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Monday, May 20, 2024

Codenames: Life or Death in a Word

by | published Friday, August 7, 2015

For many of my friends Vlaada Chvatil is their favourite designer. They’ll grab ahold of anything he designs, no questions asked. Now, I like and respect Chvatil, but not too many of his games have found their way into my collection. I knew that was going to change at GenCon 2015. I had a chance to try out Codenames at The Gathering of Friends and it was the title that had me the most intrigued. I was pretty stoked to see that CGE would have some available in Indianapolis and wasted no time preordering a copy.

Codenames is that deceptively simple style of party game that you’d expect from a brilliant designer. It keeps the mechanics uncomplicated and leaves the creativity up to the players.

In Codenames the players are divided into teams of secret agents. A 5×5 grid of words is laid out on the table and a person from each of the red and blue teams is selected to be the spymasters and the rest of the players are field agents.

Both of the spymasters sit on one side of the table and draw a key card. The key card is a guide for which words in the grid belong to the red team and which belong to the blue team. Only the spymasters see the key and it’s up to them to make sure their team finds the right words. There will also be innocent bystanders in the crowd and one assassin word.

cw2aEach turn the spymaster will assess the grid of words taking into account the key and try to get their team to guess as many of their own colour words as possible. The trick is that they can only say one word, followed by a number indicating how many words they think their team can identify based on their clue. For example if I want my team to guess ‘Castle’ and ‘Horse’ I may say ‘Knight, two’. Now hopefully they’ll be able to identify those two cards from that clue. They can make only one guess if they feel more comfortable with that, or even guess an extra word if they’re feeling confident or they’ve been able to identify a previous clue.

That is the real meat of Codenames, determining the right clue to give without misleading your team to guess your opponent’s words, innocent bystander cards or even worse the assassin. The better you know the players you’re working with, the better you’re probably going to do as a team. It can be pure agony to sit there as the spymaster and listen to your team discuss the clue you’ve given,. sometimes even talking themselves out of the words you want them to identify. All you can do is sit and wait and hope they are able to decode your message.

When you correctly identify your team’s words they get covered with a card of your colour. If you mistakenly pick one of your opponent’s words they get covered with their colour and your turn comes to an end. They are one step closer to winning thanks very much. Picking an innocent bystander will end your turn, but the assassin will end the game if a team picks it. Game over for them.

Codenames is the latest in the trend of communication games that are popular in board games these days. Just like titles such as Hanabi, Spyfall, Mysterium, Concept and Witness, it’s all about the way you share your ideas and the perception of the people receiving them. I find this genre wholly fascinating because there are some many ways to play with how ideas are passed back and forth.

I really can’t recommend Codenames enough. It is at times hilarious, tense, thoughtful and challenging, all in a simple package. The rules are the easy part. The game offers limitless possibilities and that’s a mark of brilliant design.


  • Sean J.

    Sean is the Founder and Photographer for the DWP. He has been gaming all his life. From Monopoly and Clue at the cottage to Euchre tournaments with the family, tabletop games have taken up a lot of his free time. In his gaming career he has worked for Snakes & Lattes Board Game Cafe, Asmodee, and CMON. He is a contributor to The Dice Tower Podcast and has written for Games Trade Magazine and Meeple Monthly. He lives and works in Toronto.

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One thought on “Codenames: Life or Death in a Word

  1. Owen says:

    It’s a great game. Just be sure to clarify if you’re using flexible rules for words, like if rhymes are acceptable or synonyms or compound words etc. That way it avoids any arguments since you get to choose your own rules set based on the nature of your play group.

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