Codenames word game – Game Review

At GenCon this year (2015), two games were getting a LOT of hype and one of those games was “Codenames” by Czech Games Edition. “Codenames” is a press-your-luck word game mixed with a game of deductive logic. Whilst it’s simple in premise and not overly thematic in nature, “Codenames” manages to be a really great little game. From designer Vlaada Chvátil, a man well known in board gaming circles, with a slew of popular games under his belt, “Codenames” once again thinks outside of the box and puts a new twist on the word play genre. Let’s take a look.

Two rival spymasters know the secret identities of 25 agents. Their teammates know the agents only by their CODENAMES.
In Codenames, two teams compete to see who can make contact with all of their agents first. Spymasters give one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the board. Their teammates try to guess words of the right color while avoiding those that belong to the opposing team. And everyone wants to avoid the assassin.
Codenames: Win or lose, it’s fun to figure out the clues.

Codenames by Czech Games Edition - word game spy game fun game - Review by Gameapalooza AustraliaCodenames by Czech Games Edition – Loads of fun!

“Codenames” is a 2-12 player game that takes around 15 minutes to play dependent on how quickly the players come to their conclusions. The rules are ridiculously simple making this a fantastic gateway game that you can teach new players in a few minutes. “Codenames” comes with 16 Agent Cards, 1 double agent card, 7 innocent bystander cards, 40 agent location grid cards (and one stand), an egg timer you’ll probably never use and 200 double-sided word cards, meaning there’s a lot of replayability to be had. So what do these cards do exactly? Let’s look at the game setup.

Setup & Gameplay
Setup of “Codenames“ is – like everything else in the game – simple. A 5×5 grid of 25 cards is laid out on the table. Each team has a spymaster who sits at one side of the table (spymasters sit together) and the players sit on the opposite side. If we were forced to think of a game “Codenames” reminds us a little of in gameplay mechanic, it’s probably “Battleships”, but in reverse. Spymasters have a 5×5 single grid card they refer to showing them the same setup area as on the table. This grid card is color coded showing the spymasters the red spies, blue spies, innocent bystanders and the deadly assassin’s locations.

At the beginning of each turn spymasters relay a one word clue followed by a number to their team (example “Clue 1”), that team then taps the card(s) on the table they think the clue refers to. If they’re right, they’ve tapped the card of their team color and it’s covered by an agent card of the correct color (red or blue) and play continues (passing to the other team to attempt the same), if they tap the assassin, it’s game over and the other team automatically wins. Tapping an innocent bystander means you’re now lagging behind because you’ve failed to uncover one of your own spies, thus giving the other team more of a lead.

Codenames tabletop game review Australia - Codenames the cards setupThe Codenames setup and partial play – Just to give you a visual.

Gameplay continues until one of the teams uncovers (or rather physically covers) all the spies of their color. The fun comes in the confusion. Different people equate different things to different words, so whilst some are obvious, others may not be as obvious as the spymaster thinks. For example the words glass and pane are on the table, the spymaster gives the clue “window”, to one of his team the clue window might scream ‘glass’ to the other player, it might scream ‘pane’, so which one is it?! Why didn’t the spymaster take this into account before uttering the clue OMG OUR AGENTS ARE GOING TO DIE! WE NEED TO GET THEM OUT OF THERE! … Calm down gamer, calm down.

A game of “Codenames” is so swift (unless you have those really annoying over thinkers in your group) that you’ll find yourselves flipping the cards to play again, then dealing out new cards, and repeating. Gameplay is probably best when playing on the same team with people you don’t know as well as say, a partner. That can lead to annoying other players as you just guess one another’s clues with ease because you know each other so well (this happened in a couple of our games, thus the mention). Mix it up a little, don’t have partners as spymaster and on the team, there’s no ‘i’ in team.

Something we thought was worthy of coverage / praise, but really doesn’t affect the game of “Codenames” as such is gender and racial inclusivity within the premise / artwork. All spy cards are double sided, with the blue agents sporting a male James Bond style spy on one side and a female Annie Walker style spy on the other. The red cards sporting a Men in Black Jay style spy one one side and a Lucy Lui / Doctor Joan Watson style image on the other. We thought this was a great addition to the game, ensuring it wasn’t automatically assumed the players were all white males and thus so must the artwork be. Well done Czech Games Edition for keeping it real, we salute you.

Codenames by Czech Games Edition CGE games Codenames spies artBrilliant! Look at the diversity! Well done Czech Games Edition.

That Two-Player Game Though
Okay, let’s cover the two-player version of “Codenames” briefly because we found it differed immensely to the 4+ player game. Though the game mechanic remains mostly the same (cover the spies), we found the gameplay a little boring. Playing with your partner (which a lot of people are) means you’re essentially getting a clue, covering the correct spy, rinse and repeat. We added in the rule that you couldn’t say a number less than 2. Upside, they included a two-player variant in the rules, which is great.

Game Build Quality
The build quality on “Codenames” is great. A few people have complained they didn’t like the boxart, but we have to say, we don’t have a problem with it, it’s eye-catching and gets the overall premise across. The cards / components are good quality, really nothing negative to say about the overall build.

Gameapalooza House Rules
As we briefly mentioned we used the house rule of having to say a larger number than one after the initial clue word. This was to make the game slightly more difficult in two-player mode. The same house rule could indeed be carried over to a larger game.

Overall “Codenames” is a great little game. We thoroughly enjoyed it and so did the n00b’s we roped in to try it. Yes we do have an upcoming ’n00b Look!’ for those who are enjoying them (and thanks for the positive feedback – Ed.). The only downside to it was that two-player game. If you’re after a thematically light word-guessing game that manages to keep players interested and thinking, this is the game for you.

2-12 Players
Ages: 14+
Setup Time: Less than 5 minutes
Play Time: 15 minutes

Here’s the rules overview video link for those who may be interested in further information.

[author] [authorimage timthumb=’off’]/content/images/2016/02/gameapalooza-micro-review-icon-sm.gif[/authorimage] [authorinfo]Micro Review – If you’re after a light word based game for groups 4+ definitely check out “Codenames” by Czech Games Edition. Not great with two players, but really shines in larger groups (just make sure you tell them to converse). Definitely worth checking out.[/authorinfo] [/author]

You can see more information over at the Czech Games Edition website. Like them on the CGE Facebook Page, or follow them on Twitter for game updates.


Disclosure: Czech Games Edition furnished us with a copy of the game for review. This does not affect the review in any way, other than we were able to bring it to our readers faster. We thank them for their support of the Australia tabletop game market.