Codenames Board Game Review & Ultimate Guide

Taking the world by storm on its release in 2015, Codenames has become a stalwart at social gatherings and family occasions the world over. If you’ve not yet ridden that hype train, you may as well stop putting off the inevitable.

Brief Overview of Codenames

Codenames 6-Player Board Game

Codenames is a brain-teasing, word-based party game for four or more players. The aim is for one member of the team to help their compatriots guess the words on their keycard with a series of one-word clues. Whichever team manages to do so first wins.

It’s a deduction and word association game, essentially. And you’ve got to think outside of the box to win.

Watch out, though, because there’s an assassin on the prowl. Should you accidentally guess the wrong word, your team could wind up being on the inside of a box instead.

Codenames
  • For 2 8+ Players
  • 15 minute playing time
  • Age 14 and up

Versions & Expansions

Codenames Board Game Expansions

Codenames: Pictures

You guessed it. Codenames: Pictures is a lot like the original Codenames. However, this one has pictures. The agent cards aren’t quite as straightforward as in the original. Instead, the images are made up of a few different concepts, requiring a slightly different way of thinking.

Codenames: Pictures
  • Mechanics: words Association, deduction, team play
  • Theme: spies, agents, revealing secret identities
  • 2 to 8 or more players, ages 14 and up

Codenames: Deep Undercover

A saucy expansion to the original, this throws in a bunch of new word cards to the game. Although, it includes a few slightly ruder additions… not one for the kids.

Codenames: Deep Undercover
  • Manufacturer's Suggested Age: 18 Years and Up
  • Playing Time: 30 Minutes or Less
  • Number of Players: 2 or More Players

Codenames: XXL

I initially thought this would be simply adding in loads of new words to the original game. But it’s not. It is literally just an extra, extra-large version of the original. So, no new content. Just bigger cards for if you’re playing with larger groups or those of an older persuasion.

Codenames XXL
  • Larger Format Cards
  • Larger box with Insert for upcoming XXL Versions
  • Still fits on your game table

Other Expansions

Such is the fandom for Codenames, there are also a whole bunch of official franchise crossovers. Including Harry Potter, Marvel, Disney and The Simpsons (sadly, Steamed Clams will be deemed an invalid clue, as it is two words, not one).

Unboxing Codenames

Codenames Board Game

Before you open your box of Codenames, have you checked over your shoulder to make sure no one’s looking? Ok, good. This is what you’ll reveal:

  • 200 cards with 400 codenames
  • 16 agent cards in two colors
  • 1 double agent card
  • 7 innocent bystander cards
  • 1 assassin card
  • 40 key cards
  • 1 rulebook
  • 1 card stand
  • 1 timer

The core component, the cards, are pretty standard quality. Most versions I’ve seen out in the wild have gotten a little tatty after regular play at social occasions. But they tend to stand up ok even if they do become a little sticky or rough around the edges. If anything, though, it adds nicely to the ‘secret document’ feel.

Pleasingly, the codename cards are double-sided with different words on each side, which saves nicely on paper.

The rulebook deserves a mention, too. Which is really well written, meaning you can get going with your first game of Codenames straight off the bat.

One area that’s a bit disappointing is the artwork. Not a lot of love has gone into the aesthetics of Codenames. The graphics on the box could easily have been ripped from Windows 98 clipart. While, once you’ve got the game out on the table, it doesn’t get much better. There’s a lot of beige…

How to Play Codenames

Codenames Board Game

Setup

To begin, you need to split into two teams of at least two players each and decide who is blue and who is red. Teams then select a spymaster from their ranks. The spymasters for both teams should sit on the opposite side of the table to their teams (known as field operatives).

Next, layout 25 codename cards on the table in a five-by-five grid.

The spymasters then take one key card between them and put it on the stand without the field operatives seeing it (seriously, don’t let them see it). The key card is a colored grid that represents the codeword cards on the table. Some codewords on the key card are highlighted in red, which the red team must guess. Others are colored in blue, for the blue team to guess.

There’s also a codeword highlighted in black. This is called the assassin card, and must be avoided by both teams at all costs!

Your Objective

The goal for each team is to guess all their codewords before the opposing team manages to, using the clues given by their spymaster.

Giving Clues

The spymaster that’s going first surveys their team’s codewords and then tries to think of a one-word clue that could tip off their team as to what one or several of them are.

They say the clue out loud, followed by the number of words that their clue relates to (for example, “Blue, 4” or “Queen, 3”. Obviously, the more words that the clue relates to the better, as they want their team to guess them as quickly as possible.

The clue can’t be, or contain, any of the words on the table. If you’re the spymaster, you also must not say anything else that could help your team.

Making Guesses

Once the clue’s been given, it’s then up the spymaster’s team to try and work out the codewords it relates to. They can discuss as much as they like between them. Then, to make an official guess, a player must touch a codeword on the table.

There are four possible outcomes. The guessing team could:

  • correctly guess a codeword. If so, they place an agent card of their team’s color on top. They can then make another guess.
  • guess one of the opposing team’s codewords. In this instance, you place one of the opposing team’s cards on top. Obviously, this is not ideal!
  • guess an ‘innocent bystander’ card. In this instance, it is covered with an innocent bystander card, and the turn ends.
  • guess the assassin card. If this happens, it’s game over and the other team automatically wins!

The team can continue making as many guesses as they like, providing they continue to pick the right cards. They can even make more guesses than the spymaster said in their clue, as they can use previous clues to help them. Alternatively, if the team isn’t sure and doesn’t want to risk picking a wrong card, they can just choose to stop guessing and end their turn.

Once a team stops guessing or gets a guess wrong, the next team has a go, and so on.

Winning the game

 A team wins when they have covered all their words with their team’s agent cards. 

If you’re nearly there, though, be careful not to get carried away. Even on your last go you could still guess the assassin card and lose!

Your First Game of Codenames

Codenames Board Game

Ultimately, this is a party game. So remember, the real goal here is to have fun and enjoy each other’s company. As such, play Codenames at a relaxed pace and let people take a bit of time to think about the best clue. Codenames is at its most fun when everyone can share in a really strong clue that links multiple words together. Although, of course, it does need to maintain some flow.

Before playing, make sure everyone’s clear on what is and what isn’t a valid clue to avoid any arguments. The spirit of the game is to only give clues that relate to the meaning of the words on the card. So, for example, not saying anything to do with the positioning of the card in the grid or the letters that make it up.

Similarly, spymasters, try to avoid at all costs doing any strange faces or making noises that might give away how close your team is to the answers. Yes, this is a game about subversion and undercover agents, but no one likes a cheat.

Pros & Cons

Codenames Board Game

Pros:

  • Super-fun brainteaser
  • Collaborative party game

Cons:

  • Weak theme

It’s not all that easy to explain why Codenames is so good. It’s just word association, right? And yes, I suppose it is. But really, it’s so much more than that.

First off, thinking up a clue as the spymaster can be incredibly challenging, but it’s also super fun. Trying to figure out a link between three words as seemingly unrelated as ‘Opera’, ‘Maple’ and ‘Tick’ is really tough. But, once you find it, the feeling of satisfaction is hard to match. Even more so if you manage to find a clue that links in five or six words.

Of course, then it’s a matter of your teammates managing to guess them all. And this, too, can be enticing. Watching your friends come up with all sorts of theories as to why ‘Carrot’ could, in the most tenuous of ways, ever be linked to ‘Bond’ can be hilarious – if not wildly frustrating – to say the least. Not to mention the arguments that can ensue.

The added element of the assassin card really takes it over the edge, though. “How could you possibly think Tokyo was a clue for Mammoth??” you cry. But, the reality is that someone will always be able to find a link between any two things. That’s why it can be so tricky.

If I’m being picky, where the game doesn’t quite stand up is the theme, which is weakly layered throughout. I can see how guessing words based on clues can be a little espionage-like, but beyond that, it all seems a little crowbarred in. Referring to the blank squares on the key card as ‘innocent bystanders’, for example, is a little perplexing. While the assassin aspect is tenuous at best.

But then again, aren’t tenuous links the whole point of the game? All in all, this is absolutely no reason to put you off buying Codewords.

TL;DR

Codenames is a competitive party/family game for four to eight players. The game revolves around a number of keywords, which teams must guess from a series of one-word clues provided by their spymaster. However, they must be careful to avoid the assassin word.

It’s a fantastic, brain-teasing concept that can amusingly unpick how different people’s minds work. Perfect for a social group game.

Conclusion: Verdict?

Codenames is one of the best all-round family and party games out there. Like Scattergories, Apples to Apples and many others in the genre, the conversation and debate that springs from Codenames is almost more enjoyable than the game itself. The bizarre connections that people come up with, and the raucous debates that crop up as a result, will go down in history among friendship groups for years to come.

A fantastically simple-to-learn game, it’s perfect to whip out and get going quickly at a gathering of friends or family. It’s good fun for all involved, whether or not you’re the team guessing at the time.

If my feelings about Codewords hadn’t already become apparent, how about a clue? Here you go: “Nice, 1”.

Codenames
  • For 2 8+ Players
  • 15 minute playing time
  • Age 14 and up

Have you tried Codewords? We’d love to hear what you think! Drop a comment below and let us know.

Stats at a glance

Players: 2-8

Ages: 14 +

Easy

15 Mins

Publisher: Czech Games Edition

Published: 2014