A light party game that i’ve often busted out at literal parties, the appeal of Codenames is that it’s extremely easy to teach, learn, and play. Within moments, you and your friends will be up and running, and going insane trying to give or interpret single-word clues. 

(click to view transcript)

Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Codenames, a competitive word association game for 2-8 players. Let me show you how to play!

You and your friends play teams of spies working together to recall your creatively codenamed agents from the field before the opposing team recalls theirs. Each game has an array of 25 cards on the table, with each card representing either a red spy, a blue spy, or an innocent bystander. There’s also one assassin in the mix, who’s essentially a booby-trap card who will lose the game for whichever team selects him.

Each team has a spymaster who, through the use of a special key card, knows which cards are red spies, which are blue, and which card is the dreaded assassin. Spymasters take turns giving one-word clues to their team members, and it’s up to the team to interpret those clues and select cards on the table. The goal for the spymasters is to get their team to point to all of their agents to recall them from the field before the enemy team points to all of their spies. A savvy spymaster will give clever clues, enabling his or her team to point to multiple spies in a single turn.


Once you’ve split into two teams, red and blue, each team elects a spymaster. The two spymasters sit next to each other on one side of the table, and other players sit together on the other side of the table. The spymasters are the only players who can see this key card, which shows them which cards on the table represent blue spies, which are red spies, and which are innocent bystanders. The key card also shows the spymasters which card is the game-ending assassin. It doesn’t matter which way the key card is rotated when you put it into the holder, and indeed, it changes the game entirely depending on its rotation. Of course, once the key card is in place, it stays like that for the rest of the game. The two spymasters keep their spymaster roles for the entire game.

The coloured light on the edge of the key card indicates which team gets to go first. So on this card, blue goes first, which means they have 9 agents out in the field, while the red team only has 8 agents to guess. So the blue team’s spymaster goes first.

The blue spymaster wants his team to guess these nine agents. To do that, he can give his team a one word clue, and a number. The one-word clue is meant to suggest one or more of the blue spies’ codenames. The number is a hint as to how many blue spies he thinks that clue describes. And the more agents he can get his team to correctly guess in a single turn, the better.

The blue spymaster scans the table and decides that he can get his team to guess these two spies: PIANO and BELL, by giving his team the clue “Musical, 2.” This means that he thinks the one-word clue “musical” connects two blue spies. This is all the blue spymaster gets to say. No facial expressions, no hand gestures, no nervous humming, and no obvious eyeball stab glances at certain cards on the table. The rest is up to his team.

Now, after some discussion, the blue team has to make at least one guess by touching one of the spy cards on the table. Depending on which card they touch, different things can happen.

Let’s say they pick up on their spymaster’s clue, and they touch the PIANO card. That’s the codename of a blue spy! It doesn’t even have to be the particular spy their spymaster was thinking of, either – what matters is they found one of their own. So the blue team’s spymaster puts a blue card over the PIANO spy. This indicates that the spy has been successfully recalled from the field. One down, 8 to go.

Since the blue spymaster said “Musical, 2,” the blue team gets two guesses, plus a bonus guess. If they don’t feel confident touching another card, they can bow out and pass play to the red team. But let’s say the blue team feels pretty good about guessing another spy. Flutes are musical, so a blue team player touches the FLUTE card. Oh no! The blue spymaster was so focused on supplying clues linking the blue spies, that he didn’t notice the clue “Musical, 2” could definitely apply to FLUTE! Since the FLUTE card is an innocent bystander, the blue spymaster puts a beige card on top. Even though the blue team gets one bonus guess, because they blew their cover to an innocent bystander, they immediately forfeit play to the red team.

The red spymaster gives her team her first clue. She thinks she can get them to guess KNIFE, BOARD, and BUG by giving the clue “CHARCUTERIE, 3” because she and her brother recently bought their mom a ladybug shaped charcuterie board for her birthday. “3” means her team can point to up to three spy cards, plus a bonus guess, but they have to make one guess at a minimum. Unfortunately, no one on the red team knows what the word “CHARCUTERIE” means, and the red spymaster’s brother wouldn’t have remembered the gift was ladybug shaped anyway, because he just gave her 20 bucks to go buy something for Mom, and he signed the birthday card at the last minute. The red team has no idea what to point at, but they have to pick something. One of the team members thinks CHARCUTERIE has something to do with meat, like a subway sandwich, so he points to the SUB card.

Oops! SUB is a blue agent! The red spymaster puts a blue card on the table. Since the red team didn’t uncover a red spy, they forfeit play back to the blue team.

The blue spymaster thinks he can get his team to guess PLASTIC and CALF by giving the clue “prosthetic leg, 2.” But before the blue team can guess, the red team points out that clues can only be one word. Caught breaking the rules, the blue team relinquishes control of the game back to the red team. The red team’s spymaster can even cover a red spy as a penalty. We’ll go over more of these specific clue rules a little later.

The red spymaster can’t believe her brother didn’t get her last clue, so she decides to double down. She says “BIRTHDAY, 0.” What she’s trying to do is to add information to her last clue… the CHARCUTERIE board for Mom’s BIRTHDAY. The red team doesn’t know this clue is related to the last one, but the fact that the number is zero pushes them towards that conclusion. The red spymaster is suggesting that there’s no new information being offered here. But it could also mean that NONE of the words on the table are related to Birthday! Yeesh! The red spymaster could also have given the number as “unlimited,” which gives her team as many guesses as they want, but you can see how that would be a risky play.

The team knows that their spymaster thought the mysterious clue “CHARCUTERIE” referred to 3 cards, and they didn’t correctly guess any of those intended cards. Since the team always gets one bonus guess over and above the number in the clue, the red team still gets to point to one card if they want to. They still have no idea what’s going on, but one player suggests that birthdays have balloons, and balloons are tied to strings, so they should guess STRING. A red team member points to STRING, and – aw, man! That’s the assassin! Unfortunately for the red team, they immediately lose the game, and according to a particularly harsh house rule, the red spymaster’s brother is summarily executed.

If the red team hadn’t guessed the assassin, play would have continued until either the red team or the blue team had recalled all of their agents to trigger the win. Of course, it’s possible for one team to accidentally guess the other team’s final spy, in which case they lose by goof.


Like most word games, the clues have to be about a word’s meaning instead of its structure. So no rhyming clues, nothing about the number of letters or syllables in words, nothing about the positions of the cards on the table. The number in the clue can’t refer to one of the words, so you can’t say “Christmas, 3” where the “3” is supposed to refer to the word “BERMUDA.” for Bermuda Triangle, since a triangle has 3 sides. Everyone has to play in English. You can’t use a word on the table as a clue unless and until that word is covered up by another card. So you couldn’t say Bootstrap, Bootlicker or Jackboot if this BOOT card was on the table. You also can’t use part of a word on the table until it’s covered up. So if SNOWMAN is on the table, you can’t give the clues Snowball, Snowden, Superman, or maneater.

It’s against the spirit of the rules to clue homonyms. So if the word is PIE, it wouldn’t be kosher to give the clue Trigonometry, because you’re talking about Pi. HomoGRAPHS are fair game. So if you see the word Bear, you could take it to mean big furry animal that bites you, but it also mean Carry or Endure, so you could clue it that way. It would be against the rules, though, to clue it as if it was spelled B-A-R-E, which means naked.

You can spell your clue for your team’s benefit, and you can even give the clue WHOLE – W-H-O-L-E, even if the word HOLE is on the table. But you couldn’t give the clue S-H-O-P-P-E if the word SHOP is on the table, because that’s just an alternate spelling of the same word.

The rulebook goes on to list various curb cases that you’re sure to fight about, like compound and hyphenated words, proper names, acronyms, and so on. Really, it’s down to whichever terms the two teams agree to.


You can play Codenames with two players, or a single team. Take a key card that makes your team go first, and play as usual, but every time the phantom enemy team takes a turn, cover one of their spy cards. But you get to pick which card you cover up, which may help you whittle down possibilities for your team to help them better guess your clues. You lose if your team picks the assassin, or if all the enemy agents get covered before you recall your team’s agents. If you win by recalling all your agents, count up the number of enemy agents that got recalled and consult the rulebook to see how you did.


A three-player game can work like a 2-player game with all three players on the same team, or you can have two spymasters, and the third person guesses cards, in good faith, based on both spymasters’ clues.

That’s it! And now, you’re ready to play Codenames!

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Get Your Own Copy of Codenames

There’s a lot i can recommend with Codenames, and while it’s been supplanted recently by what i feel is a better word-based party game, it’s still a solid addition to any board game collection. Use the Amazon link below to buy your own copy, and i’ll receive a small commission!


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