A to Z Gaming: Codenames

We made contact with our spy colleagues in Codenames – the next game in our A-Z game shelf play-through.

Basic Info: Codenames
Players: 2-8
Time: 15 Minutes
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Artist: Stéphane Gantiez, Tomáš Kučerovský
Publisher: Czech Games Edition



In Codenames, two teams of spymasters attempt to make contact with as many of their agents as possible before the other team contacts all of their agents. Innocent bystanders can get in the way, while the assassin will instantly end your mission.

The game starts with a five-by-five array of cards, which each have a word on them. The cards/words represent people – spies, bystanders and the assassin. Each team has a spymaster who knows which words/cards represent spies for their team, which ones represent the other team, which ones are innocent bystanders, and which one is the assassin.

On each turn, the spymaster gives their team a one-word clue and a number. The word should tie together some of the words representing their spies while not leading the team to the other team’s spies, bystanders, or the assassin. The number is the number of cards that the clue is intended to tie together. Beyond this, the spymaster is not to speak.

The team then discusses which words they think the spymaster is trying to lead them to. Eventually, a member of the team needs to touch one of the cards to see if that one is their spy. The spymaster then covers that card with cardboard card that shows either a spy of their team’s color, a spy of the other team’s color, a bystander, or the assassin. If the guessed word represents spy of that team’s color, the team can guess again, regardless of whether that word was one that the spymaster had intended. Assuming they continue to guess words that represent their own spies, the team can guess up to the number of times the spymaster identified plus one. If the guess was incorrect, the other team gets their turn…unless the incorrect guess was the assassin, in which case the team that guess the assassin loses.

The 2-player and 3-player game is played cooperatively. One player is the spymaster, the others guess. After each turn, the spymaster covers one of the other team’s spies, then proceeds to give another clue. Play proceeds until either you’ve made contact with all of your spies, the other team’s spies have all been identified, or the assassin is uncovered.

We’ve only gotten this to the table a few times – usually with just two or three of us, though a couple times with another couple. I suspect it needs more players than we’ve typically played with.

Party games aren’t usually my thing, but I do like the word-game aspect of this one. And I enjoy being the spymaster, trying to figure out the right clue to tie together as many of your agents/words as possible. However, you need to know your team to do this effectively – are they going to know sports references? or scifi references? will they make the leap to some random pop-culture reference?

But I’ll concede that I likely haven’t given this game a fair shake – we need to get it out with a larger group of people to see it in its full glory.

How is it as a 2-player game?  This isn’t great as a 2-player game. One key to the game is for the spymaster to hear the conversation between team members to see what they are thinking when they pick specific words. This gives the spymaster a chance to course-correct for future clues. You can do this in a 2-player game, but with more players, the conversation pretty much *has* to happen.

There’s a 2-player version of the game released (Codenames Duet), but from what I’ve found about it, I don’t think it’s functionally any different in its game play.

How about the art and component quality? The card quality is okay. They’re a little small in size for shuffling, and there are so many in the deck that it makes hard to shuffle. But that’s a nit-pick – you want lots of cards to increase the game’s replay value. The cards are printed so that the words can be read from either side, but I always find myself reading the “bigger” version of the word, whether or not its right side up for me. The art on the spy, assassin, and bystander cards is good – I especially like the confused-looking bystanders.

Will this stay in my collection? For now, yes. Though, I’d like to get it out with a larger group to see how I like it with more people. If we’re likely to stick with smaller player counts, I’m not sure it needs to stay in the collection.


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