Codenames – A game of finding spies
I was watching a sitcom about three fashionistas who live in New York. One of the scenes involved a girl who goes to a party and ends up having a great party night playing a board game. I wondered what the party game was and it turned out to be the Codenames board game! So is it a great party game? I wanted to find out.
In the Codenames game you and your team have a mission. You need to find your agents out in the field with only a one word clue to go by. You are against the clock and your opposing team! If they find all their agents before you all is lost. There are some innocent bystanders who could get in your way. You also need to avoid an assassin who is lurking somewhere. The Spymaster knows exactly where everyone is, you only have their codenames to go by!
I love that it’s very easy to learn and play. There are two teams, red and blue, who take each other on to try to guess words of their color. They need to avoid the clues that belong to the other team. And everyone wants to avoid the assassin card.
In the Codenames board game you get agent cards, key cards, and codename cards. The agent cards are either red or blue for either team. There is also one extra card, which is red on one side and blue on the other. This is for the team who goes first. There are also bystander cards, these don’t belong to either team. When a bystander card is chosen it ends the team’s turn. There’s also an assassin card, this is the one no one wants to pick as it ends the game for either team.
Key cards give the spymasters the key to figure out which codenames belong to their teams. Each maps out where on the grid the agents, bystanders and assassin are hiding. There is a little card stand that these key cards can sit in any direction. The key cards have a red or blue border which shows what team goes first.
There are also double sided codename cards. The codename appears so both the team and the spymasters can read them from either side of the table. You will also find a sand timer, which is optional to use. I like to use it to add some extra tension to the game.
Codenames Game Setup
A great party game for me is one that I can set up in a few minutes and can explain the rules to a ten year old at the same time! It should be one that you can play over and over again without coming across the same cards or words or characters. Codenames board game has it all when it comes to party games “playability”. Setup is easy, all you need to do is lay out a 5 x 5 grid of codename cards in the middle of the table. You have a key card for the spymasters. They put the three piles of the blue and red agent cards and bystander cards down and you’re ready to go. Except of course for the assassin card which you can place beside them.
There are two spymasters, one for each team. These are the team members who give out one word clues. They need to sit opposite their teams who need to guess the clues. The other players are called field-operatives. It works best if you split the teams evenly, both in numbers and ages if you are playing with kids. The spymasters look at the key card, which they need to keep hidden from the teams. This card is the key to where the agents have been placed. This card matches up the agents from both teams with their codenames. It also shows where the bystander’s and assassin’s codenames are. When everyone is ready, the team whose color appears on the border of the key card goes first. That spymaster needs to give a one word clue, as well as a number to show how many words they link with the clue.
For example, if there were two codenames on the grid showing cat and horse the spymaster might say “Animal – 2”. The team then looks at the cards and talks through which options might work. They need to guess one at a time. If they guess “Cat,” they have made a correct guess. Then the spymaster covers the codename with an agent card in their colour. They can guess up to the number which the spymaster has called out. They also get one extra guess per turn. This is optional and is up to the team whether they take the extra guess. If the team choose an option which has a beige square on the key card, the bystander card is placed on the codename. This means their turn is over.
On each board there is an assassin, landing on this codename needs to be avoided at all costs! The assassin is marked with an “X” on the key card. If either team guesses this codename, the game ends and that team who chose the assassin loses.
Spymasters are only allowed to give a clue and a number and then are to sit back by while the team comes to a decision. No extra hints or signals are allowed. This can be hard for the spymaster who has all the clues. Once a team decides on which card there are choosing, they point to the codename card. The spymaster covers the codename with a card. If it’s for their own team, they continue their turn. If the card is for the other team or a bystander then the turn will end. They handover to the other team. If you choose the assassin’s card then the game ends for both teams and the choosing team loses the game.
A team can stop guessing at any time. If the spymaster said the clue and the number three but the team could only figure out two of the clues, they could pass to the other team. They would know that there is another clue out there and might use it in another turn. The team which covers all its codenames first wins.
If you don’t have four players, there are rules for a two and three player game. The Codenames game plays much better with a bigger group. There is also another game called Codenames Duet for two player. This works much better when you want a game for two people. There is also a game called Codenames Pictures which uses pictures instead of words. This is loads of fun and can be easier for families too where there is no language barrier.
The Codenames game is all about finding common themes among the cards. Then finding a single clue that describes them. It’s not as easy as it seems and a good spymaster will be the difference between winning and losing! The team’s ability to work out the connections between the codenames and the clues is important too. A winning team will know when to keep guessing and when to stop early.
The Codenames game is a lot of fun for kids and adults alike, great for a party games night or a family night in! We highly recommend it for the quick and easy setup, simple set of rules and fun team interaction.
Codenames & Its Variants
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