Tuesday, 17 April 2018

How to Win at Codenames (Part 1: Spymaster Side)

Vlaada Chvatil's Codenames is a very bankable board game. If you are going to a board game meet up with a bunch of randos, you could do a lot worse than having the orange Codenames box in your bag. It's a very easy game to teach, and very soon your whole group will have got the hang of it. You'll be playing it all evening.

Then of course, you'll want to fucking win. I acknowledge that a more casual, rules-light, happy-go-lucky game like Codenames probably doesn't warrant a ruthless, expert level guide. But I've made one, and here you are reading it. I'm just glad that there is someone else who also wants to win this fun, friendly game with devastating aplomb as often as possible. DM me.

The guide will be broken into two posts. The first post will cover winning tactics that one should employ as one of the spymaster, and the second post will set out some best approaches when playing as a field operative.

Let's get into it!

-- Spymaster --

The spymaster is often thought of as the ‘harder’ role to play. It’s certainly the more daunting role. The spymaster assumes the most responsibility for the team’s overall success. They cannot confer with an ally like the field operatives can, and the field operatives’ potential for success is limited by the performance of the spymaster. The pressure can get into your head and mess up your game. Here are some tips to prevent this:

-- Eavesdrop like there’s no tomorrow --

James Bond’s spymaster M would relish the chance to be fully aware of their highly irresponsible agent’s movements in real time. They don’t have that luxury, but you do. You’re instructed to maintain a poker face while your field operatives deliberate, but you can ‘react’ through your moves.

An example. Your team misses one of your clues on Turn 1, but also talk about the correct answer at any time before Turn 2, you should know that your team are prepared to hit that missed answer on Turn 2, so it may be wasteful to give them a second clue that points toward that missed clue again. 

Meditate on this image and you will succeed at Codenames

It’s not just your allies either, if you overhear that the opposing operatives are considering selecting on of your team’s tiles on their next turn. Don’t do them the favour of setting a clue that leads directly to it if you can possibly delay it. Why waste a perfectly good opportunity to have the opposing team waste one of their turns and give you the additional tile?

If you’re not listening intently, you’ll miss this stuff. Spymasters don’t get to talk much, but they damn well get to hear an awful lot. Don’t waste this opportunity and channel your inner M.

-- Take Risks If You Are Behind --

Almost every Codenames team that I’ve played with or against falls into a familiar pattern of going for conservative pairs of two words at a time and simply communicating an association between two words. This tactic works if you’re either ahead on points already, or if you can rely on the opposing team fouling up on their turns. In my view, this is less of a tactic to win more games, and more of a tactic to pass fewer turns to the other team.

Tl;dr: Hitting safe pairs is wuss tactic, so try and find opportunities to pull ahead.

All of this being said, it is your job as Spymaster to gauge the bravery of your field operatives by Eavesdropping like there’s no tomorrow. There’s no point giving a bold clue that connects 5 tiles if your team buckle under the pressure and pass the turn. Wuss clues for wuss field operatives, I guess!

If you are going to ‘go wide’ on a clue incorporating 4 or more words, be very mindful of the potential for your Field Operatives to get it wrong. Try and rule out any possibility that a player will accidentally hit the Assassin or a tile for the opposing team of spies. It’s perfectly okay if there’s a slight chance that the player hits a Miss Tile though, as they can recover from that in future rounds. Don’t be afraid of passing one turn if you can potentially communicate over half of your tiles to your team, even if you are behind.

You can do this!

Also, with larger amounts of tiles being connected, you can afford to be a little broader. Cat and Dogs are ‘Animals’, but Beard and Kiwi are not ‘Animals’. However, all could be considered ‘Furry’ with a slight tilt of the head.

Another good way to find connections is to look at all of the other tiles that are not yours and see if there is something that they all have in common, which your words do not. It might be that you give an exceptionally vague clue to your Field Operatives, but they should be able to get the clues by process of elimination. The words 'Well' , 'Fridge' and 'Binoculars' may not have an obvious meaningful connection, but they could be easily be connected by the word 'Manmade' if all of the other tiles relate to things found in nature.

Just try and be on the lookout for larger connections. 3 is a world of difference away from 2 in a game which is first to 8 or 9 tiles.

-- Leave “Fucker Tiles” on the Board As Long As Possible --

This is the last big tip I have for the Spymaster. Before I get to it I have to emphasise that the first two tips are already a lot of work.

Paying attention what everyone is saying and then using that information to formulate a picture of what you think everyone remembers, and how brave everyone might be feeling is a lot to be engaged with at once. This is of course in addition to trying to figure out how to draw connections between tiles of your colour for your Field Operatives!

If you have any room in your head though, I would cast your eye to what your rival Spymaster is going through, because my god they are going through some shit!

If you have time to look at your opposing team’s tiles. You might find what we call a Fucker Tile.

A Fucker Tile is one of your own tiles, which could very easily make it way more difficult for your opponent to make a solid connection between tiles because there is a very good chance that it overlaps with one of yours.

Aim to be the purple guy: victorious and unliked

For instance, you see that the opposing team has ‘France’ and ‘Germany’ as two of their words, but you have ‘Italy’ and ‘Plumber’ as two of yours. You have an easy-ish 2-connection with ‘Mario’ but in doing so you make it a lot easier for the opposing team to get an easy-ish 2-connection with ‘Countries’ if you take ‘Italy’ off the board.

The ‘Italy’ tile in this instance is a Fucker Tile and you should leave it on the board for as long as possible. There’s a chance that the 'Italy' tile will be accidentally selected by the opposite side, and at the very least, you’re making your rival Spymaster’s job just that bit more difficult.

Try to look for Fucker Tiles the next time you’re playing Codenames!

-- Wrap-Up --

I hope that these three tips vastly improve your success as the Spymaster in Codenames. Next time we'll cover the game from the Field Operatives side. Until then, may all your games be good!


  1. One additional tip for spymasters: It's very tempting to go for the best clue you can give right out of the gate, but it is actually the worst decision, for a few reasons. Let's use the example that you have "Italy", "Germany" and "France" and no other countries on the board. Easy way to get three cards, so might as well get it out of the way, right?

    Nope. You already know that your team will surely guess them from one clue, so leave them out as long as possible. First of all, it is better to start out with clues that are less sure to be guessed, because that gives your team ample opportunity to make guesses on following rounds. Second, you want there to be as many cards of your color on the table, because it gives you a higher likelyhood of them being guessed at random by either team. This also ties in to what OP said about fucker tiles. Lastly, and this is probably the most satisfying reason, it makes the other team feel safe, which means they're less likely to take risks that could save their game. Imagine you've got one card left, the opponents two, and it's their turn. They know that if they don't get it this turn, they lose, so when spymaster gives a slightly risky clue, they're much more likely to guess for something they're unsure about, which potentially lets them win. If you had 3 cards however, they'll probably think "We're way ahead, let's play it safe and have spymaster give us a better clue next round." Then you give your great clue, and boom, win for you.

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