Picks

The Perfect Balance Between Lonely Agony and Raucous Collaboration

An ode to Codenames.

A photo illustration of Codenames on a pedestal
Photo illustration by Slate

Read Slate’s complete list of the 40 Best Family Games.

The unfortunate truth about “family games” is that many of them are sheer tedium for the adults in the family. (Ahem, Clue.) Meanwhile, party games are not usually favorites of the hardcore board-game people at any party, because they’re usually more about forced goofiness than elegant challenges. (Do not get me started on Cards Against Humanity.) That’s what makes the family party game Codenames so amazing. Board-game snobs and newbies love it; 8-year-olds and grandparents love it; word-puzzle people and strategy buffs love it. I really, really love it. You will, too.

Codenames is only three years old, but it already shows signs of becoming one of the greats. It’s currently the top-ranked party game among users of the gaming mecca BoardGameGeek, and the only party game in the top 100. In 2016, it won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres, a German board-game award with a track record of picking future greats. (Settlers of Catan won in 1995, and five other entries on our list have taken the top prize over the years.) More telling than any award, however, is the fact that Codenames has gone viral in a way that’s rare in the board-game world.

“Classic” games, even crummy ones, tend to stick around for a long time, while truly excellent newer games too often fall out of print. That’s because new games are expensive, and casual players are loath to learn new sets of rules. Codenames has easily cleared those barriers to entry. When I checked on Amazon, it was the No. 5 best-selling board game, behind two editions each of Monopoly (terrible, sorry) and Connect Four (are you kidding me). I’ve been forcing Codenames on everyone I know since it came out, and I can’t think of another game that has taken off in so many of my circles. A weeklong family reunion turned into a Codenames marathon, and the game is in regular rotation in my grown-up gaming groups, too. (To be fair, many of us became parents around the time Codenames was released, and somehow had less time for four-hour Eurogames. Codenames: For when life gets in the way of Agricola.)

What makes Codenames so great? Start with its simplicity. There are two teams. The “board” is a grid of 25 randomly selected cards in the center of the table, with one word printed on each card. Each team has one “spymaster,” and only the two spymasters know which cards belong to which teams. (The game has a loose “spy” theme, but it’s not important.) The spymasters take turns giving one-word clues to nudge their teammates to identify the right cards in the grid, and avoid the wrong cards. That’s pretty much it.

Codenames cards laid out in a 5x5 grid
Ruth Graham

Here’s an example. The blue team’s spymaster tells her team, “ELEPHANT, three.” That means there are three elephant-related words on the board that she wants her team to guess. Her team looks at the board and starts to discuss. IVORY looks obvious. They tap the card: Correct! CALF, too—a baby elephant is a calf, right? Right again. But now it gets tougher. DINOSAUR, maybe, because they’re similarly huge creatures? After much discussion, they tap MOUSE, because elephants are supposedly afraid of mice. Wrong. The spymaster had been thinking of NUT, because of elephants and peanuts, but she stays mum. With two cards won, it’s now the red team’s turn.

The role of spymaster is high-stakes and intense. You’re stretching to think of concise, creative clues that cover as many cards as possible, without leading your team too far astray. You are a bundle of nerves, with a mental map of possible clues and connections like a detective’s wall covered in thumbtacks and string. Did I mention the first rule of Codenames? The spymaster must remain absolutely deadpan throughout the game. No winking as your teammates circle the right answer. No giggling, no wincing, no covering your eyes, no meaningful stares. No saying, “I’m really stretching it here, but … ” as a wind-up to your clues, or exhaling “Phew, close one!” after a turn. Say the word, say the number, and turn to stone. Trust me: Hinting ruins the fun.

A game in which everyone at the table is nerve-wracked and nearly silent, of course, would not be much of a party game. But here’s what makes Codenames so addictive: Seated opposite the spymasters, the spies are having an absolute ball. While the spymaster agonizes in solitude, her teammates are yammering away about various theories and possibilities. Would Andrew have used the clue “tube” to point to WORM? Is a worm a tube? They’re laughing, arguing, riffing, spitballing, persuading, and refilling drinks. Codenames has one of the best rhythms of any board game around, alternating between lonely agony and relaxed chatter, between one-man challenge and raucous collaboration.

Here are some other ingredients to Codenames’ addictiveness: Games are short, so there are no hard feelings if you lose! It’s cheap, as board games go. You can play with four people, or nine people, or 14 people. Every grid of words is different, so every game is different, and the board changes as each game progresses. Winning requires both analytical thinking and wild intuitive leaps. The game rewards shared histories and references, but does not rely on them; it’s just as fun to play with strangers as friends. It’s easy to set up and clean up, a crucial quality in a family game. And it’s even faster to set up the second game—which you will immediately need to do.

Codenames product image with optimal age (12)

Codenames

Types: Party, Creative, Memory, Cards
Players: 4+
Time: 30 min.
Variations? Y
Expansions? Y
Play without kids? Y