Codenames - In-Depth Review

Board's Edge review of Codenames game

This is a review for the board game Codenames. It is not a review of any knockoff James Bond movies.

5-Second Summary

Pros

  • Crowd pleaser
  • Codenames and Codenames Duet clue cards are interchangable
  • Rules are simple - get started quickly
  • We haven't had a game launch this many inside jokes since Scattergories

Considerations

  • I'm only adding this because I usually have a Considerations column. This game is awesome.

Full Review:

Codenames is an excellent party game. Setup is super quick – I bet you can do it in under two minutes. (Note: if you are OCD and need the cards to be perfectly aligned, add at least 10 minutes to this time estimate). Simply lay out 25 word cards in five rows of five cards each. Assign a spymaster for each team and pick out an answer key. You’re ready to play. By the way, your second game is even quicker to set up because the word cards and answer key card are double-sided. For game two, just flip everything over and swap spymasters. It sets up in one minute or less! (By the way, parents, this means Codenames games are like potato chips - you can't have just one. So plan for at least two games before bedtime.)

Players divide into two teams. Each team has a spymaster and one or more guessers. Spymaster is the hardest job - it is much easier to be the guesser than it is to come up with all the clues - so the spymaster changes each round. Spymasters give one-word clues and the number of word cards the clue ties into. For example: “Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious-3.” Clues must relate to the meaning of the words shown on the clue cards on the table, and that’s all a spymaster is allowed to say. No extra words, hints, grunts, loud exhales, or winks. The team tries to guess the words the spymaster is referring to, one at a time. Guessing ends immediately if a team chooses the wrong word. Most of the time, the wrong word is either an “innocent bystander” or the other team’s clue (thanks sis!). However, if you have uncovered The Assassin, then play ends immediately. You lose!

The genius of Codenames is the limited number of safe connections each word set ends up having - and yes, the word cards have a lot of homonyms. It's really not very easy to be the Spymaster. You might be tempted to go for a clue that ties 6 words together in one fell swoop, but that requires a quite vague clue that is open to interpretation. If your guessers don't think like you do, that could lead them to innocent bystanders, the other team's words, or even the Assassin. Most of the time, we can connect 2-3 words per clue.

There are not that many rules, so Codenames is great for a party or for a family game night. Mostly, you just need the rule book to stop cheaters. "No, Dad, you can’t use 'Super Walmart' - one word clues only!" A 90-second sand timer is included for use at your discretion. It’s there in case a team is taking a long time to guess, or if we’re feeling extra obnoxious and humming Jeopardy isn’t cutting it. Our game group doesn't use the timer much.

The theme is kinda sorta tacked on. It is best if you don’t think too much about it. Some of the spies look like they are from that TV show Archer, so there is that. (Or, if celebs are more your thing, the girl spy cards look like Carrie Matheson and Mila Kunis).

This is a word association game. By definition, this game is harder for people whose native language is not English. Even if they are fluent, there will be some mishaps. It’s not a dealbreaker for our group, which includes our German Warehouse Bear, but it has affected the outcome of a few rounds. Don’t tell him we told you this, but he blew the Tang-2 cue (hoping for orange and astronaut). Apparently they don’t sell Tang in Germany, but it is the German word for seaweed. He beelined to ocean. Too bad that was the assassin. How do you say “Game Over” in German? Doh!

Our group loves Codenames. I was hesitant to purchase it because we have some gamers who love highly strategic games, and I wanted to fit into the “serious gamer” crowd. I am the Guest Geek, after all. I have a reputation to protect! But everyone loves this game. We’ve played it as a quick filler before a hardcore gaming session, and sometimes we’ve devoted the whole night to it. This game deserves shelf space in any collection.

Remote Play

Remote play score: 2 out of 4

Meter half full

What our remote score means: We definitely played this game a lot over Zoom during social distancing, but to be honest, it's kind of finicky to set up duplicate boards. We recommend checking out online versions of this game instead of trying to hack this for Zoom play.

Gotta Have It?

About the Author

Becky the Guest Geek has been specially appointed by the Board's Edge Team to give you the inside scoop on our hottest games. Part review, part how-to, part snark - check out her in-depth reviews.

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