Leprechaun Assassin: Following the Clues in Codenames

Codenames, designed by Vlaada Chvatil and published by Czech Games Edition, is a wordplay game for two to eight players. Like Smash Up, which I reviewed in January, it’s on Popular Mechanics’ list of the 35 Best New Board Games to play.

I recently got a group together for it—we started with five players since we are quite an odd bunch. No one in the group, which ranged in age from 12 to 39, had played the game previously, so we had a quick walk-through round, then grabbed the wine and ham and cheese sliders (which, by the way, were a hit) and got down to playing.

Codenames box

Codenames by Vlaada Chvatil

Codenames is played with two teams: red team and blue team. Yes, there were several references to Red vs Blue made throughout the evening. (For those of you who may not be aware, Red vs. Blue is a parody of first-person-shooter video games using Halo game footage. I’m a huge fan and I highly recommend it. But I digress.) Each team appoints one Spymaster, who will be giving the clues, and the rest of the team will work together as the Operatives. Spymasters sit on one side of the table and the Operatives sit opposite of them. Twenty-five random double-sided codename cards are laid down in a five-by-five grid pattern, each representing either a red agent, a blue agent, an innocent bystander, or the one deadly assassin. This means the assassin can be a leprechaun . . . or a fish or a galaxy or 397 other possibilities! In the example below, the assassin is the bed—so many jokes. The Spymasters choose one of the 40 key cards, which assign specific codenames to each team. You can also download an app for a random key card generator and timer with voiceover alert. (We didn’t use a timer.)

5 x 5 card grid of "codenames"

The five-by-five card grid of codenames.

Each round, the Spymasters each give one clue and one number. The clue is a word that hopefully describes multiple cards—but the Spymaster has to be careful that their clue word doesn’t describe one of the opposing team’s cards, which could cause your Operatives to choose the wrong one. The number represents the number of cards that particular clue describes (in theory—more on that below). It’s also the number of guesses the Operatives will get. Together, the Operatives make a decision, and one person touches the card that represents their choice; this eliminates the confusion of teammates blurting out or talking amongst themselves while making their choice. The Spymaster will place a card to cover the codename—the team card if correct, the opposing team’s card if incorrect, the bystander card if the codename belongs to neither team, or the assassin card in which case the game will end. The team that covers all its codenames first wins.

Codenames Key card showing the location of the blue and red codenames along with the location of the assassin.

Codenames key card showing the location of the blue and red codenames along with the location of the assassin.

We began to realize you could develop a bit of a strategy. If the Spymaster said “Water, 4” but the Operatives were only able to get three, during our next turn the Spymaster could say “Yellow, 2” even if only one codename represented something yellow. This would give the Operatives another chance to choose a codename representing water. This really worked when the Spymaster and Operative had been playing together a while and developed some weird sense of telepathy.

Codenames game midplay with blue and red codenames covered along with an innocent bystander.

The game midplay with blue and red codenames covered, along with an innocent bystander.

I loved playing Codenames, and it was a great game to play with kids and adults together. The fact that we could play one game for several hours and players were able to switch out as many times as they wanted makes this one of my favorite party games. Some people stayed for multiple rounds, some played one round and stepped aside to watch, but no matter how many rounds were played, everyone had a great time. The only thing I didn’t like personally was being the Spymaster—I just couldn’t think of creative words.

Stay tuned for next month, when we will be celebrating Geek and Sundry‘s International Tabletop Day (April 30) by playing a completely different kind of clue game: Mysterium!

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