Codenames – The Board Game Where Words Never Fail

Blog Post

Game background

Codenames is a popular word association board game aimed at families and partygoers, developed by Czech game designer Vlaada Chvátil and illustrated by Tomas Kucherovsky, a Czech comic book author. 

Published by Czech Games Edition, it won the 2016 German ‘Game of the Year Award’.

Game mechanics

Codenames is divided into red and blue ‘spy’ teams. Each team’s ‘spymaster’ gives a single word clue and the number of words it will match on a board of 25 word-cards. The teams’ aim is to select the most words, to get the most spies on the board and win. 

The teams must not select their rivals’ word-cards, or their opponents’ spies take these positions on the board. Selecting the ‘assassin’s’ card means you lose the game.

Codenames’ theme

The game’s theme is spying. The cards have spy images, but the game doesn’t contain spy-related clues. It’s about word connection. 

Learning the game and expectations 

During 2021 Covid lockdown, I was bored and isolated. A friend shared Codenames’ online version and gave an explanation / demonstration as we played some practise rounds. This worked for me as an ESL learner, rather than trying to understand the written instructions. As expected, my social contacts expanded as a member of a Zoom gaming community.

Codenames uses conversational English, so I easily contribute to team play. The spymaster’s role needs more elaborate English. The spymaster must read / understand different meanings, uses and relationships between word choices and devise the word clue that ties many words on the board together. The spymaster must also avoid the word clue that could cause their team to incorrectly choose the opponents’ word cards or the assassin’s word card. 

As expected, I’ve gained confidence as spymaster. I’ve learned the broader cultural context of some words. For example, I discovered that ‘suit’ doesn’t just describe ‘clothes’, but playing cards, like ‘hearts’. It’s a legal term too. 

Joshua, (2021) states, “Board games are fun to play and can help us develop strategies and critical thinking to solve problems”. Codenames is mentally stimulating. It’s a word related-ness game that requires quick, critical thinking, and effective team communication. 

You can use your intuition too – your knowledge of the spymaster – regarding the clues they give for the words you think they want you to choose on the word-board.

Best game response

I played Codenames face-to-face recently with my UOW classmates. Playing it online was entertaining but playing it ‘live’ is better. It’s more tactile, interactive and fun! It doesn’t strain your eyes or distort your posture, like the continuous visual screen contact needed for online play does.

Reynolds, (2016) states, “We like touch and tangibility, especially when engaging in shared activities. Handing someone cards … moving pieces on a board, these bring the game to life in a way that never happens … on screen.” 

Playing face to face has other advantages. Even though you should avoid giving non-verbal clues during a ‘live’ game, it’s possible to interpret your opponents’ body language to get the strategic advantage. 

Win or lose at Codenames, it’s a boardgame where words never fail!

As Reynolds, (2016) states, “Board games require thinking, can enhance your creativity and imagination…maximise your attention span…memory retention, learning, physical interactions…social…and team development.”

So, play Codenames – ‘live’ if you can. It’ll stimulate your mind – expand your social circle – increase your vocabulary – and your confidence!

Enjoy the game!


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