Players: 2 – 8
Time: ~15 minutes
Times Played: 30+
I always marvel at how game designers think of the mechanics for the games that we play. I’ve played a few games where I sit back and just think, how did they think of this?! Codenames is a party deduction game from Vlaada Chvátil (also known for Through the Ages, Galaxy Trucker and Mage Knight, among others). I have played a few games that Chvátil has designed and enjoyed each one but I did not know what to expect from Codenames when I first encountered it, as it is vastly lighter than anything else I had played from the esteemed designer. I think it’s a smash hit.
Players are split into either a Red or Blue team with one active player acting as the Spymaster for the team and the other acting as the liaison out in the field, aka the Field Operative. Spymasters sit on one side of the table whereas Field Operatives sit across from them on the other side. In front of the players is a 5×5 grid of twenty-five cards, which represent possible Agents in the field. Each card is labeled with a word, which is printed in both directions so all players can easily view what is in front of them.
The Spymasters are given a key, which stands up and is only visible by the Spymasters.
Each key showcases the layout of the board with each space corresponding to one of the following: a Red Agent icon, a Blue Agent icon, a beige Innocent Bystander icon or one black Assassin ‘X’ icon. The Red and Blue Agent icons are the codenames of spies that the Spymaster is trying to relay to their teammate without leaking too much to the other team. You don’t want them to know who you’re trying to contact (thematically, that is).
The beige icon are Innocent Bystanders that just happen to be in the same vicinity of all of these operatives.
The black ‘X’ is the Assassin and if/when he is revealed, that team loses the game automatically. Each turn, Spymasters scan the board to try and think of a shared word that binds their keywords together before sharing said word with their Field Operative.
To give a clue, Spymasters can only give short, cryptic clues about what lies ahead of them. The clue must be a single word clue and they must follow that single word with a number that indicates how many of their agents relate to that clue. During this time, players must try not to give hints away with their eyes, facial expressions and any remarks.
Once a clue has been given, the Field Operative will point to one word at a time on the grid that they believe matches the clue they have been given. The Spymaster that gave the clue will then cover that code name with the corresponding card. If the Field Operative successfully made contact with one of their agents, they are able to try and make additional contact, one at a time, dependent on how many agents the Spymaster had previously indicated. If they make contact with an Agent card of the opposing team, that color is placed on the grid and the turn ends. If they make contact with an Innocent Bystander, one of the bewildered citizen cards is placed on the grid. Finally, if they make contact with the Assassin, they are retired from their spy career and the opposing team wins. Field Operatives can also make contact with one more additional Agent than hints were given if they were successful. This could be a blind guess (I advise against this) or could be made using information gained from a prior attempt (if you remember the hint). This manner of play continues until one team uncovers all of their Agents or one team is retired by the Assassin.
Codenames is brilliant. Whether you are a Spymaster and Field Operative, it brings an experience that is both uniquely frustrating and highly rewarding for both roles. As a Spymaster, you have to be aware of all twenty-five cards that are available on the table and you will wring your hands trying to think of the perfect word that will link your code names together. They will have to be aware of what the assassin is this round and if that word could be mistaken for any of their actual clues.
Field Operatives will fidget in their seat as they try to match the clue they were given to the codes in front of them. Depending on the relationship between the players, maybe something they used has a deeper meaning and relates to something else on the board. Or maybe it doesn’t because they don’t remember the 8th grade field trip as vividly as you do.
There’s so much spy lingo that has been used so far. Field Operatives, Spymasters, Agents, Assassin’s, etc. This is a game about being a spy and trying to slyly send information to your counterparts. Does Codenames make you feel like a spy? I would say that is a resounding no. And honestly? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make this game better or worse for what it is. The theme fits what the game is doing but if you go in thinking you’re going to be James Bond, you’re going to be disappointed. The silver lining though is that you don’t have to be James Bond to enjoy this game!
A major question that I have not answered yet is the following: How does Codenames play at the different player counts?
At two and three players, it feels less social and more intense as players spend time trying to think of the perfect combination. You’re basically playing to beat a high score as opposed to the enjoyment of the game. It is a great way to learn however (not that this game has a steep learning curve). One benefit of playing this way is that you can see in real-time (and without much judgement) what style of play you prefer. Are you trying to do something risky so you can uncover as many Agents as fast as possible or are you playing it safe so you can ensure there is no mix-up?
That being said, while it is nice that it can be played at the lower player counts, Codenames thrives with more. Playing at four is all well and good but being able to have six or eight players makes Codenames really comes alive as it thrives off that social aspect. That could mean doing a cooperative setting where you have two Field Operatives to one Spymaster (or vice-versa) and they can talk it out before choosing their Agent or that could mean splitting into several teams and hosting a round robin tournament between all the pairs.
However, it does become a catch-22 with more players as the downtime between turns can occur. For some people, this game can be stressful enough as their peers watch as they try and match a word to what is on the board. That can lead to some analysis paralysis and that may bog down the game. Codenames does come with a sand timer (which I highly recommend using after your introductory game) but not everyone would enjoy have such constrictions placed on their thought process. Not me but I do know some friends that we would not play this with just because a fifteen minute game should not take forty.
Regarding gameplay, the only thing that could hold a team back is a bad Spymaster. It can and will happen but the large variety of cards means players can usually link two items together. And since games are typically short, a bad Spymaster will have their misery ended early.
The last negative I want to say before I jump back on the Codenames bandwagon is that it might be too popular. It’s so simple and quick to learn and play that once you have the game down, you can speed through in ten to fifteen minutes. Which is great! Except that people will want to play again because they can do better this next time, they want to be the Spymaster this time, they want ‘X’ to be their partner or it is already set-up and ready to be played. Which are all good things, don’t get me wrong. But once you play anything seven times in a row, you start to stare longingly at the other games that sit on your shelves. To combat this, we usually make it a “Best of” tournament before we begin so we know when a concrete end game will happen. Now, if we are having a blast and want to keep going, we can always run it back but at least this grants us an out so I can convince people to play Chinatown again.
The single best part about Codenames is that it intentionally (I presume) has a catch-up mechanic for teams. If one team starts to pull away, it should only make things easier for the other team as there are now less words to string together in front of you. With the right hint, players could have a huge swing in the game and not only be right back in the thick of it, but actually in the lead or even victorious.
This is a game that will appeal to pretty much anyone. I have played this with people of all skill and age level. It may not be entirely enjoyable with someone who takes a long time to think about their turn, but that doesn’t mean they cannot play it.
Another bright spot for Codenames is that it is incredibly diverse and replayable due to the amount of pieces that come in the game. You receive forty key cards, which reveal the map of where your agents are and you receive 200 cards that are double-sided for your agents, which means that there are 400 unique words that can be used to play this game. I mean, without reusing a single Agent card, you could play this game sixteen times before you have to reshuffle. Sixteen times for a game that costs around twenty dollars (but can usually be found for less). That’s $1.25 a game.
Is Codenames one of my top ten games that I have played or that I own? No. However, I do think this is a clear nine out of ten game. It is so fundamentally sound and works well no matter the number of players. With my personal preference, I think Codenames definitely slots into that 11-15 range for me and I personally never have any issue playing this game or more importantly, getting this game to the table. It is also small and compact so perfect for bringing to other people’s houses or events or vacations. The replay value is astounding and does not stop at just what comes in the box either. Codenames is such a hit, that it has already spawned a slew of companion expansions and I see no reason for that practice to slow down. If it isn’t clear, I highly recommend that Codenames be included in any collection you hope to have.