Code Names

Codenames, from designer Vlaada Chvátil, has a weak theme, uninteresting name, and bland cover art.  Its rules are vague and occasionally causes arguments among players.  But it’s also one of the best party games ever created, and one of my personal favorite games of all time.


To play first you divide into 2 teams.  Each team chooses a spymaster; these two players need to sit next to each other.  Take 25 word cards and place them into a 5×5 grid.  The spymasters will draw a grid card that shows the locations of their team’s words.  On your teams turn, it is the spymasters goal to get their team members to pick out as many of their words as possible, without revealing words of the other team, neutrals words, or the assassin.  The spymaster will give a clue, like “Wood 2”, which means they want their team to connect 2 wood related words on the board.  Now their team must decide together what words to choose.  “Well one is obviously “tree”, but what is the other?  Could it be “door”?  They can be made of wood.  Or is it “bear”, because they live in woods?”  The number dictates the number of guesses they can take. Revealing a neutral or enemy card ends your turn. But if all their guesses are correct they make take a bonus guess.  This additional guess is often used to catch up on previous clues you got wrong, but can be used to make a wild guess.   The first team to reveal all of their clues are the winners.

An fresh board ready to play.

When going well the game keeps all players involved.  Every time a card is revealed, half of the table is going to be happy. While one team is trying to decide what words to choose, the other can taunt and try to confuse their opponents with bad suggestions.  The long gaps between your team’s turns gives your spymaster the opportunity to think of new clues, and the guessers time to re-consider missed clues.

Codenames requires some effort to work. There can be a lot of analysis paralysis for both the clue givers and receivers. Inexperienced spymasters may resort to giving 1 card clues so as not to be wrong.  This removes all strategy.  Occasionally it can even inject a large amount of randomness if your team decides to just go for it with their bonus guesses.  This particular strategy is easily countered by the other team just giving good multi-card clues. But up inexperienced spymasters are more likely to be paired up, and one may just copy the other. If experienced players can demonstrate the proper way to play it will help alleviate this problem.

The grid card, visible only to the spymasters of each team.  Shows what faction each card belongs to.

The rules for what constitutes a legal clue can be difficult.  The rulebook gives a few firm rules:  no using words on the cards, letters can be used as clues, and clues have to be related to the meaning, not spelling (can’t use clue “B: 3” to link “Bed, Bug, Bass”).  It also outlines a few optional rules, like the use of proper nouns, or abbreviations.  You could discuss what optional rules you want to use beforehand, but usually they get decided on during play. I’ve also found that in practice even the concrete rules quickly become up for discussion.

The open-endedness of the rules can feel like a bug.  Normally the goal of good game design and rules writing is to create and write them as tightly and unambiguously as possible.  But for Codenames it is a feature.  Some rules are needed to help stop abuse of clue giving. But if it’s too restrictive the game will become a chore to play.  For casual groups it works out well for the players to come up with their own house rules on the fly. It allows less experienced and younger gamers to stay involved.  If they are having a hard time thinking of clues, just let them have a 2-word clue.  For experienced gamers it allows them to argue over the rules, which can be fun in and of itself.  The lightness of the rules and quick rounds keep these arguments not being taken too seriously.  If someone accidentally uses a word on the board, we can give them a hard time for it, remind everyone not to do it again, but keep the game moving.

A game that is close to conclusion.

Codenames is an easy recommendation if you’re looking for a party game.  Its relatively easy to teach, features a flexible ruleset for novice, but depth of decisions for experienced gamers.   Everyone is able to participate at a level they feel comfortable with.  I’ve been gaming for about 6 years now, and this is the first game I finally brought to a family get-together with my non-gamer family.  The team based gameplay allowed some old sibling rivalries to be relived, and the conversation generating gameplay got non-game playing members to at poke their head over at the table.

There is also a version called Codenames: Pictures that replaces the words with strange images.  I like the version pretty much exactly as much as the word version.  But I still recommend the normal word version.   Combine it with a copy of Dixit or Mysterium and you can make your own Codenames: Pictures!

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