The secret-agent/password-inspired party game that Matt Colville is obsessed with and you should be too.
Players: 2 – 8 Best with: 4 – 6
Age: 10+ GN Age: Pre-Teen
Game Type: Party Time: 15 minutes
Publisher/Year: Czech Games Edition – 2016
Game Play: Word Guessing
Score: out of 12
It is amazing that such a fun game can come from such a simple idea. The guessing of a secret word is a party game staple. Password, Pictionary, Guesstures, and even Charades and Hangman all use this idea. But Codenames takes this even further.
Instead of keeping the answers hidden, now all the answers are shown, but it doesn’t make any of this easier. The answers are laid out in a 5×5 grid giving the guessers 25 words to choose from. Two teams compete to correctly guess their group of words before the other team. Oh, and try to avoid the assassin.
The premise of the game is as simple as it is irrelevant. You play as a member of a super- secret spy ring. You are either the Spymaster, who gives the clues, or you can be the field operative, who guesses the answers and tries to contact the other spies. These spies are so secret that no uses their real name, they use Codenames. The Spymaster knows these Codenames but he can’t use them. He can only hint at the Codename through one-word clues.
Once the grid is setup, a special Key card is used by the Spymasters. This key divides the grid into 4 groups: red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and the assassin. The colors on the keycard correspond to the 5×5 grid of Codenames. The trick for the Spymaster is to give a clue that reveals one of their agents but avoids the other team, the innocent bystanders, and the assassin. If your team guesses a bystander then your turn ends, a guess for the other team helps them win and ends your turn, and picking the assassin causes you to lose the game immediately.
In the example above Blue has the Codenames London, Turkey, and India. A clue of “country” or “place” would be perfect, except that the Red team also has Codewords that fit the clue; England, France, and New York. In addition, “Egypt” is an innocent bystander, and worse, “Greece” is the assassin. Therefore, avoid any clues that refer to places, countries, or Europe.
The real challenge comes when you’re trying to jump ahead by giving a clue that refers to more than one Codename. After the clue, a number is given, signifying the number of Codenames the clue pertains to. For example, the clue “Media, 2” could refer to “Novel” and “Film”. However, the clue “Astronaut, 2” might get the player to respond with “Moon” and “Suit”, but he’ll probably give the incorrect answer “Space”, and end your turn.
And that’s when the fun really begins. After the clue is given, your teammates have to decipher what you meant by your obscure reference. The Spymaster sits silently while the others debate. You will inevitably realize that your brilliant clue can also apply to a word for the other team or a bystander or both. You will anguish when you realize the players are leaning toward the wrong word. You will be bewildered when they pick a word out of left field but happens to be a lucky, random guess.
Back and forth it goes, until one team has discovered all their Codenames or someone triggers the assassin and everybody dies. Figuratively, of course.
Codenames is great game. The game won the 2016 Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) and with good reason. Easy to setup and understand, fast and fun to play. Perfect for adults, teens, pre-teens, and, of course, families playing together.
The game is listed for ages 10+ and this is spot on in its recommendation. We bought this game a year ago. James was 9 at the time and he did not enjoy it. He could only create clues for one word at a time and this frustrated him immensely. What a difference 6 months makes. Now James loves the game. His decoding and clue-giving ability has vastly improved. When we tested the game for this review, James’ team won 3 out of 4 games. This year, I think this game will end up even higher on our Top 20 list.
One last note about Codenames; you will never play the same game twice. In fact, in all of the games ever played by everybody for eternity, no two games will ever be exactly the same. Ever. There are 400 Codenames on 200 cards with 40 key cards, each with 4 possible orientations. This adds up to trillions and trillions off games. I won’t bore you with the math but the formula is: 200! / (25! x 175!) x 2^25 = 3.1914 x 10^50.
That’s 319,140,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 games! If you could play a game every second until the end of time it would only take you 10,119,863,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. Despite all this, I could still use some more expansion packs.
By the way, here’s the common link to all those Codenames:
, James Bond. Every word refers to the title of a James Bond movie, one of the exotic locales he’s visited, or about the man himself. I also just realized that this is our seventh review. With the way I organize my files, this got saved as: 007 Codenames. Pretty cool. Now I gotta go watch a Bond film. Any suggestions?
P.S. To Matt Colville, I hope you don’t mind me throwing your name (and link) in my slugline. I’m a big fan, and I liked throwing out a real name as if everyone should already know who you are. Which they should. Peace. Out.
As always, I prefer my dice shaken, not stirred, and Game On!
This is a game I can’t afford to play – James Bond in “The World is Not Enough”