Everyone Should Own Codenames

Everyone Should Own Codenames
Image: Kotaku
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You know how some games are so well designed that they’re almost perfect? That’s Codenames, the game that every gamer should own.

There are some games in this world that transcend generations, games so good that you’d recommend them to your grandparents, games the whole family can play without having to diminish or dumb down the experience.

Nintendo are great at making those kinds of games. Mario Kart’s the perfect example; Tetris is another.

And so is Codenames, a team game that’s all about deducing clues from words.

If you’ve never played Codenames before, it’s fairly straightforward. After splitting into two teams of Red and Blue (with ideally four or more), two people are selected to be the spymasters. 25 cards are laid out in a 5×5 grid on the table, and the two spymasters get a grid to themselves that shows which cards their teammates need to pick to win:

There’s a little backstory about using the codewords to uncover your agents, but all you really need to know is that your spymaster will give you a one-word clue and a number. The number refers to how many words on the board the clue refers to.

Oh and see that black X? That’s the assassin. If either team selects that, they immediately lose the game. Sometimes it’ll be a word that has an awful lot in common with the words that you need your teammates to guess, and sometimes it’ll be completely unrelated.

But that’s the fun of it, and what makes Codenames such an immaculately designed game. The entirety of the experience takes place in your mind. Rather than being about the words on the board, the game becomes a battle in piecing together the logic of your friends.

Let’s take a sample board.

Image: Kotaku

You’ve got America and Thief, and you need to make sure your team gets them both. But you don’t want them to select Trunk by accident, so saying “heist, 2” probably isn’t the way to go.

Could you say Snowden, 2? People might not necessarily approve with the messaging, but it seems fairly safe that they’ll make the link between Edward Snowden and America, and they’ll pick that word first.

Alternatively, if you wanted your team to pick America and Atlantis, you could give DC — as in the world of DC Comics — as a clue instead. The link would be Aquaman, since that’s where the superhero originated from.

But if the friends you’re playing with aren’t particularly steeped in the world of comics, you’ll need to go with something else. And if Washington’s on the board but it belongs to the assassin or the other team … you can see the dilemma.

The game’s best played with 6 people or more, since ideally you’d like a couple of people giving the clues and at least two people trying to work it out amongst themselves. That group also means you can keep rotating the spymasters around.

Codenames would already be worth it alone for that, especially considering that the game is only $35 your regular game store. All of the cards are double-sided though, and because the game’s mechanic relies on the clues and not the words on the board, it’s absurdly replayable.

You can even rotate the spymaster grid around instead of using a fresh card, mixing up the cards that the teams need to find (and consequently providing an all-new experience).

As far as design goes, it’s almost perfect. There’s no fat, no needless elements, nothing that doesn’t serve an immediate, practical purpose. There’s no extraneous explanation required, whether you’re 8 or 80.

I was first introduced to Codenames at PAX last year thanks to long-time Kotaku regular Adam. I didn’t buy the game immediately, but recently I rectified that mistake.

And so should you. Codenames is the kind of game every gamer — hell, everyone — should own.


  • There’s also a version with pictures instead of words coming soon and people have made countless variants with pretty much any five by five grid of objects they can land their hands on. The idea behind Codenames really is that simple and that brilliant that it works.

    Praise Vlaada.

    One of my favourite Codenames stories comes when I got bored and tried to distract the other team by linking every single card on the table to Batman. Soon after my spymaster gave me the hint “Green: 3” and I immediately selected “Arrow”.

    I’m not sure what was worse; that “Arrow” was the assassin or that my spymaster did not know that Green Arrow exists. On the other hand, it was entirely fair comeuppance for how irritating I was being.

  • I did see an adult only version of it at GenCon, but I’m pretty happy with the normal version 😀

    It’s an Excellent game and I highly recommend getting it too!

  • Played a couple of rounds at PAX last year too with some folks from here. Great fun, really easy to grok. Nice reminder, think I’ll pick up a set.

  • It’s simple enough that my brother and sister-in-law went ahead and made their own copy when I forgot to bring my Codenames box around when I was visiting.

  • I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t love this game immediately, including parents, in laws, workmates. Most of them have gone and bought a copy themselves. It’s just amazing.

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