Players: 4 or more
Game Length: 15 minutes
Best enjoyed: With 4 to 10 wordsmiths who want a quick-firing social game
Codenames is a quick-playing word association game for two teams that is quick to teach and exciting to play. It fills an excellent niche, being a game that rewards abstract thinking, supports large groups of any number and very quick to teach and play.
The game starts with a grid of 25 words and players divided into two teams, Red or Blue. One player on each team, the Spymasters, will have an answer key that shows which words correspond to which team, and these Spymasters are tasked with giving their team clues to identify the correct words, with the first team to identify all of their words declared the winner. Some words are Neutral, belonging to no player, and one word is the Assassin word – if either team ever accidentally guesses this word, they lose the game immediately.
To give clues, spymasters must state a single word and a number – such as ‘Metronome, 2’. This indicates that there are two words on the board that are somehow associated with the word ‘Metronome’. ‘Tick’ is definitely right, and maybe ‘Piano’… but what about ‘Flute’? The team will discuss (frequently heatedly) which words they think are correct, then start making guesses. After each guess, if they were correct they may guess again, until they have made one more guess than the Spymaster’s number (in this case, 3). If they guess incorrectly, their turn ends immediately and the opposite team’s Spymaster takes her turn. They don’t want to guess blindly, though – they may uncover their opponents’ words, or even the dreaded Assassin!
If you do make a few incorrect guesses during the opening turns, you’re not out of the game, though – on future turns, you may choose to guess at clues from previous turns, and the ability to guess one more clue than the number given by the Spymaster allows a team that’s fallen behind the chance to catch up, keeping the game exciting at all points.
Codenames‘ best features are its broad appeal and ability to work with large groups. There are a slew of excellent games that work well with smaller numbers, but once you start getting more than that many, finding an appropriate game becomes difficult. If a game’s rules are complex, explaining them to a large group can become such a chore that it ends up easier to not play the game at all, and overly simple games tend not to hold people’s interest for more than a handful of plays.
The first few turns of the game can be somewhat frustrating for the Spymasters – with 25 different words on the table, it can take a few minutes of silent pondering to chance upon the correct clue to safely identify one or two of your team’s words. This becomes easier as the game progresses, as words are eliminated and unsolved past clues start to pile up, but can cause the game to stall a little until players get used to identifying good clues.
It should be noted that Codenames requires all players to be fluent in English for the greatest effect; it revolves around clever word selection and fully understanding all possible definitions. If some players have difficulty with English, you may be better off pulling out a game with less language dependency.
Codenames is an excellent game that may be played with gamers and non-gamers alike. It makes a great filler game, with lots of opportunities for discussion and social interaction without outstaying its welcome. At the time of writing, it’s a little hard to get a hold of, but if you can, it’s well worth it!