In this article, you can read about the basic rules of the game Codenames and learn how to play. The object of the game is to be the first team to find all your agents.
Is spelling allowed? [Can you spell?]
NO. This should be obvious but let’s clarify. Spelling any word when guessing is not allowed. See more under ‘Meaningful Clues‘ and ‘Same spell – same word‘ subheadings below.
Are rhymes allowed? [Can you rhyme?]
YES. Rhymes are valid guesses, See more under ‘Rhymes‘ subheading below.
Split into two teams of two or more players each. Shuffle the code name cards and layout 25 of them on the table in a 5×5 grid. Each team picks one player to be their spymaster. The two spymasters sit next to each other while their teammates sit across the table. The spymasters draw one key card randomly and slide it into the stand between them. Any side can be up. Only the spymasters are allowed to see it.
Give each spymaster a set of colored agent tiles. The key card corresponds to the grid of codename cards on the table indicating which words correspond to which team. Blue words are for the blue team and red is for the red team. Pale squares are neutral and black squares indicate the word that if it is picked your team loses the game immediately. The four lights on the edge of the key card indicate which team starts.
The starting team has nine words to guess and the other has eight. Give the starting team the double-sided colored agent tile. The starting spymaster gives a one-word clue followed by a number and then their teammates guess. Then, the other spymaster takes a turn. Play continues to alternate until there is a winner.
To give a clue you may only say one word followed by one number. The word is a clue to the words on the board and the number is referring to how many words on the board that clue applies to. For example, tree two. The spymaster may not say the word on any card face-up on the table or say any number of other words to give any sort of clue.
After a clue is given the spymaster must keep a straight face and sealed lips as their teammates try to figure out the words to guess. Teammates indicate their official guests when they touch one of the cards on the table.
At such a point their spymaster covers up the card by the corresponding colored tile. If the tile is that team’s color then the teammates can guess again. If the tile is the opponents or the neutral color then their turn ends immediately. Lastly, If the tile is black then that team loses the game.
Teammates must always make at least one guess. If they guess correctly they may guess again if they like so long as the total number of guesses does not exceed the number plus one that their spymaster said in his clue.
So, if the spymaster said tree to the most guesses his teammates would have is three. If the spymaster gives an invalid clue that team’s turn ends immediately. Additionally, the other team places one of their colored tiles on any one of their words.
Your clue must be about the meaning of the words. You can’t use your clue to talk about the letters in the word or a position on the table. The gland is not a valid clue for England.
You can’t tie bug, bed, and bow together with a clue like b3 nor with the clue like three-three. However, letters and numbers are valid clues as long as they refer to meanings.
You can use eight three as a clue for a ball, figure, and octopus. The number you say after your clue can’t be used as a clue.
You must play in English. A foreign word is allowed only if the players in your group would use it in an English sentence. You can’t say any form of a visible word on the table. Until break is covered up by a card, you can’t say break, broken, breakage or breakdown.
You can’t say any part of a compound word on the table. The same sounding words with different meanings and different spellings are considered different words. So, you can’t give knight-related clues for the night.
Same spell – same word
Words that are spelled the same are considered the same even though they might have different pronunciations and meanings. For example, actors take a bow and the bow is a part of a ship. So, you could use a bow as a clue for theater and ship. You can also use it as a clue for archery related things even though that bow and bow are pronounced differently.
You are allowed to spell out your clue. For example, if you want your teammates to guess theatre and string you can spell out B Oh W without committing to a pronunciation. You should spell out your clue if someone asks. If you aren’t that strong of a speller ask the opposing spymaster for help.
England and Ireland were originally compound words but in this century Ireland is a valid clue for England. Even land is a valid clue for England and anybody who says you can’t say Sparrow when a row is on the table is just trying to cause trouble. If the opposing spymaster allows it the clue is valid. If you aren’t sure, ask the opponent quietly so the others can’t hear.
Players judgment calls
Sometimes you have to make judgment calls about what is valid and what is not. Different groups may prefer to play the game differently.
English has three ways to write a compound word. A greenhouse is one word. Packrat is two words. The mother-in-law is hyphenated. Technically, only the greenhouse can be a one-word clue.
You can decide to allow any compound words. However, in no case should a player be allowed to invent compound words. Proper names are always valid clues if they follow the other rules. Your group can agree to count proper names as one word. This would also allow titles such as The Three Musketeers. Even if you don’t allow multi-word proper names you might want to make an exception for place names like New York.
Clues too good
Spymasters should not be allowed to make up names not even names that turn out to be real. Soomi is not a valid clue for China and the lawyer. Technically, the CIA is not one word but it is a great clue. You can decide to allow common abbreviations like the UK, lol, and Ph.D., and words like a laser, radar, and sonar are always allowed even though they originated as acronyms.
Some people prefer to allow more liberal use of homonyms. You can allow the night to be a clue for night related things if that makes the game more fun for you.
Rhymes are always valid when they refer to meanings. Snail is a valid clue for mail because this is a common phrase. Snail is also a valid clue for whale because they are both animals. A snail is not a valid clue for scale because their main association is through the sound of the words.
Some people like to allow any kind of rhyming clue. If you decide to allow this just remember that you aren’t allowed to indicate that you are giving a rhyming clue.
You are allowed to use 0 as the number part of your clue. For example, feathers 0 means none of our words relate to feathers. If 0 is the number, the usual limit on the guesses does not apply. Your teammates can guess as many words as they want. They still must guess at least one word.
Multiple words to guess
Sometimes you may have multiple unguessed words related to clues from previous rounds. If you want your team to guess more than one of them, you may say unlimited instead of a number. For example, feathers unlimited.
The disadvantage is that your teammates do not know how many words are related to the new clue. The advantage is that they can correctly guess as many words as they want. The first team to get all their colored agent tiles on the board wins.
Two players – one team
If there are only two of you, you can play on the same team. This two-player variant also works for larger groups of people who do not feel like competing against each other. You will try to get a high score against a simulated opponent.
Set up the game, as usual. One player will be the spymaster and the rest will be teammates. The other team has no players but you will still need their stack of agent cards. Your team should go first. So, pick an appropriate key card. Play your turns as usual.
The spymaster simulates the enemy team by covering up one of their words each time they get a turn. The spymaster gets to choose which word is covered. If your team uncovers the assassin or if all the enemy agents are placed you lose. There is no score. If your team wins, however, give yourself a score based on how many agent cards are still left in the enemy’s stack.
If you have three players and two players want to compete against each other, they can be spymasters and the third player can be their shared teammate. Set up the game and play as usual. Except that the remaining player is working for both sides trying to do a good job for both spymasters.