember previous clues. If you messed up a previous one, the clue may not have been invalidated by subsequent guesses. So you might be able to get those clues right on later turns, allowing you to recover from your mistake.

Spymaster

  • Avoid the Assassin at all costs. You really don’t want to risk your guesser picking the Assassin, so just treat that as an effective dead zone. Basically none of your clues should even suggest that the Assassin card is a potential option, otherwise you run the risk of instantly losing. Sometimes the card is a random one (LEPRECHAUN), which is helpful, other times it means you can’t use the “water: 5” clue you were REALLY holding on to.
  • Puns are great. It can really help your team if you can string multiple clues together, so using a word that might be a clever pun on some other words might be a good way to go.
  • Try to remember what your guessers plausibly know. If you’ve got a ton of knowledge in X area that your guessers might not (for instance, if you think “trees: 5” is a valid clue for GREEN, SPRING, LEAF, STACK, and MAP), you may not want to try your luck with the last two. It’s similar to Taboo in that sense — the better you know your guesser, the more easily you’re able to link together valid clues.
  • It’s usually worth it to go for a reach. Sure, the clue “underwater: 5” might not get you all of “CHEST”, “PIPE”, “SHARK”, “RUIN”, and “OCEAN”, but it’s not like you’re going to have your partner guess “BUFFALO”. That would be idiotic. But if they DO guess all five clues, then you’re more than halfway done! Just make sure you avoid the Assassin. Can’t stress that enough.
  • Avoid helping your opponent. If you see that one of your clue words is related to the other team’s words, try not to cover that one until later. That way, you limit the other Spymaster’s potential options or possibly get a free point for your team if the other team guesses it.
  • It gets a bit easier to give clues as words get covered. This might seem obvious, but if, say, 20 / 25 words are covered and three of the remaining ones are your team’s (which, oof, tough game), you have pretty good odds that even randomly, a player is going to guess one of your words.
  • If the other team only has one “turn” left, you might as well go for broke. I have seen a team win in one turn because they got a “{$WORD}: UNLIMITED” clue and managed to guess all six remaining clues in one round. The other team only had one word left on the table, so naturally they were a bit surprised that they lost.

Now, pros and cons.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • Easy to learn. I mean, seriously, it’s just “Give a one word clue” or “given a one word clue, guess the correct matching words.” It’s not terribly complicated.
  • Scales well. Gameplay doesn’t change that much between four and eight+ players, and it feels pretty solid at any level. That’s always nice. It’s also interesting because I wouldn’t say the game gets easier with more guessers — you’re just as likely to get talked into the right choice as out of the right choice, from my experience.
  • Fun. I love word games. Personally, I’d rather be the Spymaster, but I like the challenge of giving clues more than guessing.
  • Compact. This is not a difficult game to throw in a bag and take with you somewhere, and honestly it’s not even that difficult of a game to make yourself, if you’re looking for a print-and-play version.
  • Fast. This is not a time-consuming game, and you can often play a few rounds without an issue. It’s a nice game to play if you’ve got a bunch of people between games and you’re trying to think of the next game to play, or if you just want a break from headier games.
  • I like that the cards are double-sided. This makes a new game incredibly easy to start, as you can just flip the cards over and then have an entirely new board.
  • High replay value. Since the boards change every time and the specific cards belonging to each team change every time, it’s very easy to play wildly different games. That being said, when shuffling occasionally flip cards over so that you’re adding a bit more random to  your shuffle.

Mehs

  • The art isn’t particularly exciting. The box art isn’t like, moving in any particular way and the agent cards aren’t particularly impressive either. I mean, they’re well-made, but they’re not like, beautiful art, if that’s a fair critique.
  • You kind of need a ton of house rules, and they’re pretty inconsistent among game groups. For instance, the game is not a huge fan of using homophones / homonyms as clues (K?NIGHT: 3 for horse, sword, and sleep, or something), but allows you to house rule it as valid. That might not fly everywhere, so if you’re playing with a few different experienced groups you may have issues syncing up on what’s valid. When in doubt, ask the other Spymaster.

Cons

  • Some configurations are much more difficult for certain teams. That’s sort of the name of the game, but if the other team can do “water: 5” and you need to link together “BANANA”, “AIRPORT”, “CHEST”, “LEPRECHAUN” and whatever else, you might have some trouble. (Please comment if you can actually come up with a clue linking all four of those — I’d love to hear it.) It can feel a bit unbalanced in those cases. This also happens a lot more if you’re playing variants of the game (more on that below).

Overall: 8.5 / 10

Codenames 010

Overall, I’m a huge fan of this game. Currently won’t turn down a game, and expect that not to change for a while. It’s fun, expandable, and my friends seem to like it (even most of the ones who normally hate word games). It’s also a good party game since you can sit a few people on one end of the table and some Spymasters on the other and just mix and match teams until everyone’s pretty satisfied with the game. Like I said, I think it’s a pretty solid game, and probably a great suggestion for anyone’s collection if they’re looking to get a fun party game.

I’ve always wanted to try some variants, like, have multiple players each take selfies once a day for 25 days and then use those as the clue words and see what happens, or use board game boxes as the clue words (saw that on reddit the other day). That being said, lately I’ve been combining it with Dixit‘s cards and getting some really interesting games going…

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4 thoughts on “#30 – Codenames

    1. Totally! Absolutely fantastic game with a lot of staying power, party-game wise. Literally my only complaint is that the board / key card combos sometimes clearly favor one team over another.

      Liked by 1 person

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