The Codenames board game is an entertaining guessing game

17. March 2019 - Alexander Schmidt

Codenames Board Game - The Tricky Language Guessing Game | Review


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The Codenames board game is all about words and their meanings. Is the Game of the Year 2016 worth it?

Donkey, monkey, mouse…Ok, that’s easy, I’ll say “Animal – 3”! I am the blue secret service chief in this round, Anika is the red secret service chief. I have given my code and and now it is my team of 2 agents turn. My instruction means: they now have to name 3 correct word cards on the board to which the code name “animal” matches.

“Donkey” says agent Anne immediately.  “Monkey” follows Agent Patrick. Super, that’s going well! But then the two of them start to discuss and I have a bad feeling I’ve missed something… “Ostrich” announces Patrick and I curse inwardly. I had only thought of flowers when I heard the word and had completely ignored the fact that it is also an animal. Crap!!!

Codenames at a Glance

  • Game type: Guessing game, family game, party game
  • Age: 14 years and up
  • Players: 2 – 8 players
  • Duration: approx. 15 min.
  • Publisher: Czech Games Edition / Heidelberger Spieleverlag / Asmodee
  • Game Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Awards: Game of the Year 2016
  • Game objective: Use networked thinking to find good code names for several words or guess them correctly and thus be the first team to contact all agents of your own secret service.
Asmodee Codenames, Spiel des Jahres 2016, Familienspiel, Ratespiel, Deutsch
Asmodee Codenames, Spiel des Jahres 2016, Familienspiel, Ratespiel, Deutsch
Schnelles Familien-Spiel für 2 - 8 Geheimagenten; Kompetitives Kommunikations-Spiel ab 10 Jahren
17,99 EUR Amazon Prime

How to play the Codenames Board Game

Code and Agents at the Codenames board game

This is what the intelligence chiefs in the Codenames board game look like

First of all, you form 2 teams, which should be as equal in size and strength as possible. In this case, equal strength means that the teams should have roughly the same linguistic competence. Theoretically, you can also play with children younger than 14, but you should not play 2 adults against 2 children. Each team chooses a head of intelligence.

Now the word cards (printed on both sides) are mixed well and a grid of 5 x 5 is laid out with them. In the Codenames Board Game, these word cards stand for people. Behind them are either red agents, blue agents, bystanders or the assassin. Who is behind which word is determined in each round by the code card, which is only seen by the two secret service chiefs. Therefore, it is best if they sit on one side of the table and the remaining agents of both teams on the other.

You randomly draw one of the square code cards and place it with any side in the small stand so that only the intelligence chiefs can see it. The rest of the agents, the investigators, are not allowed to see them under any circumstances!

On the outside of each code card, 4 pictured warning lights in red or blue mark which team is starting. Since the game ends immediately when a team has guessed all agents correctly, for the sake of fairness there is always one more agent to guess for the team that starts, namely 9 instead of 8.

Procedure of the Game – Giving Clues

In the Codenames board game, it is important to contact as many of your own agents as possible at once

Red and Blue are still tied

The heads of the secret service now take turns to give clues, or codenames, that refer to one or more of the word cards on the table that represent agents of their own team. A clue may only ever consist of exactly one word, followed by a number indicating the number of cards to which the clue refers. For example, the head of the secret service could say “computer 2” and thus mean the terms “mouse” and “technology”.

Theoretically, any number is allowed, but especially at the beginning it is advisable to start small and first look for code names for 2 word cards. Of course, you can also find a code name for just one word card, but the sense and also the fun of the game actually lie in connecting several. Beyond the one word, a secret service boss is not allowed to give any tips. Sentences like: “Now that’s thinking very round the corner.” or “This time only in the narrow sense.” etc. are forbidden. Just one word and one number!

Sometimes it is really very difficult to find a suitable code name. Then it can happen that a head of the secret service ponders for quite a long time. If this bothers you or you just want to try out a bit more speed in the game, you can play with the hourglass (or your mobile phone timer) provided. Each player can turn this over at any time to put pressure on the intelligence chief or even the investigators whose turn it is.

Gameplay – The Investigations

Now it is the investigators’ turn. They must now contact the correct agents, i.e. name the correct word cards. They are allowed to confer openly and aloud, but the head of the secret service must put on a poker face and not give away by his reaction whether they are on the right track.

On top of each correctly named word card, the head of the secret service places an agent card of their colour. But don’t let the investigators get it wrong. In the best case, they will have uncovered an uninvolved bystander (white) and their turn will be over immediately. It is worse if they have uncovered an opponent’s agent – one point for the other team. A real disaster, however, is when the investigators accidentally contact the assassin. Then everything is over and they have lost immediately!

The investigators must always guess at least 1 word, but otherwise they may guess as many times as they like, i.e. contact both fewer and more agents than the number given by their intelligence chief. The former makes sense if the investigators are very unsure and do not want to risk anything. The latter only makes sense if they think they know the right answer from a previous move where they were wrong once and want to give it in addition to the agents meant in the current move.

End of Game

Codenames ends either as soon as a team has contacted all its agents, i.e. exposed them, or when the assassin has been activated. It is also possible to win while it is the other team’s turn if their investigators accidentally contact their own last agent.

Review and Conclusion


For Whom Is the Codenames Board Game Worthwhile?

Whether you like Codenames depends on one factor above all: how much you like language and language games. We are among those who played tea kettles and Scrabble with our parents as children, and we love games that are about language and the meanings of words. That’s why Codenames was also a revelation for us!
On the other hand, there are those who have no use for such games. And all we can say is: too bad, too bad, we’re sorry, but you won’t be happy with this.

Pro and Con

The idea of the Codenames board game is simple but ingenious: even after the 5th round, we don’t get bored of thinking up or guessing code names for groups of words. Since you inevitably have to think around corners, it is always funny to see how differently the players sometimes think. If for one person the code name “Cinderella” is the third word “glass” (because of the glass slipper in the Cinderella version of the fairy tale), for another it is a crown.

There is also a lot of variation over many rounds, as the game contains 200 double-sided word cards and the XY code cards can be inserted from all 4 sides.

The design of the game is nothing extraordinary, but it doesn’t need to be. What is more important is that the instructions are really very detailed and well explained and there are also detailed explanations and examples of which codenames can be accepted and which cannot. You can’t complain about the retail price of around 15 euros, which is absolutely reasonable.

The only thing that can be criticised is that people who know each other very well may have advantages when they are in a team. They can, for example, allude to shared memories or insiders with the Codenames. However, this imbalance, like the one between children and adults, can be balanced out by a fair team division.


Codenames is a brilliant guessing game for those who love language and language games. Those who do will love it and should grab it!

Guessing games are right up your street? Do you already know the Botticelli game? Check our website regularly for new board game tips and inspiration for gifts and activities with friends, partner and family. Stay up to date with ideas & tips from Abenteuer Freundschaft: just follow us on Facebook and Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter! ?

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