Review: Codenames

BGG Rank #20 – 1/1/2017 

Hello, Agent. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to activate our covert operatives in the field. You must exercise the utmost caution to avoid enemy spies—and whatever you do, steer clear of the assassin. Don’t worry though, you’re in good hands. As your spymaster, I’ll be providing information to steer you in the right direction. Your first clue is: LOAN – 3.

That certainly sounds like a recipe for disaster. And it is a disaster—for the “old guard” of word-based party games, like Taboo and Catch Phrase. Designer Vlaada Chvatil has added three “Euro” features that the old word games never saw coming—balance, strategy, and theme. Once you try Codenames, games like Taboo are essentially obsolete.

Designer Vlaada Chvatil has added three “Euro” features that the old word games never saw coming—balance, strategy, and theme.

First things first—let’s take a look at how Codenames works. Players divide into two teams, with one player from each team designated as the Spymaster. A grid of 25 words is laid out, and the Spymasters view a secret diagram indicating which words correspond to the agents of each color, innocent bystanders, and the deadly assassin.

Armed with this knowledge, the Spymasters must take turns crafting clues to get their teammates to guess the right words. The clues must be simply a word (something related to one or more of the grid-words) and a number (an indicator of how many grid-words the clue links). A higher number leads to more available guesses in a turn, but also increases the risk of a costly mistake. The first team to unveil all of their operatives wins. If anyone reveals the assassin along the way, their team immediately loses!


That’s essentially all the information you need to jump in and play Codenames. It’s extremely accessible, and addictively fun. Codenames is one of those rare games that is loved by casual and serious gamers alike.

Codenames is one of those rare games that is loved by casual and serious gamers alike.

So how did Codenames infiltrate the building, cleanly dispose of Catch Phrase and Taboo, and exit through the window without so much as the sound of a buzzer? It was a simple yet ingenious plan:

  • Balance- It’s almost always more fun to have a photo finish than a blowout. Codenames allows high-risk / high-reward clues that inevitably lead to many exciting final turns. Whether the trailing team goes down swinging or manages to pull off the improbable comeback, both sides will want to dissect the final choices and jump back in for another round. The ‘assassin’ card also provides the ever-present threat of a sudden unexpected defeat.
  • Strategy- Codenames is simultaneously a great lightweight party game and a complex strategic puzzle. It’s easy to pick up, but as you play it you’ll realize it’s not simply about giving the highest scoring clue each turn — it takes strategic planning to think ahead to future turns, know when to play defensively, and when to go for broke. With so many words with double meanings, every game inevitably yields new challenges and opportunities for clever links.
  • Theme– One distinct mark of Euro games is taking a game mechanic and enhancing it by applying an interesting theme. Often the mechanics would still work without the theme, but it would be a less immersive experience. Codenames’ components contain clean and professional graphic design and enforce the spy theme without feeling forced or overdone. The most impressive component of all though is something that’s not in the box at all. The companion app, which can be downloaded for free, can perform the function of the timer and the spymasters’ grid.


If there’s only room for one party game on your shelf, it should be Codenames.

If you’d like to purchase a copy of Codenames and use this Amazon link [Codenames], a portion of the proceeds will help support this site. Thanks!


2 thoughts on “Review: Codenames

    1. Good guess– but it was Bank (a bank loan), Capital (you can take out a loan to obtain capital), and Car (a car loan). You could have checked your answer on the grid card in the picture!


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