By: Kirk Buckendorf
I know I’m really late to the party, but while Codenames has been on my radar for quite awhile, I only recently got to play it. At Origins this year I got to play a prototype copy of Codenames Pictures and it was awesome. Playing the picture version motivated me to get the original game to the table with friends when I got home. I’ll cover the Word version of the game first and then talk about the Picture version after.
Using the old trope, Codenames takes minutes to learn but probably a lifetime to master. This deceptively simple game gets deeper the more you play and you start to learn the ins and outs. The random set up of the cards makes sure every game is different, and even though you will start to see the same cards over and over, it’s the millions of possible combinations that make every game unique.
The game is 2-8+ players, but I’m probably just going to stick to 4 or more players as that seems optimal. You’ll split into two teams, Red and Blue, and each team will choose a Spymaster for the first game. A game takes about 15 minutes, so you can play multiple times in a row so everyone can get a turn at being the Spymaster.
Next, you’ll shuffle up the word cards which are double sided, so be sure to flip half the stack a few times between shuffles to get even more randomness. Next you’ll deal out a 5×5 grid of word cards to the middle of the table. The 2 Spymasters sit on one side of the table (Red on North East and Blue North West) and the their teammates sit on the other side, staying in their own groups across from their Spymaster (Red on South East and Blue South West). The Spymasters pick a Key card with a grid that corresponds with the grid of word cards. There’s a little card hodler to keep the team’s guessing players on the other side of the table from seeing the key.
Each Spymaster is looking to get his team to guess the word cards that correspond with the team color on the Key Card.
The neutral colors on the key card are innocent bystanders that will end your team’s turn if picked and the Black X on the key card is the Assassin that will lose your team the game if picked. The key card also determines which team goes first, in this case the Red team because it has the 4 red lights around the sides. The team that goes first also has one more card to pick than the second team.
On the Red Spymaster’s first turn they will study the board and come up with a single code word that can not be a word on the board and a number. They are trying to make their code word associate with one or more cards in their color for their team to recognize and pick. The number will be how many cards on the board relate to that code word. The Spymaster has to keep a complete poker face and can not say anything other than the code word and the number. They also can not react to thier team’s discussion in any way. It’s very tough to sit and listen to your team getting so close without being able to help!
In the example above the Red Spymaster could say, “educated: 2,” looking to clue his team into Degree and Scientist, but he would unwillingly also be leading them to pick the Blue Team’s Teacher card. It’s a very challenging task to get multiple cards in a turn, but to gain a leg up on the other team, you’ll need to get more multiple answers in a turn than they do. A better clue would be, “measurement: 2,” hinting at Pound and Foot. Can you find a better clue for Red above?
The number also gives the team how many picks they get in a turn plus one. So for, “measurement: 2,” the Red Team gets 3 picks. The players guessing must make at least one guess, but after that they may choose to use the rest of their guesses or pass the turn giving them up. The extra guess becomes important later in the game when a few clues have been given that may not have been guessed correctly previously. I’ve also used them as Spymaster when my team was far behind to give extra desperation guesses. Even though my code word may only be for two cards out there, I could say the number 3, just to give them 4 guesses and leave it up to my team to figure out why the number is so high late in the game. With a couple experienced players this can pay off! Sometimes you just give them extra guesses hoping they’ll use them to make random picks anyway in a game that you’re so far behind that random luck is the only way you’ll win! In those occasions, hopefully they were playing attention to the other team’s unanswered clues to help eliminate possible wrong cards.
When your team is ready to guess, they finalize their choice by touching the card. If they are correct their Spymaster places an Agent card of their color onto the chosen card and they can guess again if they have more guesses. If the chosen card is an innocent bystander, the Spymaster covers it with a neutral bystander card and that team’s turn ends. If it’s the other team’s card, the Spymaster puts the other team’s agent card on the card (giving them one for free!) and the turn ends.
Should the player’s choose the Assassin word, the Assassin card is placed and the game is over, the team who chose it loses the game. Pro-tip: make sure your code word doesn’t relate to any of your opponent’s cards or the Assassin card!
The teams take turns giving out Code words and ends when one team has put all of their Agent Cards out, winning the game. As soon as you’re done, you’ll want to play again and usually rotate the Spymasters out. It’s very addicting, and the more you play, the more you learn and the better the games get.
If a Spymaster ever gives out a Code word that is visible on the board, even not meaning to relate to that particular card, the penalty if noticed, is to end the turn and the the other team’s Spymaster gets to cover one of her words for free and then take her team’s turn as normal.
This is my new favorite go-to game for friend and family get-togethers and I’d recommend it to anyone. It can take up a whole night of gaming, or even just be a filler game between bigger ones.
All that said, I’d actually played the Picture version first by happenstance at Origins a few weeks ago. I knew I wanted to play Codewords soon and recognized the name and layout of the Pictures prototype version at a booth, so I sat down to try it out. It plays exactly the same, except for a 4×5 grid and there aren’t any taboo words to name, because there aren’t any words on the board to avoid.
If you wanted your team to pick the Chicken card, you can say, “Chicken: 1,” and they’d most likely get it, but you’re not going to get ahead by picking one word at a time. Again, you’ll want to shoot for multi-card Code words that don’t hit any other cards.
This one is just as fun, but may fit some players’ better who favor visual acuity over words. I myself am a more visual person and look forward to getting more games in with this version now that I’ve played more games of the word version.