How do two vying secret agencies turn locating their agents into a party game?  By making it a party game involving clues to identify words!  Codenames is a pretty fun, simple game about pressing your luck and carefully identifying your agents while avoiding the opponent's agents, the innocent bystanders, and the dreaded assassin.

The players in Codenames are split into two teams: red and blue.  One spymaster for each team sit at the same side of a table, with the rest of the team sitting at the other side of the table.  Twenty-five cards with words on them are laid out in a five-by-five grid on the table.  These cards have the same word facing two directions, so the word can be read by the spymasters and teammates on opposite sides of a table.  (The cards also have different words on their back, so after a game the cards can be flipped over for a new game instead of immediately being discarded.)
The spymasters get to see the key, which shows which spaces on the table are agents belong to each team.  There are nine agents for the team that goes first, eight agents for the other team, seven innocent bystanders (colored white or beige), and one assassin (colored black).

Each turn, the spymaster gives a clue to their team to identify their agents.  The clue is a single word (which cannot match a word on the table) and a number (matching the possible cards the clue relates to).  So if a team's agents include bark, oak, and branch, a spymaster could give the clue "tree-3."

After the spymaster gives the clue, their team gets to guess, choosing a word they all agree matches the clue.  If they pick one of their agents, the spymaster covers the word with their agent card and the team can guess again (up to the number the spymaster selected, plus one; after that, their turn ends).  If they pick an innocent bystander, their team's turn ends and the other spymaster goes.  And if they pick the assassin, their team immediately loses.   If the assassin isn't selected, the first team to identify all their agents wins!

I really enjoy Codenames.  While this has a certain simplicity common to party games, it also has some very nice touches.  The team that has the benefit of going first also has the drawback of one additional agent than the other team.  The presence of the assassin, who means instant loss for a team, keeps the spymaster very careful with their clue and the rest of the team wary of guessing blindly.  And as agents are guessed their cards are covered up, making it easy to tell what words are left and how close a team is to victory.  Codenames is a nice and elegant take on the word-guessing game,

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

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