Codenames: Rules, Instructions & Winning Strategies

1. Introduction

Codenames is a social word game that challenges your communication and deduction skills. The game, designed by Vlaada Chvátil and published by Czech Games, has gained popularity for its asymmetric gameplay and strategic depth. This guide will provide an understanding of the game, its rules, strategies, and scenarios, enabling you to enjoy a good ol’ game of Codenames. Overall, I find it to be a pretty quick-to-play game that can be understood and enjoyed by new players within a few minutes.

The game of Codenames revolves around two teams that compete to see who can make contact with all of their agents first. These agents are represented by words on a grid. Spymasters provide one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the board, while their teammates try to guess the words of the right color while avoiding those that belong to the opposing team. And everyone wants to avoid the assassin.

The game is a blend of guesswork, strategy, and careful communication. It can be played by four to eight players and is suitable for ages 14 and up. Each game typically lasts about 15 to 20 minutes, making it a quick, yet immersive experience. The game has also won several awards for its innovative design and gameplay.

Below, I’ll explain how to best use clues and make educated guesses which is the core of the game. I’ll also dive in to strategies and tips on how to outwit the opposing team and make successful contact with your own agents.

If you like the clue-guessing gameplay of Codenames, I recommend checking out Dixit, which I’ve also written a guide on. Taboo is also similar.

2. Rules for playing Codenames

The game involves two teams, each with a Spymaster and field operatives. The Spymasters know the secret identities of 25 agents, represented by words on a grid. Their task is to give one-word clues that can point their team towards multiple words on the grid. Their teammates try to guess the words of the right color while avoiding those that belong to the opposing team. The game continues until one team identifies all their agents, or an operative guesses the assassin, resulting in an instant loss for that team.

  1. Each team chooses a Spymaster. The Spymasters sit on one side of the table, and the field operatives sit on the other.
  2. The Spymasters randomly draw a key card that shows the grid of 25 squares, each square corresponding to a word on the table. The squares are colored to represent the agents of each team, bystanders, and the assassin.
  3. The Spymasters give one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the board. The clue can’t be any of the agent words on the table, or any part of them. Numbers are also allowed as clues.
  4. The field operatives try to guess their agents’ words based on the clues. They touch the word on the table when they identify it. If they guess correctly, the Spymaster covers the word with an agent card of their color. If they guess a bystander, the turn ends immediately. If they guess an agent of the opposing team, the word is covered with that team’s agent card, and the turn ends. If they guess the assassin, the game ends immediately, and that team loses.
  5. The game continues until one team identifies all their agents, or an operative guesses the assassin.

While these are the official rules, players can introduce ‘house rules’ to add variations to the game. For instance, some players allow multi-word clues as long as they form a single concept.

3. How to Win at Codenames

Winning at Codenames requires a blend of creativity, strategic thinking, and a good understanding of your teammates’ thought processes. Here are some strategies that can help you win the game:

  1. Think in Groups: The key to winning Codenames is to link as many words as possible with a single clue. Try to find common themes, categories, or characteristics that can group multiple words together.
  2. Understand Your Team: The effectiveness of your clues depends on how well your teammates can interpret them. Try to tailor your clues to your team’s knowledge and way of thinking.
  3. Avoid the Assassin: Be careful not to give clues that could lead your team to the assassin. Always cross-check your clues against the assassin’s word.
  4. Use Misdirection: If you’re the Spymaster, you can use misdirection to confuse the opposing team. For instance, you can give a clue that seems related to one of their words, but actually points to your words.
  5. Keep Track of Past Clues: Remember the clues given throughout the game. They can provide valuable insights into the remaining words.

4. Best Strategies for playing Codenames game

The best strategies for playing Codenames involve clever clue-giving, effective communication, and strategic guessing. Here are some strategic plays to aim for:

  1. Give Broad Clues: As a Spymaster, try to give clues that can point to as many of your words as possible. This allows your team to guess multiple words in a single turn, speeding up your progress.
  2. Use Negative Clues: If your team is struggling to avoid the assassin or the opposing team’s words, you can give a clue that points to multiple words they should avoid.
  3. Guess Conservatively: As a field operative, it’s often safer to guess fewer words than the number indicated by the Spymaster’s clue. This reduces the risk of accidentally guessing the assassin or the opposing team’s words.
  4. Communicate Effectively: Good communication is crucial in Codenames. Discuss your thoughts with your teammates before making a guess, and try to understand the Spymaster’s way of thinking.

5. Scenarios for Codenames

During a game of Codenames, players may encounter various scenarios that can either aid or hinder their progress. Understanding these scenarios and knowing how to handle them can greatly improve your chances of winning.

Scenario 1 – Multiple Words Linked by a Single Clue: This is an ideal scenario where the Spymaster can give a clue that links multiple words. The key is to find a common theme or characteristic that can group the words together.

Scenario 2 – The Assassin’s Word is Similar to Your Words: This is a challenging scenario where the assassin’s word is similar to your words. The Spymaster must give clues that point to their words while avoiding the assassin. The field operatives must also be careful not to guess the assassin based on the clues.

Scenario 3 – The Opposing Team’s Words are Similar to Your Words: In this scenario, the Spymaster must give clues that can distinguish their words from the opposing team’s words. The field operatives must also be careful not to guess the opposing team’s words based on the clues.

Scenario 4 – Your Team is Behind: If your team is behind, the Spymaster may need to take risks by giving clues that link many words. The field operatives may also need to guess more words in each turn to catch up.

6. Frequently Asked Questions about playing Codenames game

Q: Can the Spymaster give a clue related to the word’s spelling or pronunciation? A: No, the clue must be about the word’s meaning, not its spelling or pronunciation.

Q: Can the Spymaster give a clue that is a homonym of one of the words? A: Yes, as long as the clue is not a form of the word itself.

Codenames – Play with your Friends Online

Codenames Review – with the Game Boy Geek [Video]