Codenames: A four-sided game review

CodenamesCodenames* is a party game for two (or four to get the full competitive experience) to eight players which mixes deduction and word game elements into a spy-themed team game. You can even go more, to 10 or 12, with the right group.

Published by Czech Games Edition and designed by the highly respected Vlaada Chvátil (Through the Ages, Tash-Kalar), it attained ‘number 1 party game’ status in the Board Game Geek ratings just a few months after its release – no mean feat.

Better still it retails at less than £15, which is pretty good value. You’ll find 200 double-sided codename cards, equating to 400 words (you use a random selection of 25 per game which interact differently each time). There are also 25 cardboard agent cards, 40 square key cards (with a standee) and a sand timer.

(NOTE: There is also a version of the game that uses picture cards instead of words. You can find my review of Codenames: Pictures here).

Component quality isn’t really an issue here, as it’s all about the gameplay. However what you’ll find is of average quality and I found nothing to complain about. Playtime is listed at 15 minutes, but it can go WAY longer than that depending on whether you bother with the game’s sand timer. But more on that later…


Codenames setupAs you’d expect from a party game, the rules are pretty simple – and as Codenames is a team game, as long as one person knows what they’re doing it is easy to cover any rules queries as you play.

Once the game is set up, it’s time to decide who will be the two spymasters. These players will be devising the clues while their team mates will be trying to deduce the words they’re hinting at, so it makes sense to find your spymasters before you split into teams. Not everyone wants the job, so if you split into teams first you may have a reluctant spymaster when a couple of the people on the other team would’ve taken the job.

The two spymasters sit together at one end of the table, so that only they can see the keycard. This tells them which of the words in the 5×5 grid relate to their own spies – and which are either their opponent’s spies, innocent bystanders, or the assassin. The spymaster whose team successfully identifies all of their own spies first is the winner.

Codenames key cardTo do this a spymaster will identify which words are theirs and then try to find connections between those words; but importantly, connections that couldn’t lead their team mates to think of other words also in the grid – especially the assassin.

You then say the connecting word, followed by a number: this tells your team how many of your words relate to the clue and gives them that many guesses (plus one – more on that later) to identify them.

For example, if two of your words were ‘angel’ and ‘god’ you could give the clue ‘holy, two’ – but if one of the other cards said ‘sacrifice’ you could be in trouble. If your team guesses wrong your turn is over – and if they pick the assassin you automatically lose. Otherwise you keep going until one team identifies all of their words, with the guessed words being covered up as you go.

The four sides

Codenames cardsThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Having the spymaster of each team sitting together is a stroke of genius. It means spymasters can make their own rules decisions. There are some grey areas in what can and can’t be used as clues, but you can discuss this and make your minds up with too much rule lawyering required.
  • The thinker: I hate to rush any game, so the Codenames sand timer stays firmly in the box for our group. Sure games are longer, but like a good crossword the mind needs to cogitate when you are faced with finding connections between a possible nine words! I also appreciate the attention to detail here: signs of a well tested game, such as putting each word backwards on the cards so everyone can read them, and giving the start player an extra word to solve to balance their advantage.
  • The trasher: Ignore the thinker! Without the sand timer, boy can this game drag. But at the same time, either way, having a poor spymaster can make for a really dull game – you can just end up with a string of “something, one” questions that are super easy and the game goes nowhere fast. We house-ruled that until you have half of your spies you have to say at least two and we use the sand timer. It can make for some hilarious and short games but this is meant to be a party game right?
  • The dabbler: While Codenames is a great party game, like many others it needs to be played with the right people and in the right spirit – as always, you have to fit your game choice to your audience. It’s easy to cheat my accident (facial expressions etc) and any game with teams can end in arguments – especially when a spymaster makes a booboo and misses an obvious wrong answer that throws a cat amongst their team’s pigeons. It’s also not great with uneven teams – especially five, which means one team has a single guesser and the other team has two. But when it all gels, this really is one of the great party games.

Key observations

Codenames in playIt may sound obvious, but when a game has this much hype it bears reminding people that – at its core – Codenames is a word-based guessing game: if you don’t like them at all you’re unlikely to have this convert you to the genre.

Elsewhere, others point out this isn’t a ‘party game’ in the classic sense – it can be entertaining and anyone can play it, but it’s unlikely to have them rolling in the isles and it’s anything but boisterous. As a word association game, it adds a clever twist to the team guessing game genre and enough gamery elements to be good fun – but it is no way game-changing or genre defining. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great game.

It also needs reiterating that many people will not enjoy being the spymaster – clue-giving is stressful and difficult and can cause the hugest AP possible in the wrong players. This can really spoil the game, so whatever you do don’t make people do it – and try to get experienced players to go first if others haven’t played it, so they can see what they’re in for before they decide if they want to give it a go themselves.

Less forgiving commentators say this wouldn’t have been given a second glance by many if it hadn’t had Vlaada’s name on the box and that it simply won’t stand the test of time as it lacks variety. I don’t think the first point matters – many more people are enjoying the game than not, if the ratings are to be believed, so who cares? That just sounds like sour grapes to me. And as for standing the test of time, I guess time will tell…


Codenames extraI have very much enjoyed my plays of Codenames to date and am definitely in the positive camp – but with the caveats mentioned above.

It is a good word game for teams, so you need the right crowd – but isn’t that true of any game?

And it can run long (and painfully) if the wrong people are asking the questions, so you need to be sure to set your teams up right – but again, this is pretty much the same for any team party game. Some people simply hate certain situations and it’s no fun for anyone involved (except idiots who like laughing at other people’s suffering) if you thrust them into them.

But if you’re in the market for a teams word game for up to 10 people – perhaps for the office do, with Christmas party organising fast approaching – then this is a great addition to the cannon at the more intellectual end of the party game spectrum.

See also: Codenames Pictures and Codenames Duet

* I would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing a copy of the game for review.

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