The famous word-association game.


  • reviewing vocabulary (meaning and associations)
  • Cambridge: First, Advanced and Proficiency Reading and Use of English Part 1 tasks a bit more fun.


  • Level (CEFR B1-C2)
  • Ages 12 yrs. and up


When I saw that Codenames was the #1 party game on Board Game Geek (seeing as there are FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE games on that particular list),  I went out and purchased it immediately.  But, does it live up to the hype?

<Spoiler alert>

Well … kind of.  But do read on and you’ll see why.

I appreciate that it’s perhaps a controversial opinion, but hey – there you go.  De gustibus non est disputandum.  How’s that for fancy talk?!

While I think it’s quite fun, I probably had such high expectations that there was no way the game was going to live up to them.  That’s not to say that it’s a bad game – it really isn’t – it’s just that there are lots of other games that I’d rather use.  That said, for reviewing vocabulary, it’s a nice change of pace from hot-seat.

When you open the box, you are presented with a lot of cards: most of these are Codename cards, there are about a dozen red and blue Agent cards, and the others are square Key cards.

Whats in the box? Source:
Whats in the box?

The best thing about Codenames is how simple it is to teach.  That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to play, however.  The game starts by splitting all the players into two teams: red and blue.  One player from each team takes on the role of Spymaster.  Their job is to help the rest of their team successfully identify the codenames of the team’s nine field agents.  You then set out the board by randomly selecting 25 codename cards in a square, as you can see above.  The square Key card is put in the stand so that it is only visible to the two Spymasters.  The squares in the grid which are coloured red indicate the codenames of the red team and visa versa.  The Spymasters must then guide their teams to the correct names by giving them a number and a one word clue.  The clue must be strategically selected so that it associates with as many of that team’s codenames as possible.  For example, the blue team’s spymaster needs to guide them towards the words “turkey” and “appliance”.  So they might choose to give a clue of “2, cooking”.  This would be a fine clue as long as it didn’t lead to the team choosing the wrong card.  If they did, there would be 3 possible consequences. 1) it was an innocent bystander and their turn ends,  2) it was an enemy agent and their turn ends, or worst of all 3) it was the assassin and their team instantly loses.

Now, this system puts an awful lot of pressure on the Spymaster. It can be really hard to come up with an association that is good for 2 cards, never mind three!  I got around this by deciding to  disregard the codename cards completely.  Fortunately, I’m pretty consistent at maintaining a Quizlet account for each of my classes. If you don’t know what Quizlet is, it’s a really handy website which stores vocabulary and definitions.  I just print out some sets, cut out the cards and use these instead.  Even if they are phrases or verbs, it still works fine.  This way it works more as a review task of recent, relevant vocabulary, rather than abstract items.

For an experiment, I decided to do the same with the multiple choice options from a Cambridge: Advanced Part 1 Reading and Use of English task.  Total brainwave!  In a task like this, there are 36 words (including the examples).  They are usually verbs, but this doesn’t actually cause any difficulty at all.  For a warmer, I did three rounds of Codenames using different variations of the words from a task that was due to come up later in the lesson.  It was amazing the amount of attention to detail that the students were using with when it came to subtleties of meaning, context and usage.   One particular smarty pants in the class said “2 – at”, having identified that 2 of his agents names collocated with “at”. What was super interesting for me was that when we came to doing the task later, they performed far better in it than they had previously.


  • To play Codenames with your class, you could just borrow the mechanisms and make some DIY materials yourself.
  • If you aren’t familiar with the term analysis paralysis, then play this game with a particularly meticulous student.  It’s torture.  You can mitigate this with a timer, but literally the whole class is waiting for them to say one number and one word.  You can get around this by giving a team of 4 a set (1 spymaster, 1 player per team).  This makes sure more students are engaged at any one time and reduces the pressure players are under.


I think that Codenames really needs an extremely high level of English proficiency to work well.  Even then it’s worth a try to see whether or not your class like it, or even just to introduce a Part 1 Use of English class.  Do a DIY copy and then if you like it, buy it.

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