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How to Play: Codenames

How to Play Codenames

As the 2016 Spiel des Jahres Winner, Codenames is a must-have game for any board game fan. It works on so many levels, and with so many variations there's something to suit everyone.

Let’s take a quick look at how it plays, and then the differences between some of the different versions.

No Time To Die

Codenames is best for a group of four, split into two teams of two. It can also work in any variation of two to eight players, but an even number is best. Either way, the sky won’t fall if you have uneven player counts. Just divide up as equally as you can, and sit opposite ends of the table. One team is blue, the other red.

On the guessing side, you are the ‘field operatives.’ You will see 25 cards laid out in a five-by-five grid. Each card has a single word on it. The words are shown both the right way up and upside-down, so the cards can be easily read on both sides of the table. These are the codenames of secret agents. On the other side, as the ‘Spymaster’ you will see this grid too, but you also have a key card. The key card shows you the location of the nine secret agents for the starting team, the eight secret agents for the second team, one assassin, and seven neutral parties.

The Spymaster's job is to try and link words for and offer clues to the guessing side. For example, if the words you're trying to link are "Elephant," "Bat," and "Mouse," you could give the clue “Animal” to link them.

Die Another Day

You should try to avoid giving clues that could lead to the field operatives picking neutral or opponent cards. Picking a neutral card ends their turn. Picking an opponent card ends the turn and also assists the other team. Worse, the assassin card ends the game immediately and your team loses. You can always play another round to try and live, or die, another day.

The Field Operatives try and piece together the clues given and match them to the words available, then point and touch the chosen card(s). Each clue is given with a number. "Animal Three,” for example. This means three words link to “Animal,” but you don’t have to guess exactly three. You could guess any amount from zero to four, as you can always guess one more than the number offered to you. Perhaps you got two correct for “Animal Three,” and missed “Bat” because you read the card as the sporting item. Later you might realise “Bat” was what your partner had meant, so could go for this as your extra guess. For example, say you are given the clue of “Outdoors Two.” You see “Forest” and “Mountain” and guess those two both correctly. You can then guess “Bat,” even though it doesn’t relate to the current clue.


If you're falling behind or running out of words that you can group together, the game has a special mechanic to help you out. Instead of a number, you can say “Unlimited” after the clue. This means there is only one word related to the clue. Your team now has the chance to guess some of the other answers from previous clues - or just use blind luck. At this point in the game, the sky won't fall in if you get it wrong. So it's worth a try. If there are five cards left and your opponent has one, you have three, and the last is the assassin, it's the perfect time to risk it.

Let’s say one word was “America,” but the other two were unrelated. You wouldn’t say “Country Two” or “Country Three” just so they could guess all three cards, as this would indicate all three remaining words link to “Country.” Instead, you would say “Country Unlimited.” Generally, this means one of the words links to the clue. and then there are others that don’t. You need some luck to just try and guess the others.

You can also say “Zero” as the number, which means none of your team's words are linked to the clue and you can guess as many as you like. This can be good if there are 6 words left, for example, and you cannot link your remaining three, but the one word you definitely don’t want them to guess (the assassin) is easier to separate. Let’s say in this scenario, your team has three words left and they don’t link together at all. Your opponent has one, that is “Arm,” and the assassin is “Shoe.” You could say “Foot Zero.” This then gives the field operatives the chance to eliminate “Shoe” and potentially “Arm” as well, knowing one is the opponent's card and the other the assassin, and then have a chance to guess the remaining three on their side.

Quantum of Solace

There are a lot of rules about clues that are and aren’t legal, such as referencing the word's location on the grid, the number of letters in the word, starting letter, or linking words together in a compound. Such as offering “Horse” as a clue for “Horseshoe.” If you do, that team's turn is over. Be flexible with these rules if you can to have fun, just be fair to both sides. You don’t want to be sat in a quantum of solace as the Spymaster thinks for hours, restricted by the rules. Also, don’t be afraid to just give a clue for one card. On some occasions, this is fine and all you can do.

That’s it. The game plays until one side guesses all their agents, or one side accidentally picks the assassin. You can play multiple rounds, that’s up to you. Let's now have a quick run-through of some other variations of Codenames.

Codenames: Pictures

This game plays the same as the original but has pictures instead of words. However, the pictures are all duel layered. E.g, you could have a picture of a feather above a bear trap. This allows you to link cards easier, but also adds risk to people guessing the wrong card. It's great for kids or people with issues reading the words.

You can read the Zatu Review of Codenames: Pictures here.

Codenames: Duet

While both Pictures and the original game have a two-player variant, this version is designed specifically for two players. This allows for a more structured two-player experience, with the key cards set up to just one colour. There is also more of a challenge to this two-player mode compared to the other two-player variants, with the addition of two extra assassins. The game has a good scoring mechanic, challenging you to guess the cards in a certain amount of turns. It's definitely worth getting if you are going to play more often in a two.

You can read the Zatu Review of Codenames: Duet here.

Codenames: Deep Undercover

This is almost identical to the main game, other than the words you are guessing offer suggestive connotations. You can read our Zatu Review here.

Codenames: Disney – Family Edition

This is the best version for families or massive Disney fans. There's an option for the game to be a little easier, with a four-by-four grid being used without an assassin. There is also an advanced variant with a five-by-five and assassins added back in. The cards are double sides again, with pictures on one side and words on the other. It’s a real mix of classic and modern Disney, and knowing the films does help a lot! The pictures are brightly coloured characters or scenes. The words are mainly the names of characters, but there are other things like “Kiss,” “Reef” and “Contract.”

You can find our review here.

Codenames: Marvel

Much like the Disney version, but themed with Marvel characters and references. Perfect if you are a fan. We have a review of Codenames: Marvel available here.

Codenames: XXL

Codenames: XXL is a much larger version of the original game, to help people with vision impairment issues. While the original card size in Codenames was 2.6″ × 1.7″, Codenames XXL contains cards sized 4.7″ × 2.8″.

Not sure if Codenames is the game for you? Check out our review to see what we thought about it!

Editors note: This blog was originally published on June 17th, 2021. Updated on January 25th, 2022 to improve the information available.