Codenames Rules

Codenames Rules

Codenames Rules

Codenames is a 2016 Spiel des Jahres Winner, and a firm favourite in many households for its simple but engrossing mechanics. If you’re wondering how to play the popular Codenames game, you’re in the right place. We’ll take you through all of the game rules so that you’ll be an expert in no time.

About Codenames

Codenames is a great party game to play in groups to bring some friendly competitiveness to the evening. In the game, two teams compete against each other as different spy networks, both working with the goal of contacting their own secret agents. Through communicating in code, who will find their secret agents first while avoiding the assassin?

Within your Codenames board game you will find:

  • 200 cards with 400 codenames.
  • 40 layout key cards.
  • 16 agent cards: 8 blue, 8 red. 
  • 7 bystander cards.
  • 1 double agent card.
  • 1 card stand.
  • 1 timer.

The game is best enjoyed with more than 4 players aged 10 and above, but if you’re looking for a two player version check out Codenames Duet. Now that you’re ready to play, read on to find instructions for the original Codenames game.

How to play Codenames

In Codenames, your team will aim to contact secret agents, with the winning team being the one that contacts all of their agents first. Within each team, you will have one spymaster, with the rest of the team members playing as operatives.

`1.Set up your game.

To start, lay out a 5x5 grid of words, in this game known as ‘codenames’. A key card will then be drawn, which only the two spymasters are permitted to look at. This key card will indicate where the blue and red team’s agents are, as well as other characters.

As you can see above, this card indicates which codenames relate to each team - there will be 8 agents for one team to find and 9 for the other. The plain spaces signify ‘innocent bystanders’ and the black square is the one you don’t want your teammates to find - the deadly assassin. This card also indicates which team goes first based on the colour bordering the key - in this case, red.
2.The spymaster gives their clue.
During their go, the spymaster is allowed to say one word and one number to their team member operatives to give a clue for where the special agents are located. The word is a clue decided by your spymaster that they think will help their operatives to find the agents. The number stated is the quantity of codenames your word clue relates to. For example, if your spymaster says “clothing 3”, you’ll be looking for 3 words relating to clothing on your board. For operative team members, your goal is to contact spy agents based on the clues given by your spymaster.
3.Teams take turns guessing where their agents are.

If there is more than one operative on a team, they can discuss between themselves which codenames they think the spymaster is referring to before making their decision. Once the team has finished their discussion, they will choose one codename to put forward first. The spymaster will reveal whether they are correct by consulting with the key card – if the codename chosen is right, they will place a team agent card on top of the word. If the choice is wrong, you will have landed on either an innocent bystander, the other team’s agent (which will give them a point) or even worse, the deadly assassin. If the assassin card is shown, this means your team instantly loses!

If you choose the correct word to start with, then you are able to continue your guess up to the number stated by your spymaster plus one. E.g. If they said “clothing 3”, and your first guess was correct, then you can continue to guess two more codenames, and a further one if this is correct again. You also have the option to pass, if you do not want to risk turning over an incorrect card. If you were wrong on your first guess, however, this means your turn is over.

4. Find all of your secret agents while avoiding the assassin.

Teams alternate making guesses based on their spymaster’s clues until all cards belonging to one team are revealed or the assassin is revealed. Find all of your secret agents first to be crowned the winner! The connection will not always be as simple as 3 items of clothing - if you’re a spymaster you might struggle to think of connections between completely random words, and if you’re an operative, will your brain work the same way as the spymaster's to identify these connections?

Additional rules for spymasters include:

  • Do not give any extra clues than your two words (that includes facial expressions too!)
  • You can’t say part of the codename as a clue – e.g. star if the word is starfish.

 Where to Buy Codenames

If you want to buy Codenames, you could use our helpful game store locator tool to find stores near you. If you’re a fan of the original codenames game, there are also many great variations that have been developed with different images or words instead of the original codenames, including The Simpsons, Disney family, or Harry Potter.