Codenames Review (including series)

Released 2015
Designer Vlaada Chvátil
Publisher Czech Games Edition (Website)
Players 2-8+ (best around 6)
Playing Time 15-20 minutes
Category Social Deduction
Word
Party
BoardGameGeek View on BGG

Don’t have a lot of players? Just play it in public. People will join you quickly enough ­čśÇ

You have heard me talk about Codenames a few times on the site. I keep saying I need to get around to reviewing it. Today, I finally get around to that review!

What I am not reviewing is a single version of Codenames. Back in 2015, Codenames was released. Then came Codenames: Pictures. Later the others arrived. And they just kept coming.

So while I talk about the base game in this review, remember everything I say holds for every other Codenames game – you can even mix and match them!

So what is Codenames?

Codenames is a party social deduction word game. Four years after release, it is still the party game on Board Game Geek. Describing Codenames is the hardest part of the game, and it’s hard to describe because of its simplicity.

You play in two teams, each team having a spymaster. Before you lies a grid of Codenames, and you are trying to find your agents before the other side find theirs.

The theme I have heard explained in many different ways, but I usually just stick with “You have these files/words/images before you, and we have to give you clues that link as many together as possible. First team to find all their tiles wins.” – how many games can you teach that quickly?

Just a bunch of cards and some tiles. Setup is really easy with Codenames.

But because this is espionage, you can’t just blab out to your team where they are though – you need to do it in code. On the spymasters’ turn, they give one word and one number. The word ties into the grid somehow, and the number is how many files are associated with the word.

You might think that sounds too easy, and it can be. Except Vlaada Chvatil put a little twist in – the deadly assassin word. If your team finds the assassin, they are instantly out of the game

Using the app for the spy board. If you put it down, the clues hide!

That doesn’t sound like much of a game.

I agree in describing it that it doesn’t reach out and grab at people. It’s one of those games that you need to play to get excited over. And you will get excited about it. Of all the people I have shown, I know only two people that didn’t enjoy playing it, and that was when we played a three-player variant.

The magic of Codenames is I have been in situations where I scraped up three other people and just started playing in public. By the end of the game, we usually have about eight people playing, and most of them staying for a second round. Most of the people that would wander over would call themselves ‘not gamers’, yet Codenames is simple enough that you can teach someone all of the rules in a single round. It’s this simplicity that lets everyone play.

But I don’t know a bunch of those words – what do I do?

Being at its heart a word game, playing with younger children non-English speakers can be a challenge. Codenames: Pictures helps with this immensely.

It’s the same game, except with some fantastic artwork with multiple meanings. But just because the game uses pictures doesn’t make it easier. It just helps with players maybe not knowing certain words.

It’s like playing with simplified Dixit or Mysterium cards. While I wouldn’t put a child in as spymaster on their first game, their team can help them with the clues. This teamwork makes Codenames very inclusive to a lot of different groups.

Pictures doesn't make the game any easier, unless reading can be an issue

So what is Codenames: Duet?

If you typically game with only one other person, Codenames: Duet is for you. The spymasters’ tablet is double-sided, so each player switches between being clue giver and player each turn.

There are a couple of twists. In Duets, there are three assassins on the board. One of those assassins is shared between both teams, meaning a square you see as a dangerous square has a 2 in 3 chance of being something else when you are receiving clues.

The differences are slight, but at its core Duets is still codenames. There is also no reason why you can’t play Duets in teams. One of the most beautiful thing about Codenames is that it is incredibly flexible.

Two players, one board. Duet is a great two player game.

What about the other Codenames?

There are a few different versions of Codenames, mostly thanks to USAOpoly/the OP and licensing.

Deep Undercover is an ‘adult’ version of Codenames that initially I overlooked. Did I want a Cards Against Humanity type version? After playing it appreciate Deep Undercover as both childish humour and an extra layer of difficulty. How many clues can you give for ‘bum’ when so many cards overlap?

Disney, Marvel and Harry Potter all share Codenames base play but pull all of their cards from their licenses. They also share one flaw – you need to be a fan of the theme to join in fully.

A magical twist to the theme

In Codenames: Marvel, for example, there are a bunch of characters and locations not used in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I am a Marvel fan, and even I had to Google some of the characters to know who they were.

There are also little thematic twists in each version to keep them unique, but the mechanics are the same. The assassin in Harry Potter is a Death Eater. In Marvel, if you guess all of the neutral characters, Thanos collects all of the infinity stones, and it’s a double team loss. There are little twists to keep them fresh, but not enough to make them overly complicated.

Our first game setup. Even with MCU fans at the table, there was a lot of Googling on who was who

Rules Lawyers Beware

There are a few rules in giving clues. You can’t use words that are on the board, or form to make part of a word on the board. You can’t give clues that are positions of words.

So when someone says ‘Right 3’ for example, the team should expect that the clues aren’t three on the right-hand side on the board. They should be wary of picking ‘Writer’, as Right can be interpreted as a part of the word.

I have played Codenames with die-hard players, and I have played with complete casuals. I have heard team arguments about the validity of a clue.

Bottom line, the only person that can rule a clue invalid is the opposing spymaster. When playing with new players or one of the themed games, I try and be forgiving on clues. I might play at the stricter clues, but if someone is unfamiliar with the game or the subject, they still need to be able to play.

Follow the golden rule of gaming – everyone is there to have fun. If you have a player telling everyone why a clue is ‘bad’, maybe let them go back to their heavy euro games :p

Until next time,

JohnHQLD
Codenames

Final Thougths

I love Codenames, and if you are looking for a game for every gamers shelf, Codenames will be on the shortlist. Get Codenames: Pictures and Codenames: Duet for instant flexible gameplay.

You can also combine games. Have a player that’s as much a Disney fan as you are? Use the Disney tiles with the Duet spy board!

Codenames is a quick game that people can join in mid-game, making it a great games night opener while people arrive. Its simplicity, combined with social gameplay makes Codenames a modern classic.

Overall
10/10
10/10

Pros

  • Simple to teach and play
  • No one way to win
  • Variety available on the base concept
  • Can combine versions for different experiences

Cons

  • Licensed versions may be too detailed for casual fans
  • Younger children or non-English speakers hard to be spymasters