Codenames Is the Perfect Pandemic Game, Will Save Your Social Life

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<i>Codenames</i> Is the Perfect Pandemic Game, Will Save Your Social Life

If I thought they needed it, I would give Zoom Communications Company my money. I don’t think they do—their software has become so ubiquitous during our collective COVID nightmare that they must be raking it in somehow. I hope so, anyway, because as long as we don’t find out that they’re funded by ICE or that the hidden Zoomlords are spying on us when we go to the bathroom, they deserve it. Zoom has been a lifesaver in a few key ways, and for me, the most important of those ways is facilitating Codenames.

What is Codenames? It’s a question I couldn’t have answered before the pandemic, whereas today I could write 300 pages on the legality and morality of cluing hyphenated words. The good news is that you don’t need a dissertation to understand. It’s actually a pretty simple game, it can be played with as few as four players or as many as…well, a lot...and thanks to their online site, I can show you how it works.

First, every game starts with a 5×5 board featuring 25 words:


As you see, they are all nouns, and all a little different. Nine of these words belong to the red team, eight belong to the blue team, seven are neutral, and one is the assassin. I’ll explain what that means in a second, but next I want to show you the view of the Spymaster, a role that one player on each team fulfills. The spymasters, and the spymasters alone, see this view of the board:


The red Spymaster’s job is to get his team to click all the red words before the blue team can click all the blue words, but—important—he can only say one word each turn to get them to do so. The teams exchange a turn, ending a turn when they’re done guessing, they hit a neutral, or they hit the other team’s clue. Hit the assassin, and the game’s over. As team member click words, they turn colors, so that eventually, if you’re not the spymaster, you’ll see something like this:


Like all great games, that simple premise expands into intricate game play. The catch here is that each spymaster can knock off multiple words with one clue, and the one who pulls that off, without getting too ambitious and leading his team to disaster, will win.

Let’s take a look at the board above. Red starts out with nine clues, which means they go first. If you were the red spymaster, what would you use as your first word?

For me, a few things come to mind. First, “veterinarian, 2.” (The spymaster says the number of words he wants his team to guess with each clue.) I figure that might get me “stethoscope” and “penguin.” Here’s the problem—you can’t just look at your own clues. Elsewhere on the board, we also see “squirrel,” a neutral clue, “turkey,” a blue clue, and worst of all, the assassin “jellyfish.” Cluing a word involving animals could be an awful blunder. Maybe instead you’d opt for “sonnet, 2,” hoping your team could get “line” and “valentine.” Or you could try “surgery, 2,” hoping to get “stethoscope” and “saw.” You see how the possibilities start to overlap.

Switching over to blue, you can see an immediate conundrum: The spymaster there has to find a way to clue “scuba diver” without cluing the assassin, “jellyfish.” That’s a delicate act that might cause trouble later. However, there are opportunities on this board, more so than we see with red. Right off the bat, I like “vulture, 3,” which could potentially get you “sahara,” “death,” and “turkey” all at once. “Entertainment, 2,” gets you “Hollywood” and “opera,” and maybe “performer, 3” gets you those and “jockey.” All in all, as a spymaster, I’d prefer blue’s board.

The game keeps getting more complex as it goes on—each team has to keep in mind the clues they’ve missed, and strategy enters in subtle ways (don’t re-clue words, use the dreaded “0” clue to steer your team away from certain words, don’t clue a word that’s blocking your opponent, and the desperation “infinity” runs at game’s end).

I’m lucky enough to have a group of online weirdos with whom I can usually stir up a game on a given night, and I’ve gotten so nerdy with it that I’m part of a 20-person, 10-week “Codenames Premier League.” (Okay, fine, I started the league.) But believe me, you don’t have to be as insane as I am to enjoy the hell out of this game. It’s really the perfect social engagement, in that anyone can learn to play instantly, it’s sufficiently luck-dependent that “good” players can lose to bad ones at any point, and also, it’s hilarious.

That’s an underrated element of Codenames. If you like talking shit, getting fake-mad at your partners, and/or potentially looking like an idiot yourself, you have found your game. The first time I played with one of my friends, he started by crowing about how good he was, how much he had played, and etc. Alcohol may have played a part. And in fact, he is very good, but in this particular game, he started off as spymaster by cluing the word “delivery” when “amazon” was the assassin, and went down in flames immediately. We haven’t stopped reminding him of this since.

It’s also, on a very basic level, just a fun way to hang. I’ve found that group Zoom chats with some kind of activity tend to go better and fizzle out less quickly than ones where everyone is just sitting around talking. Codenames is a great hang-out vehicle, and in a way, having it as a backdrop tends to spur more (and more interesting) conversation than your run-of-the-mill digital party. Many is the time when we’ve fired up Zoom to play, only to discover a half hour later that we haven’t made it through a single board and are all a little bit drunker. If you want to get serious, you can set timers, but sometimes the joy is just in shooting the shit with a game to fall back on.

This piece should have been written months ago, but with no end in sight to the pandemic and a long winter ahead, classify this as both “better late than never” and “don’t say I’ve never done anything for you.” As a boon to our limited social lives, Codenames is a godsend, and even the dreaded assassin is better than drinking alone.

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .