The key to a good party game seems like a no brainer: you want everyone to have fun. It doesn’t hurt if the game doesn’t take a long time to play, and the rules should be short and straightforward. Most board game aficionados prefer a game that has a good deal of replayability as well. Today we look at Codenames, and you’ll find that it hits all those marks and then some.
Codenames, by Vlaada Chvatil, plays from two players up to…well, however many people you can fit around your table, and takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Players divide into two teams, and everyone will take turns as their team’s Spymaster. Setup only takes a minute. From the 200 codename cards, select 25 and make a 5×5 grid. Then the Spymasters select a key card and put in in the stand so only they can see it. Play will start with whichever team is indicated on the key card.
I’ve mentioned codename cards and key cards…so let’s talk for a minute about the cards in this game. The 200 codename cards each contain one word which is the “codename” for that secret agent. They are double-sided, so you’re getting 400 codenames to choose from. The words are all commonly known, like bat, beach, tree, Africa, kiwi, etc.
The 40 key cards are what provides the structure of each game. Each card will show the location of each team’s spies, along with the lone assassin. As the words are in a 5×5 grid, you can flip the orientation of the key card which will give four different placements for the various spies.
The object of the game is for the Spymaster to get their team to successfully guess the location of all their secret agents, while avoiding the other team’s spies as well as the assassin. The first team to reveal all of their secret agents wins!
Not quite. See, the Spymaster is only allowed to say two things: a word, and a number. Nothing else. Ever. The word is a clue to get her team to point at the right word or words, and the number is how many codenames will relate to that word. So if my Spymaster says “country : 2” and I see “America” and “England”? I’m probably going to point at those as my guess.
Chances are that your clue might not have been as good as you thought it was…or you were too damn clever for your own good. After you give your clue, your team will confer and look at the available codenames trying to discern what you were getting at. Then they will point at a word which will have one of four outcomes (let’s pretend you’re on the red team):
- If the codename pointed at belongs to your team, you’ll take one of the red spy cards and cover up that word. Your team may continue to guess codenames until they have guessed one more than the number you said after your clue.
- If the codename belongs to the other team, you take one of the blue spy cards and cover up that card. Your turn is now over and the blue team has one less spy to uncover.
- If it is a grey card, you place one of the innocent bystander cards on top of the codename. Your turn is over.
- If it is the assassin, the game ends and you lose.
Since three out of those four outcomes aren’t exactly stellar, you’re going to do the best you can to avoid getting near the other words. I’ve seen games where “water” was the assassin and someone was trying to get their team to guess treasure and beach. So sometimes those codenames are kinda tough to work around.
So, while you’re trying to be careful, this is what usually happens in a typical round of Codenames:
The Blue Spymaster looks around and sees that Kiwi and Bark are both blue codenames. That shouldn’t be too hard – “Brown: 2”
Blue team: “Okay, well, we can rule out ‘kiwi’ – those are green.” “What about ‘bat’?” “Bats are black.” “Not if they are BROWN BATS!” and so on…
And that is what makes Codenames so much fun to play. There’s something so hilarious about spending a couple minutes thinking about a great clue to give and then having someone scuttle it in the first three seconds with a connection you didn’t even think of. The Spymasters try to keep a straight face, the rest of the team winds up getting silly over possible connections, and every really enjoys themselves. Isn’t that what a party game is all about?
I want to take a second to talk about an app you can download for your smartphone or tablet which makes playing this game even easier. The Codenames Gadget, which can be found on the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, will take the place of your key cards. Not only that, but it will provide you with different timers to help speed things along. While it’s not NEEDED, it’s a great addition to the game.