If there is one thing you need to know about Codenames, it’s that it is a fantastic party game. A successful moment in Codenames captures what we imagine it feels like to fell three ducks with a single shot, or swim through a school of fish and end up with a sushi trio on the end of your trident. But it’s even better than either of those activities, because successes in Codenames is a team affair and it is good to have friends.
Who should play it? Codenames has won over the Inverse office, old college roommates, moms, and 84-year-old ex-Navy grandfathers. If you enjoy synapse-tickling puzzles, communication, and wit — all objectively good things — there’s a fair chance Codenames will win you over, too.
How does it work?
In Codenames, you lay out a grid of 25 words — in isolation, unsurprising words like “Jupiter” or “ninja” or “cap,” though they’ll turn on you soon enough. (And should you want the game to turn bleak, a few Redditors suggest that you could even dust off your Cards Against Humanity nouns. It really doesn’t matter what the words are, frankly.)
The crowd, and Codenames is best played in a crowd, is split down the middle. Two chosen from both sides become the spymasters. Pity them, because they are about to go on a journey through linguistic rapids, and no one will be able to toss out a life preserver. The crux of the game is this: A key grid tells the spymasters which cards are theirs, and they must serve up a clue — a single spoken word — and the number of word cards to which that clue corresponds. If two of your words are, for instance, “torch” and “ring,” you might say, “Olympic two.”
Here’s the fun bit — you now watch your team struggle to untangle the ball of words you’ve just knotted. Codenames is one of the few games that sparks camaraderie, or at least commiseration, between opponents, as both spymasters share a sense of helplessness once the word ball is in their team’s hands.
That seems fine, but what makes it so great?
The assassin. See, if your team tries to cut your knot and slices wrong — because they’re dumb, if you’re the spymaster; or the spymaster’s clue was dumb, because you’re the team and how could you give “Olympic” when Greece was also on the table* — they might tap the wrong card. That card could be the opponent’s (a goal for the other side!), neutral (turn’s over, hoss), or the assassin: Game over, man, game over.
But don’t worry. Codenames, once you get the hang of it, is speedy. It’s also replayable on a virtually infinite scale: Given 200 double-sided word cards, a 25-card grid, 40 rotatable key cards, that means, as Board Game Geek calculated, 3.77 x 10^66 permutations. To put that in perspective, if you’ve been playing 15-minute Codenames games since the Big Bang banged, you’d only have gone through about 4.83 x 10^14 rounds.
What don’t you like?
Nothing but a few minor quibbles: It’s not really meant to be a super competitive game, so if that’s what your crew likes, steer clear. It would make a solid game show, but you’d have to isolate the spymaster to avoid any sort of tells, inadvertent or otherwise.
Also, being the spymaster is tough. Czech Games includes a sand timer if you feel the spymaster is taking too long, but it’s become something of a house rule that you can’t flip it until you’ve served as spymaster yourself. Wear that badge with pride.
*Always look at the entire key card! It’s so tempting to focus only on your cards, but the blinkered spy ends up killing his team.