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Codenames Rules: How Do You Play The Codenames Board Game?

Codenames Rules Overview

Spies, codes, and secrets. Your goal is to be the first team to contact all of their agents without running into an assassin using the clues given by a spymaster.

Game type: Cooperative, Teams, Verbal

Number of players: 4+ with the option for 2 or 3 players

Suggested age: 12+

Game Pieces

Pregame Setup


Divide the players up into two equal teams. Each team then chooses a spymaster. The spymaster for each team sit next to each other, but across the table from their own team. Every other player is an agent for their team.

Shuffle the codename tiles and place 25 of them (face up) in a 5 by 5 square.

Shuffle the “key” cards and place one of the cards into the square “key” in secret from all of the agents in the game. This is the “secret key” that reveals the identities behind the codenames. The agents may never view the secret key.

Blue squares represent blue agents that the blue team needs to contact.

Red squares represent red agents that the red team needs to contact.

White or Neutral squares represent bystanders.

Black square represents the assassin.

The lights around the square key code show which team goes first.

The team going first takes their 8 agent cards and the double agent and is placed in front of that team’s spymaster.

The other 8 agent cards go to the second team and go to that team’s spymaster

The remaining bystander cards, and assassin, are placed between the two spymasters.

Playing the Game

Each team takes turns trying to guess the secret identities of their own agents working off of a single word clue from their spymaster.

The spymaster may only utter a single word as a clue and a number. The number that they may say is the number of cards on the board that this clue applies to. If there are codenames that say “pig” and “farm” then the spymaster might say “livestock:2”. The spymaster must keep a straight face and give no other clues.

The spymaster may use 0 to indicate that “none of our words use this clue”. In this case the agents are allowed unlimited guesses.

The spymaster may also indicate “unlimited” as their number. This also allows unlimited guesses. The disadvantage is that the agents won’t know how many words relate to the clue that was just given.

Agents attempt to guess which codename(s) correspond to the present or previous clue(s) given. Once the agents of that team decide on a single tile, the agents tap it with their finger, and then the spymaster checks their answer against the key and places the corresponding card (agent, assassin, bystander) over the top of the codename (and leaves it there).

If your own agent is revealed, then your team has guessed correctly and may guess again, but not receive another clue. They may guess up to the limit imposed by the spymaster but may always add one extra guess. The agents may also decide not to pick a card and pass the turn.

If the agents contact the wrong color, then the turn passes and the agent is revealed for the other team.

If a bystander is revealed then the turn is passed.

If the assassin is revealed then that team loses instantly. The game is over.

Winning the Game

You win the game by successfully contacting all of your agents. It is possible to win on your opponents turn if they contact your last agent for you.

Penalties and Word Rules

The following are the “base line” rules that should be followed, but try not to be too strict; it’s generally up to the other spymaster to call out invalid rules. If they allow it then its allowed.

There are a lot of rule variations for what is an allowable clue and what is actually invalid. Invalid clues are penalized by automatically revealing an opponents agent and ending your turn. Invalid rules must be caught and called out at the time that they are given or else they become valid.

Invalid clues include the spymaster giving body language or signals to their agents. Spymasters are not allowed to give anything more than 1 clue and 1 number.

Your clue must be about the “meaning” of the word. You can’t give a clue towards its spelling or letter arrangements.

You may not use the number as part of the clue.

You may not use a foreign language to identify the word unless its a commonly used/accepted word in the language being used for the game.

You may not use a word that is an active codename in any of your clues. You may regain the use of that word if the codename is revealed. You may spell out your clue if it will help avoid confusion between two words that sound the same or if you don’t want to commit to a specific pronunciation of a word that has more than one meaning. Another player may also request a clue spelled out.

More specific rules

exceptions for proper names, homonyms, compound words, abbreviations or acronyms, and rhymes should be decided upon before the game starts.

Two or Three Player games

two player games include a “simulated” opponent and a three player game can be all 3 on one team against a simulated opponent, or two spymasters sharing an agent.

Your team always goes first in a two player game and your opponents always pick one of their own agents and then end their turn. You may pick which agent is revealed strategically if you wish, or just leave it up to random.

The sand timer

the sand timer included with the game is used to “force a turn to end” if one team is taking too long. It is not required for every round, but if a player feels that a round is taking too long they may start the timer.

If you wish a more regulated game then there is an app available for this game that will keep proper time limits… or… you can just use the included sand timer.

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