Codenames is one of those games you have to actually play in order to understand the rules. Upon receiving our copy of the game and playing a handful of games, I couldn’t wait to tell friends about it. The only problem is, actually explaining the game without any references is pretty difficult.

This game is a relatively simply tabletop game where players need to uncover their own team’s secret agents which are hidden under a series of codenames laid out on a board. It sounds simple, right? Well the difficult part to explain is how you actually uncover those agents…

Depending on the amount of players, teams usually have one spy master who knows the location of each of the agents. That spy master must then give the location of their agents to the rest of the team using two words, the first one being a word associated with the codenames of the agents, and another being the amount of codenames this cryptic clue refers to.

The problem here, is that you must be absolutely in-tune with your team, otherwise things can go horribly, horribly wrong. That being said, this has become one of my favourite tabletop games due to the game’s simplicity and the sheer replay value alone.

Codenames Box Content
Codenames Box Content

So here’s how a simple game goes down. To set up, you grab a handful of codename cards and lay them out in a 5 x 5 square. Then, the two spy masters pick a card which offers a set layout of agent locations, as well as a number of innocent bystanders, and of course, no game would be complete without an assassin.

Now, depending on who begins depends entirely on who has the double agent. This is a singular card with a different coloured agent on either side, though they have different coloured shades. The importance of this card isn’t actually that great, it simply adds an additional card to the team who goes first making it a little fairer across the board.

From here the team who’s beginning (which is indicated by a little coloured mark at the top of each key card) starts matching the colours of the key to the codenames laid out before them. From here is where it can get really difficult as the spy master has to figure out a way to associate as many codenames as possible with a single word in the hopes that the other team members are on the same wavelength and figure out which direction they’re heading.

One example would be that two of your agents can be found under the “fruit” and “red” codenames, so the spy master would say “tomato two” which means that there are two codenames associated with the world tomato. However, there may be other words which could be associated with tomato, such as “salad”, “hotdog”, or even “farm”. This is where things get tricky, as the spy master can’t indicate at all whether the other team is right or wrong, and they really need to hope that the telepathic brain waves they’re sending over are making some sense.

Typical set up

This was a fairly loose example however, as you’d ensure that the words you hope to uncover with your key word is unique and hopefully doesn’t associate with any other codename, though you’ll find that 90% of the time, this is near-on impossible.

Once your team guesses their codenames, it’s up to you to place the corresponding cards on top of those words, whether they’re right or wrong. If they’re correct, then great, you uncover your agents. If you’re wrong however, three things can happen. If the codename belongs to your opponents agent, then they get one of their cards added to the board, and the turn is over, the same applies to the innocent bystander, though this time the opposing team doesn’t get a point. Finally, there’s the Assassin card. If you accidentally uncover this card, it’s game over.

To win the game players must fully uncover their own agents before the opposing team and without uncovering the Assassin. If successful, then boom, you win.

That’s Codenames in a nutshell. However there are more complex rules if you really want to follow them to a tee. For example, players can use certain phrases as clues, such as “Three Musketeers”, in addition, if players manage to uncover the correct agents which the spy master was referring to, they can continue to uncover agents based on past clues which they may have got incorrect – however in my opinion, this makes the game a little too complex and can cause the game to drag slightly.


Games can last anything from five to 30 minutes depending on how well you and your team perform. The game is also suitable for two players too, as an opposing team can be “simulated” by placing down a single agent after every turn, so really this game caters to teams of all sizes, which I found impressive. In addition, the game also caters to players of all ages.

Probably the best part about the game is hearing what words spy masters come up with when trying to decipher codenames, especially when the key word is about as far from the codenames as you can get!

If you’re relatively new to tabletop gaming, or you want something that’s simple to set up and really easy to play, then I’d recommend grabbing Codenames.

This copy of Codenames was supplied by Esdevium Games. To find out where you can purchase your own copy of Codenames, head to their store locator.

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