Strategies for the Spymaster in Codenames

Updated on April 26, 2019
Wendy Mertl profile image

Wendy enjoys learning and teaching board games. Her favorite types include word games, drafting games, bag builders, and cube-filled Euros.

Codenames is a word-guessing game played in teams.
Codenames is a word-guessing game played in teams.

I love limited-communication party games. They inspire creativity and force you to consider new ways of interacting and conveying information. I'm always happy to play the role of the ghost in Mysterium, the alien in Visitor in Blackwood Grove or First Contact, the forensic scientist in Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, or, of course, the spymaster in Codenames.

The spymaster can only communicate by giving clues that consist of one word and one number. For example, the clue OUTHOUSE 3 would indicate that three of my team's words somehow relate to outhouses.

Codenames is my most-played game, and I've given good and bad clues, made good and bad guesses, and been both impressed and bewildered by my teammates. Below are a few considerations I like to keep in mind when I play the spymaster, based on those experiences. Each suggestion also includes some stories from my past games.

What the spymaster stares at all game long: a key card. This shows the red team's words, the blue team's words, the bystanders (beige) and the assassin (black).
What the spymaster stares at all game long: a key card. This shows the red team's words, the blue team's words, the bystanders (beige) and the assassin (black).
You apply the key card to a random 5x5 grid of words. For example, with the above key card, ORGAN and LAB are red; ROOT is blue; HORSESHOE is a bystander; and WAR is red. At the bottom, FLY is the assassin.
You apply the key card to a random 5x5 grid of words. For example, with the above key card, ORGAN and LAB are red; ROOT is blue; HORSESHOE is a bystander; and WAR is red. At the bottom, FLY is the assassin.

Avoid the Assassin Every Time

Codenames has small mistakes, medium mistakes, and disasters. Giving a clue that makes your team guess a bystander is a small mistake. A clue that leads to an opponent's word is a medium mistake, though not one you can afford to make many times. Giving a clue that relates to the assassin is a disaster. If your team guesses the assassin, you lose instantly, so avoiding it should be your main concern every round. Despite this, it’s alarmingly easy to lose sight of the assassin when you're excited about devising a clever clue.

You’ll want to do an assassin check before you give every clue, and not just as a formality; make sure to consider the different meanings of the assassin word and whether any of them might muddle your clue. Try to think of every possible meaning or context that you can, because your team will always manage to see the one connection that you overlook! This seems like obvious advice, but accidentally leading your team to guess the assassin is a mistake every spymaster makes, and it’s often preventable.

Examples from games I’ve played:

  • In the first round, the spymaster gave the clue ARCHAEOLOGY 3. I immediately guessed PYRAMID, since it seemed like the most obvious match in the grid…and it was the assassin. The spymaster had noted it and then promptly forgotten about it as he developed his clue. Game over in 15 seconds!
  • As spymaster, I gave the clue AQUARIUM 2 near the end of the game, trying to get my team to guess GLASS and another word I don’t remember. I was keeping the assassin, CHEST, in mind, and I didn’t think it would be a problem. But my team considered CHEST right away, since aquariums sometimes have little plastic treasure chests that bubble. This was an obvious connection for my team, but it hadn’t even occurred to me. After much discussion, they confidently picked CHEST, and we lost.

Assassinated.
Assassinated.

How often do your games of Codenames end due to the assassin?

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Maintain Your Poker Face

It is crucial that you don’t react to your team’s discussions or guesses in a way that gives them any information. Just like the rulebook says, when your team guesses a word, you should consult the key card, mark the word in the grid as needed, and make sure your face doesn’t give anything away. Even if your team guesses a word that seems totally bizarre and out of the blue to you, do not reveal your befuddlement. If your reaction helps your team, that’s cheating. Your reaction might also confuse your team and steer them away from a correct answer.

Examples:

  • I was playing a 2-player game. The spymaster gave the clue TRAP 1. I saw two good options in the grid: BAR and PIT. The spymaster and I both knew of a bar called The Trap, so I guessed BAR first. It belonged to our team, but the spymaster couldn’t hide his surprise—so I knew that he didn’t intend me to guess BAR. Knowing that, I also knew that PIT must be one of our words, but I hadn’t obtained that information via the rules of the game.
  • In a different game, our spymaster gave the clue BAKER 3. My teammate and I were both familiar with Doctor Who, and we were confident that DOCTOR must be one of our words, since two actors with the last name Baker had played the Doctor. Our spymaster couldn’t help himself and said, “What?!” Based on that, we figured that DOCTOR was not one of our words, and we avoided it for the rest of the game. Ultimately, it turned out that DOCTOR did belong to our team! Our spymaster just hadn’t considered that the BAKER clue could possibly lead to DOCTOR. His reaction prevented us from guessing one of our words.

Look for Serendipitous Arrangements

Sometimes the grid will let you pull off big clues or exquisite connections between words. At the start of the game, it’s worth checking whether you might’ve gotten lucky with an advantageous layout—or whether you can create one after a few problematic words have been whittled away by the other team.

Examples:

  • For the very first clue of the game, the opposing spymaster chose MEDICINE 5. Everyone said, “Five?!” Sure enough, there were five words in the grid with connections to medicine, some better than others (GLOVE and MICROSCOPE are the two I remember), and they all belonged to his team. None of the other words in the grid were even slightly related, so his team correctly identified all five and got a huge lead.
  • I was the spymaster. Due to amazing luck, the words MOUNT, APPLE, and FILM all belonged to my team. We were playing with proper nouns, so I gave the clue FUJI 3.

Consider the Most Obvious Match

If a team comes up with a bunch of potential matches for a clue, they’ll likely guess them in order from the most obvious match to the least obvious (or until they get one wrong). For example, if the clue was SMELLY 2, and I came up with five possibilities in the grid (SHOE, GAS, DOG, BUFFALO, COMPOUND), I would try to guess them in order from most to least smelly—I might start with GAS, then it’s a tough call between DOG and BUFFALO. As a spymaster, this is good to keep in mind when there are some bystander and opponent words that could interfere with your clue. As long as they’re not more obvious matches than the words you’re aiming for, it’s probably worth risking the clue.

Example:

  • Our spymaster gave the clue BIG 3, and my team discussed SKYSCRAPER, WHALE, SATURN, MOON, and AUSTRALIA as possibilities. We decided to guess them in order from biggest to smallest, so we picked SATURN first. Wrong! In the next round, we tried MOON as our bonus guess (since we knew there were still words related to BIG in the grid). Wrong again! The spymaster had forgotten to consider the order in which we’d probably make our guesses.

Which words would you guess for SMELLY 2, and in what order?
Which words would you guess for SMELLY 2, and in what order?

Remember Your Team's Discussions

Your team might be torn between two words (“Is a BUFFALO really smellier than a DOG?”) and decide to pass and wait for more information. Alternately, they might have come close to guessing a wrong word or even the assassin (“I am absolutely positive that MILLIONAIREs are smelly!”), and you think they’ll probably guess it during a later round. In these situations, you should tailor your clue to nudge your team toward the correct answer or far away from the wrong one.

For example, if I wanted my team to guess BUFFALO and forget about DOG or MILLIONAIRE, I could give a really targeted clue like BISON 1 or PLAINS 1, depending on the rest of the grid. This is also where the zero clue comes in handy. If my team had sounded dead-set on guessing MILLIONAIRE, I could give a clue like WEALTHY 0 or MONEY 0. It costs you a turn, and it gives the other team some information, too, but it’s a way to firmly redirect your team.

Example:

  • Our spymaster gave the clue CIRCLE 3. My team came up with a lot of potential words from the grid: ROULETTE, PIE, FIRE, RING, TUBE, and DEGREE. We started guessing them in the most logical order; RING was right, but PIE was wrong. In the next round, our spymaster gave the clue CIRCLE 2. Since she didn’t provide any new information, we figured that we were on the right track earlier, so we just kept guessing from our original list. (For the curious, ROULETTE and DEGREE were the other two intended answers.)

Exploit the Other Team's Clues

Your team should be trying to interpret the other team’s clues, too. If the other team gets a word wrong, your team should try to figure out what they should’ve guessed (silently and individually—don’t discuss this out loud, or you’re just helping the other team). If you think your team has a good idea that a particular word belongs to the opponents, you can use that to your advantage when giving clues.

Example:

  • The opposing team’s spymaster gave the clue SAP 2. They guessed TREE correctly, and then they couldn’t find a second word and passed. Looking over the grid, I was sure that their second word was PITCH; I could tell that my teammate saw it, too. Evidently so did my spymaster, who gave us the clue BASEBALL 2. Not wanting to tip off the other team, my teammate and I pretended to consider PITCH, but we both knew that DIAMOND and BAT were the correct words. We guessed those two and got them right.

Laugh Off Mistakes

You will give lousy clues, and you will make your team guess the assassin at some point. It doesn't make you a bad spymaster. It's a lot of fun to discuss the game after it's over—things like "Why did you guess GREECE for SPORTS instead of GIANT or ANGEL?" ("Because of the Olympics!") and "Why did you give the clue PATCH when EYE was the assassin?" ("I forgot.") and "What does GOLDILOCKS have to do with EVIL?!" ("Trespassing?"). A truly good clue makes you feel brilliant, while failures create funny memories, so every game is worthwhile.

Play along at home! Use this color-coded grid to answer the spymaster quiz below.
Play along at home! Use this color-coded grid to answer the spymaster quiz below.

You Are the Red Spymaster

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Questions & Answers

    Please feel free to share any great clues, terrible clues, or funny moments from your own games of Codenames in the comments.

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