Fun spy theme
Helps with vocabulary and word association
Multiple ways to play
Not as enjoyable with two players
Can be slow
Game night is one of my family’s most treasured traditions, but with five kids and endless distractions, it’s not always easy to set aside the time. This makes it especially important to choose a board game that’s entertaining enough to keep everyone engaged. Enter Codenames, a spy-themed word game. Read on to see if the family-friendly activity was able to successfully infiltrate our game night rotation.
Design: Sleek, sturdy cards
The cards used in Codenames are simple but elegantly designed. I like that they’re made of thick cardstock; they feel like they’re built to last. The game contains a set of 200 double-sided “codename” cards labeled with, you guessed it, codenames. There are also 16 agent cards, featuring photos of undercover spies for either the blue or the red team, and seven innocent bystander cards.
Finally, there is one double agent card, one assassin card, as well as 40 key cards, which contain different color-coded configurations that correspond to the other cards (more on that next).
My kids and I found that setting up and playing this game is much easier than it sounds, and there are online videos that some may find more useful than written instructions.
Essentially, the goal of this game is to crack the secret codenames of designated spies before the opponents can do so. Start by dividing into red and blue teams, selecting a “spymaster” for your team, and setting out 25 randomly chosen codename cards in a five-by-five grid. This setup allows for a new game board each time and ensures a fresh combination of words—something my family, and particularly my teenage son, really appreciated.
Both spymasters should be seated at one side of the table, with their teammates sitting across from them. (The codenames are printed in both directions so they can be read from either side.) The blue and red agent cards should be stacked in front of the respective spymaster.
A spymaster draws a key card from the face-down deck and places it in the card stand in a random orientation so that it’s visible to the spymasters but not to the other players. Again, these keys relate to the grid laid out on the table. Blue or red squares on the key cards indicate the location of agents for either the blue or red team, while pale squares are innocent bystanders, and the black square is the assassin.
Illustrated lights around the key card signal which team goes first: red or blue. Find and flip the double agent card so that it displays the team going first and place it in the appropriate stack. The assassin and bystander cards should be readily available to both spymasters. Overall, setup took us about a minute or two; my boys easily accomplished this on their own after a quick perusal of the rules.
Gameplay: Secret agent man (and woman)
Using the key card as a guide, the spymasters take turns giving associated one-word, one-number clues to help their teammates guess which codeword stands in for their team’s agent. (Of course, there are rules regarding what spymasters can and cannot say—and there can’t be any hints or reactions to conversation or guesses.)
Since the team that unlocks the code to all fellow agents first wins, we quickly learned that it’s best to try and think of a word that can apply to several agents. A correct guess is rewarded with more guesses. For example, if the blue team has spies with codenames “dog,” “cat,” and “turkey,” the spymaster might give the prompt of “animals, three.” If the players guess dog—or any codename with a fellow agent, even if it wasn’t one of the three the spymaster was referring to—they get to go again. Each team is allotted the same number of guesses as said by the spymaster and can use all of these guesses as long as each guess unearths one of their agents. If they get them all right, they can guess once more.
In our experience, the more people, the better the match.
The codes are not usually that simple, though, and you can run into issues. Let’s say the red team also had an agent under an animal-related codename; if the blue team mistakenly guesses that word, it uncovers an agent for the opposing team, which benefits the opposing team. Needless to say, the spymaster needs to carefully select clues to avoid his teammates picking the wrong card.
When players choose a codename that they believe corresponds to one of their agents, the spymaster puts the card matching the true identity of the person (an agent card for either the blue or red team, an innocent bystander, or the assassin) on top of that codename. Guessing incorrectly (whether an agent for the opposing team or an innocent bystander) ends a turn. If a team guesses the codename for the assassin, though, the game is over, and the other team wins. We found that this feature adds a little more risk and augments the game’s excitement level.
Entertainment Value: Double-0-FUN
My kids love anything spy-themed and are avid readers, so I thought they would gravitate toward this game and the word association premise. To my surprise, they were less than enthusiastic at first; they found the combination of spy intrigue with wordplay off-putting and didn’t see how the two components would work together.
Still, we gave it a shot, beginning with the two-person version. While it’s nice to have the option to play as a duo (especially for younger players who require a slower pace), we found that this version eliminates the competitive component, giving no urgency to the guessing part and no suspense to the outcome.
While it’s nice to have the option to play as a duo, we found that this version eliminates the competitive component.
The game can also be played collaboratively, with two or more players teaming up to unlock the codenames together, which my family found took our game to the next level. Once we lured a few additional would-be spies to the table for a total of four or five players, Codenames really took off. This allowed for more productive brainstorming and resulted in better clues and guesses—as well as the occasional silly, laugh-out-loud moments. In our experience, the more people, the better the match.
Additionally, the more we played, the more fun the rounds became as everyone starts to get the hang of the word associations, particularly ones that will provide clues to locate more than one spy at the same time.
Educational Value: Alt lit
Players learn and grow their communication skills without even thinking about it. Well, actually you are actively thinking about it, but it feels like decoding secret spy messages instead of the stress of taking the English language skills portion of the SAT. Vocabulary and word association (and not to mention collaboration) all tie into the strategy of Codenames, and game time will definitely work these literary muscles.
Players learn and grow their communication skills without even thinking about it.
Age Range: Double digits
This game is designed for ages 10 and up. My 12- and 14-year-old boys had fun playing Codenames together with me as well as with their buddies. My 15-year-old daughter, who loves reading, also enjoys playing this game with her friends.
Younger kids can certainly play, too, and they’re likely to be the group most attracted to the spy theme. However, most will have better luck in a teammate role as opposed to the spymaster, since the spymaster has the challenging responsibility of coming up with the word association clues.
Younger kids will have better luck in a teammate role as opposed to the spymaster.
My 9-year-old enjoyed this game quite a bit when we played on a team together or one-on-one. I’ve found that the play of this game gets sillier and, oddly, slightly faster-paced with larger groups, so adding a few younger siblings ends up making it more fun.
Ease of Storing: Organized box
The game pieces pack away in individual plastic bags and then back into the Codenames package. I like that the game fits without any fuss and is well-organized within the smallish box, maximizing fun out of an easy-to-store container.
Price: A steal
Codenames costs around $20. This is a very reasonable price for a game that features several ways to play (both collaboratively or against each other and with multiple numbers of players) and is fun for a wide age range. This is also a game that can be played again and again without getting old, as the board is set up in a new way each time.
Codenames vs. Apples to Apples
Both of these games rely heavily on language skills and word associations, and both are excellent with a variety of group sizes. They also boast a similar price tag. In Apples to Apples, players submit noun cards that best match up with descriptive cards. This concept tends to lean toward silliness (and often hilarity), while Codenames falls into the more serious territory. Of course, board games are subjective, but in our opinion, Apples to Apples is so fun, it can’t be beaten.
- Product Name Codenames
- Product Brand Czech Games
- Price $12.99
- Weight 1.25 lbs.
- Product Dimensions 9 x 6.3 x 2.8 in.
- Players 2+
- Manufacturer Recommended Age Range 10+
- Weight 1.25 lbs.
- What’s Included Cards, rule book, card stand, and timer