How to Play Codenames in 3 Minutes – The Rules Girl

I’m the Rules Girl, and this is Codenames, a team wordplay game for four or more players. In Codenames, you play as members of two competing spy networks, communicating in codes to contact your secret agents, while avoiding the deadly assassin. The goal of the game is to win, and you win by being the first team to contact all of their secret agents. The game is played on a 5 by 5 grid of words, representing the codenames of secret agents such as “Jack”, “Moscow”, and “Diamond”. Each team has one Spymaster, with the rest of the team playing as Operatives. At the beginning of the game, the two spymasters draw ONE key card to share.

This card is for spymasters’ eyes only, and shows them which codenames on the grid belong to which teams. The team whose color borders the key card goes first, but has one more agent to contact than the other team. So, 8 of these agents belong to one team, 9 belong to the other team, 1 is the deadly assassin, and the rest are innocent bystanders. As an operative, your goal is to contact agents based on the clues your spymaster gives you. Each turn, your spymaster can say one word and one number: the clue and the number of codenames on the board that clue applies to.

So, if your spymaster says “Animal: 3”, he might be trying to clue you into “Buffalo”, “Spider”, and “Dog”. Once they have the spymaster’s clue, the field operatives may discuss what they think the clue means, and take a guess by touching the card. That agent is now revealed, placing its identity card on top of the word. If you touched one of your team’s agents, you may continue guessing, up to the number stated by your spymaster plus one, or you may pass.

If your spymaster said “0” or “infinite” as the number, you have unlimited guesses. But beware, if you touch a card that doesn’t belong to your team, that card is revealed, and your turn is over. If it’s an innocent bystander, nothing happens, but you could accidentally give a point to the other team, or worse: If you touch the assassin, your team instantly loses! Teams alternate turns until every card belonging to one team is revealed, or the assassin is revealed. There are a few simple ground rules for spymasters.

Do not communicate anything except your clues during the game. Put on your best poker face. Do not use words that appear on unrevealed cards: for instance, don’t say “horse” to clue in “Horse” and “Horseshoe”. Finally, your clue must relate to the meaning of the words you’re trying to clue, not their structure. So don’t use “B” to clue in “Block” and “Board, or “Well” to clue in “Bell” and “Cell”. You’re now ready to play Codenames.

Draw 25 codenames and arrange them in a 5-by-5 grid. Decide on teams, choose your spymasters, and have your spymasters draw a Key Card and look at it together. The team whose color borders the key card goes first.

If you liked Codenames, you might also like it’s Pictures variant, which uses pictures instead of words. You might also like other guessing games like Dixit or Deception: Murder in Hong Kong. If you enjoyed the spy theme, you might enjoy other Spy party games like Spyfall.

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