Dale Yu: Review of Codenames



  • Designer: Vlaada Chvatil
  • Publisher: Czech Games Edition
  • Players: 2-8
  • Ages: 14+
  • Time: ~15 minutes
  • Times played: 5, both at Gathering of Friends with prototype set as well as with review copy provided by CGE at GenCon


In the past, I have marveled at the scope of different game designs that have come out of Mr. Chvatil’s mind, and Codenames adds yet another entry into his vast and varied ludography.  Codenames is a combination party game and wordplay game meant for larger groups; though there are some rules which allow for play with fewer.

The game is played between two teams: red and blue.  Each team is trying to identify the spies of their team first.  Each team designates a spymaster who will give the clues for their team while the rest of the team (the operatives) works together to answer those clues.  The spies are represented on cards, each with a single word (their codename) printed on it.  25 cards are chosen at random from the 200 double-sided cards and laid out in a 5×5 grid.

Some of the 5x5 grid cards

Some of the 5×5 grid cards

The two spymasters sit on the same side of the table.  They both get to view a key card which shows the identities of the cards based on their location in the 5×5 grid.  There will always be 9 cards for the color that gets to go first, 8 cards for the other color.  7 cards are neutral and belong to neither team, and there is always one single Assassin card.  There are cardboard tiles that can be used to cover up the cards on the board as they are identified.

Examples of the Red, Neutral and Blue spies

Examples of the Red, Neutral and Blue spies

Starting with the team whose color is shown on the outside edges of the key card, the spymasters take turns giving clues.  Each clue follows the same format: a single word followed by a number.  You may not use a word which is currently visible in the 5×5 grid (though you could use it if it had been covered previously in the round).  Once the clue is given, the regular spies on that team can confer to try to decide which cards the player was looking for.  For instance, if “wood”, “road”, and “sheep” were on the board, a clever clue might be “Settlers, 3”.

Once the clue is given, then the operatives discuss which cards they think are being referred to.  A decision is made once any of the operatives physically touches a card.  The spymaster then places the appropriate color tile (red, blue or beige for neutral) over that card.  If the operatives guess correctly, they may continue guessing. If they touch the opposite team member’s spy or a neutral spy, the turn ends.  Even worse, if they touch the single assassin – not only is their turn over but also they automatically lose the game.

example layout to start a game

example layout to start a game Pop quiz: What are your answers for A) Mario: 5 B) Yoga: 4 C) Apple: 4

The operatives must guess at least once after the clue.  Each time that they correctly answer, they may continue going if they wish.  They may, in fact, guess up to one more card than the clue.  Perhaps in my previous example, I had previously given “Dominion: 2”, and the team only felt confident about “copper”, and they stopped guessing.  While they are answering the Settlers, 3 clue – someone might figure out that “Village” would have also worked for the previous Dominion clue, and they could have chosen that card.  As they are allowed one more guess than the number in the clue, they could then return to picking words that go with Settlers.  In the end, it does not matter if you get an answer that pertains to the clue – it only matters that it is your color.

The other team then takes their turn following the same pattern.  The game ends when either side identifies all of their spies (again, 9 for the team that goes first, 8 for the team that goes last), and the game can end prematurely if someone touches the Assassin card.

There are also rules for a 2-player game.  In this version, one player is the spymaster and one is the operative.  Clues are given, and cards are marked in the usual fashion.  On the opponent’s turn, the spymaster simply covers up one of the opponent’s cards.  Then, another clue is given and answered.  The game goes until all of the team’s spies are found (or the Assassin is found).  The number of opponent cards remaining undiscovered is your score.  Obviously, 8 is the best possible score, though this seems pretty darn impossible to do…

There is also some rules for 3 players where one player acts as a neutral Spymaster and the other two players are the only members of their respective teams.

My thoughts on the game

Codenames is a fascinating game.  Vlaada continues to surprise me with the different ideas that he can turn into great games.  Of course, by this point, I probably shouldn’t be surprised at it… I would be better surprised if he tried to come up with yet another epic civilization style game using multiple decks of cards…

I don’t know who was in charge of picking out the words, but they are perfect for the game.  Almost all of them have multiple meanings or can be related to multiple things, so you always have a lot to think about when coming up with your clues (or when deciphering the clues).

The rules are well laid out, and I like the fact that the official rulebook lists a few firm rules but then leaves the rest up to the group for interpretation.  As long as the group agrees on the rules constraints, there shouldn’t be any issues.  Additionally, as the rules suggest – the easiest check on the rules for cluegiving is to ask the other spymaster.  If your opponent says the clue is ok, then it’s valid.  If the other cluemaster balks, then it’s not ok.  Simple as that.

I have enjoyed my first few plays of the game – though I’ll admit that I had a much better time with this at the Gathering of Friends than here with my family.  Like many of my other favorite wordplay games (Password, Montage, etc.), in my opinion, Codenames relies on having players of equal ability in order to shine.  You definitely need to be clever to come up with good clues that tie together seemingly disparate words – but unless your operatives are at least similarly clever, they may not get the clues at all.

Thus, when I was able to play the game at the Gathering – our games were filled with plenty of bright folks with many common interests.  Lets just say that I can’t give the same clues with my family or neighbors that I was able to give at the Gathering.  A sixth grader simply can’t respond to clues that deal with 80s pop culture or literature or any other number of topics!  Being familiar with your teammates may help though as you might be able to generate a clue or two with insider knowledge based on a shared experience.

So, I love this game, but I worry (like Tichu) that this is the sort of game that I will probably only play at conventions when I can get in a group big enough to make both the clue giving and clue receiving fun.  Time will tell, and I’ll certainly keep trying it out with the kids and locals.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan Blum (4 plays): I agree that like Password and Montage this does want players of roughly equal skill, but I think it will be easier to play as it doesn’t require exactly four players of equal skill. (Well, I guess you could play Password with more but I’ve never seen it done.) It won’t replace Montage for me but it will likely join it on the list of word games I am happy to play any time.


Larry (6 plays, where each play was once as Spymaster and once as Operative):  What a wonderful word game!  Trying to come up with a clue that fits the greatest number of your team’s words (while not being related to any of the other words, particularly the dreaded Assassin) is hugely challenging.  Guessing which words your Spymaster is thinking of is almost as much fun.  You’ll be rewarded for a broad scope of knowledge and large vocabulary, but insight and empathy is just as important.  I love games which let clever people be clever and that’s what Codenames does in spades.  But I imagine it would play just as well with kids or more casual gamers, with the clues being more prosaic.  It’s another triumph for the always surprising Chvatil.


By the way, all of my games have been with 4 players arranged in two teams of 2.  That strikes me as the best way of playing this, but I can see where 6 or 8 player games could also work well, although that would no doubt yield a lighter and more party-style contest.  Still, it’s great that the game is so flexible.


Brian (6 plays of both sides): I was already a big fan of Vlaada’s games, but this one cements his brilliance by being so clever, accessible and different from his prior offerings. I can’t wait to own a copy.


Chris W:  I got the chance to play Codenames twice at Gen Con, and it ended up being one of the highlights of the convention for me.  I like how quickly the game plays, how tense it is, and how it will appeal to both gamers and non-gamers alike.  Vlaada Chvatil has once again proven himself to be a brilliant, versatile designer, and I expect Codenames will be a hit.


Joe Huber (1 play): Code Names is not my kind of game – but it’s a fun example of “not my kind of game”.  I tend to enjoy playing thinking party games well enough, but I never choose them to play.  So I agree with the praise others are giving, even if the game is just neutral for me.


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Dan Blum, Larry, Brian, Chris W, Karen M, Eric M
  • I like it.
  • Neutral. Joe H
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2015, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Codenames

  1. gschloesser says:

    Had chance to play this last weekend with fellow Opinionated Gamer Ted Cheatham and 2 other gamers. It was a big hit. Similar in feel to Password, but with more to consider.

  2. Paul Grogan says:

    Nice to meet you at GenCon Dale :) (Paul – the British CGE guy who gave you your copy)

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    Could next year be the year that a party-style game wins the Spiel des Jahres? It sure seems as though there are quite a few clever entries into the genre recently (including Spyfall and Mysterium). I can’t wait to try this in Essen.

  4. Mikko Saari says:

    Jeff, in Finland the game of the year awards included a separate category for party games for the first time this year (in addition of the standard overall, kids and adults categories). This year the party game nominees were Spyfall, Concept and Telestrations.

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