I may be Reviewed’s designated sleep writer, but I still spend around 16 hours awake each day. In my conscious hours, I love to play board games with basically anyone I can convince to join me. (Thank goodness for my trusty Nintendo Switch the rest of the time.)
Several years ago after moving to a new city, I bought Codenames in advance of my inaugural game night. It's a popular party game that I'd heard about again and again, but never played. Long story short: I enjoyed it so much that I bought the two-player version of the game, Codenames Duet, which came in handy during stay-at-home orders, when my roommate was the only other game player in my vicinity. These two board games have more than earned their keep in entertainment value.
What are Codenames and Codenames Duet?
Codenames and Codenames Duet are based on the same fundamental concept: Players work to guess certain keywords—and avoid others—by coming up with single-word clues. Both have some elements of strategy without being overwhelming or difficult to teach. The original Codenames can be played with as few as two people (more on that later), but really plays better with four or more (per the box it can accommodate “eight plus,” hence its party-game reputation), while Duet is designed for two players.
Codenames was released in 2015. Since then it’s garnered numerous nominations and awards worldwide. Its accolades include the prestigious German “Spiel des Jahres,” or “Game of the Year,” award in 2016, putting it in stellar company—other winners include Ticket to Ride and Dominion.
Codenames Duet was released a couple of years later, following the original’s resounding success. It’s also been nominated for a number of awards but didn’t receive the same widespread recognition as its predecessor.
How do you play Codenames and Codenames Duet?
Codenames starts with a five-by-five grid of cards, each card is printed with a single word. Players of four or more divide into two teams, the red team and the blue team. One member from each team per round is designated as the clue giver or, as the rule book calls it, “spymaster.”
The spymasters use a small square card—basically a legend—featuring a mini five-by-five grid with certain tiles colored blue, red, or beige. This indicates which words on the board each spymaster wants their team members to guess, and which ones they do not. To direct teammates (a.k.a. “operatives”) in the right direction, the spymaster comes up with hints that correspond to the tiles designated their team color by the legend card. Clues are always one word and one number.
The spymaster’s goal is to choose a word that somehow connects to the tile word(s) they want their teammate to guess, and the number indicates how many tiles relate to the clue. So, if I was the spymaster and wanted my operatives to guess “ice cream” and “brownie,” and there were no other sweet foods on the board, I might say, “dessert, two.” As spymaster, that’s all I’m allowed to say. I can’t clarify or give addendums, aside from spelling the word if it’s a homophone—like “read” as opposed to “reed.”
But there are also words spymasters want teammates to dodge. Players want to avoid guessing the other team’s words because it earns points for the enemy (and immediately ends the turn). There are also neutral beige cards called “innocent bystanders,” which don't end the game, but put a team at a disadvantage when guessed, as their turn ends.
Finally, players need to avoid what I've dubbed the “murder man” (which the rule book calls the “assassin”). It’s represented on the spymaster’s legend by a black square with an X on it. If anyone guesses that tile’s word, the game immediately ends and their team loses.
Codenames Duet is collaborative two-player version of the game—meaning that you and another person play against the game itself. It relies on the same five-by-five grid, but in this version both players work as operatives and spymasters. Instead of a one-sided legend, the card features a grid on either side, one for each player, with a different pattern of green and black tiles. There are nine green words for each player to guess, three of which overlap—though you don’t know which ones are shared—and three black X tiles per side. You alternate between giving clues and guessing.
Unlike in the original version there are a limited number of turns (and consequently clues) in Codenames Duet. Each clue that's given costs one “timer token,” a designated number of which are set out at the beginning. In a standard game, you have nine tokens to guess 12 words—meaning at least a few clues must correspond to multiple words on the board in order to win. Players can adjust the difficulty: The game comes with two additional tokens, so you can give yourselves more turns, if you find that nine isn’t enough.
Inversely, there’s a “pad of mission maps,” which can be used to make the game harder. The maps have a handful of cities with pairs of numbers, like “Moscow, 6-6.” The first number indicates the number of timer tokens (and thereby turns) you have, and the second digit is the number of acceptable mistakes—neutral “innocent bystanders” in this case, as there’s no opposing team—that can be made before you fail the mission.
What I like about Codenames and Codenames Duet
Codenames and Codenames Duet have great replayability (it’s a word, I swear). Thanks to the sheer number of variables that change every time you play, the games never get boring. Each round, the people giving and receiving clues change, the board setup and words differ, as do the legends. On top of that, who you play with brings a totally different experience. My roommate and I spent hours playing various card and board games since the beginning of the pandemic, including Forbidden Desert, Hanabi, and Settlers of Catan—none of which feel as variable as the Codenames games do.
Aside from replayability, the games are fast-paced once you understand the game play. For newcomers, it’s easy to get up to speed within a matter of minutes. The boxes say games take about 15 minutes to play. I’ve never had a round go that fast—though Codenames includes a timer for each turn, which I’ve yet to use (Duet lacks a timer). But even when games last for half an hour or longer, I never felt as though they were dragging out.
To top it off, there’s the games’ pure entertainment value. If you know your teammate(s) well, you can tailor your clues. On the flip side, the games can also illuminate gaping holes in people’s knowledge. For example, during one game, my roommate gave me the clue “Moses” in hopes I would guess “locust” on the board. I stumbled through a laughable but painful soliloquy during which I ventured as far as to insert Moses’ name into “Moses and Technicolor Dreamcoat,” as I grasped at straws trying to see any word on the board that could possibly be connected. (A few minutes later I remembered it is, in fact, “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) In the end, I opted out of making a guess for that clue.
If you play Codenames with large enough teams, the operatives can discuss what words the clue might be associated with. When you have people with particularly creative minds, it can become far-fetched and downright hysterical. What’s more, the other team (operatives and spymaster) can try to muddy the waters of the opposition’s guesses by pointing out additional words and how they could relate to the clue.
Another perk is portability. Even with their boxes, Codenames and Codenames Duet are small enough to pack in a carry-on bag. If you want to play with your friends who live in another state, fear not: Codenames has free online versions designed by the game manufacturer. Though I have yet to try it, I assume it will play well, seeing as it’s made by the distributor of the game.
What I don’t like about Codenames and Codenames Duet
The biggest downside of Codenames is that you need both versions if you want to play with only two (Duet) or up to eight players, maybe more (regular version).
The original Codenames just doesn’t work very well for two players, even with modifications, which I tried before I bought Duet. When you play it that way, there is just one operative, and one spymaster for the entire game. In my experience, the spymaster winds up taking protracted turns to think of clues, while the guesser is bored, waiting with nothing to do. When they finally get a clue, the time the operative spends guessing is usually too fast for the spymaster to have prepared their next clue. Sure, using the timer would mitigate this issue, and while the game is still fun for two people, it just doesn’t play as well as it does with more. In addition, you lose the “party” aspect and chatter between teams that’s part of the game’s popularity to begin with. Even with four players, Codenames is not at its best. My preference is to play with at least six people, so that the two operatives for each team can banter and brainstorm to solve their spymaster’s clues.
Codenames Duet makes two-player games engaging and enjoyable, but it doesn’t fare well with more players, which the rule book says is possible if you play in teams. However, I’d assume the teams would want to discuss aloud the clues to give when they’re the spymaster. Otherwise you could give one person full control to provide clues, but it would exclude their teammates and defeat the “collaborative” aspect of the game. Yet discussion would be impossible. If during our turn as spymasters, I say to my team member(s), “I think we should give the clue ‘motorcycle, 3,’” and a teammate nixes it, because the word “engine” is on the board and matches the black X on the legend, the other team will have heard everything, spoiling part of the game.
Another small downside: After playing Codenames again and again and again, I started to see some of the same words. It’s not a dealbreaker, because the board and target words are always changing, but if you play mostly with the same people, it could get annoying. If you get both Codenames and Duet, you can combine the word tiles from each for more variation, and the brand offers a bunch of additional versions (such as Codenames Deep Undercover, an adult version of the game, Codenames Pictures which uses images instead of words, and Codenames: Disney Family Edition), but it doesn’t sell expansion packs, like you might expect from a card-based game.
Are Codenames and Codenames Duet worth it?
Codenames and Codenames Duet are absolutely worth the cost. They’re well designed games that have endless replayability. They're easy to teach to new players, which makes them great for parties and events. What’s more, they’re on the affordable end of the board-game spectrum, with retail prices just shy of $20.
Though each game has limitations in terms of the number of people who can play, I think they’re well worth the restrictions. If you’re totally new to the game, I’d suggest starting with original Codenames, as its game play is simpler—unless you anticipate only having two players available, in which case Codenames Duet is the way to go.
The games themselves may not be a win-win—you’ve got to keep your eye on the “murder men,” for sure—but as for buying them? That’s a surefire victory.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.