Working in the field right now are spies from rival sides, civilians and an assassin. Two opposing spymasters must help their field operatives spot their fellow agents with one-word clues before the other team can do the same. Meanwhile, an assassin is looming in the crowd, ready to prematurely end a mission if he’s outed. This is the challenge that awaits you in Codenames.
This is a team-based deduction game that is sort of like a grown-up version of Guess Who? mixed with Battleship. Two players act as the spymasters, who sit on one end of the table, while the remaining players sit into their respective teams on the other side. All of the codenames are then arranged in a 5×5 grid in the middle. Just before play begins, the spymasters draw one key card, which tells the spymasters the locations of each spy, civilian and assassin.
From there, spymasters take turns giving their teams hints as to which codenames are part of their team. This is where things get tricky. Clues can only be comprised of one word and one number. The word must relate to the meaning of a word or words, with the number relating to how many codenames are connected to that clue. For example, if I wanted to get my team to select the words Sauce and Dog, I could say, “Hot: 2” as a hint. You can give out clues that only relate to one word, but that opens the door for the opposition to run away with the game if they string together a series of multi-word clues.
As play progresses, the names on the board will whittle down until one of two outcomes occurs. One, a team successfully identifies all of their agents, which gives them the win. Or, a team accidentally identifies the assassin, which automatically ends the game and gives the win to the opposing team. On average, our games went between 20-30 minutes.
The explanation of this game may seem a bit dull, but playing it is truly riveting. As a team member trying to guess the words, a lot of interesting thoughts will run through your head as you try and decipher the clue given to you. Sometimes, the clue is very literal. Other times, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person saying it in order for it to make sense. The most hilarious times are the ones when the spymaster takes an insane reach and the clue fails miserably. During one memorable game with my family, my cousin mystified us all with the clue, “House: 2”. We got that Fence was one of the words, but missed the word Capital. Afterwards, she said it relates because, “You need Capital to buy a house!” She’s not gonna live that one down for a long time. Best of all, you can have pretty much any number of team members on either side, making it perfect for small or large groups.
Being a spymaster is also highly entertaining and quite challenging. Coming up with clues that string together a series of words can be quite the task, though it always feels amazing when you pull it off. The real challenge though, is playing within the confines of the spymaster role. There are a number of rules that a spymaster must adhere to, which I find that new spymasters tend to break. I find that keeping a straight face and saying anything beyond the clue before or after a turn can be very hard to contain. It’s best to have an experienced player start as the spymaster to set the tone for the role, then to be a tough coach for newcomers until they work out the kinks of blabbering too much.
From a component quality perspective, these cards use standard-issue card stock, but their design is really clever. Codename cards have the names written in two angles so that players sitting on opposing ends of a table can read them. They’re also double-sided, effectively doubling the number of words available to you. Most clever of all are the key cards, which can provide four different layouts depending on the orientation of the card. Altogether, they make for a game that has a ton of replay value.
I almost didn’t pick up Codenames at first, but ultimately caved when the buzz around the game became too strong for me to ignore. Now I can’t stop raving about it. This game is masterfully crafted to be an awesome party game that appeals to just about anyone while having a huge amount of replay value. Training up your friends to be competent spymasters might take a bit of work, though its certainly worth the hassle. Since we got it, the game has become a smash hit with our gaming groups. It might be too early to call it now, but I think it has the potential to stay in rotation for quite some time.