PuzzleNation Product Review: Codenames

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There are all kinds of games where communication is crucial.

In You’ve Got Crabs, you must employ a secret non-verbal signal to inform your partner that you’ve completed a task, but without the other team spotting your signal and intercepting. In Taboo, you have to get a teammate to state a particular word, but without using several words closely associated with the answer.

But other games ratchet up both the creativity necessary to win and the difficulty involved in doing so. Imagine having to communicate volumes with a single word.

In today’s product review, we delve into the world of spycraft and put our communication skills to the test as we try out the card game Codenames.

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In Codenames, two teams (the red team and the blue team) are tasked with identifying all of their secret agents before their opponents can locate their own agents from the same list. But in order to do so, they must pick those agents out of a field of 25 possible individuals.

In each group, there are red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. Each possible individual is marked with a codename that is viewable by all of the players.

So, where does the wordplay and communication come in?

Each team selects one player apiece to serve as the spymaster. The spymaster for each team looks at one of the secret patterns determining which cards/codenames represent blue agents and which red agents.

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So it’s up to the spymaster to point the players in the right direction, but it’s up to the players to actually choose a given person in the field of 25 and label them an agent.

Each round, the spymaster comes up with a one-word clue for the other players on their team that points to their secret agents (as well as a number representing the number of agents in the field that the clue applies to). The word must be specific enough to point them in the right direction, but that can be difficult depending on the words in your play area.

For instance, in our example grid, the clue “royalty: 1” could point toward KING, or QUEEN, or HEAD, or even REVOLUTION, depending on what the other players associate with the word “royalty.” But suppose that you want your players to choose KING and not QUEEN. Then “royalty” is no good, because it’s too vague.

The number aspect of the clue is also important, because it offers the opportunity to gain an advantage over your opponents. For instance, if you wanted both KING and QUEEN to be labeled as your agents, the clue “royalty: 2” would be good, because those would probably be the two most likely choices based on that clue.

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In our example grid, the red team went first, and the spymaster said “dishes: 2.” The other player on the red team chose GLASS and WASHER from the grid, and both were correct and marked with red agent cards. This was a smart play, but also a risky one, as PAN could also be associated with “dishes.”

The blue team responded with the clue “rasp: 1,” choosing specificity and a single possible answer for the sake of certainty, rather than risk trying for more than one agent in this turn. The blue player correctly selected FILE, and that card was marked with a blue agent card.

The next turn for the red team didn’t go nearly as well. The spymaster used the clue “big: 1” and instead of choosing SHOT (the intended answer), the player opted for MAMMOTH. The card was revealed to be an innocent bystander, and the red team’s turn was immediately over for failing to ID an agent that turn.

And that is one of the big strategic challenges of Codenames. Do you stick to 1 agent per turn with a greater chance of success, or do you try to get more creative and bold by going for less certain clues that could lead to multiple agent IDs in one fell swoop? Do you risk uncovering the assassin (and immediately losing the game) with a clue that could suggest him as well as a secret agent for your team?

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The field of codenames in the play area can also lead to unexpected challenges. In one game, I was playing the spymaster for my team. The words JUPITER and SATURN were both in the grid, but only JUPITER was one of our agents. So a clue like “planet” was out. Unfortunately, other clues (like “biggest” or “god”) were excluded because they also applied to other codenames in the play area, including the dreaded assassin.

A mix of tactics, efficiency, association, vocabulary, and luck, Codenames is a terrific game that will test your wits, your communication skills, and your ability to make every word count.

The sheer volume of possible codenames (as well as the increased variety offered by each card being double-sided) ensues a huge amount of replay value is built into the game. And not only is it great as a group game, but the two-player version is just as fun!

Codenames, playable for 4 to 8 players (with variant rules for 2 or 3 players) is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, and many online retailers.


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Cracking the GCHQ Christmas Card!

As you may recall, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, a few months ago, a government organization in England called the GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — released a puzzly Christmas card designed to tax even the savviest puzzle solvers.

They’ve finally released the answers to this mind-blowing series of puzzles, and I’d like to go over some of them with you. Partly to marvel at the puzzle wizardry necessary to solve this challenging holiday gift, and partly to gloat about the parts I managed to solve.

So let’s get to it!


Part 1 was a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

This is mostly a deduction puzzle — figuring out how to place all the strings of black squares with white spaces between them within the space allotted — but no image immediately emerged, which was frustrating. Once the three corner squares started to form though, I realized the answer was a QR code, and the puzzle started to come together nicely.


Part 2 was a series of six multiple-choice brain teasers. I’ll give you the first three questions, along with answers.

Q1. Which of these is not the odd one out?

A. STARLET
B. SONNET
C. SAFFRON
D. SHALLOT
E. TORRENT
F. SUGGEST

Now, if you stare at a list of words long enough, you can form your own patterns easily. Here’s the rationale the GCHQ used to eliminate the odd ones out:

STARLET is an odd one out because it does not contain a double letter.
SONNET is an odd one out because it has 6 letters rather than 7.
SAFFRON is an odd one out because it ends in N rather than T.
TORRENT is an odd one out because it starts with T rather than S.
SUGGEST is an odd one out because it is a verb rather than a noun.

SHALLOT is our answer.

Q2. What comes after GREEN, RED, BROWN, RED, BLUE, -, YELLOW, PINK?
A. RED
B. YELLOW
C. GREEN
D. BROWN
E. BLUE
F. PINK

After playing around with some associative patterns for a while, I realized that somehow these colors must equate to numbers. First I tried word lengths, but 5-3-5-3-4-___-6-4 didn’t make any sense to me. But then, it hit me: another time where colors and numbers mix.

Pool balls. Of course, the colors and numbers didn’t match, because this is a British puzzle, and they don’t play pool, they play snooker.

So the colored balls in snooker become the numbers 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, -, 2, 6. The numbers of Pi. And now the blank makes sense, because Pi reads 3.1415926, and there’s no 9 ball in snooker.

So the next number in the chain is 5, and 5 is the color BLUE.

Q3. Which is the odd one out?
A. MATURE
B. LOVE
C. WILDE
D. BUCKET
E. BECKHAM
F. SHAKA

This one came pretty quickly to me, as the names Oscar Wilde and Charlie Bucket leapt out. And if you follow the phonetic alphabet, you also get Victor Mature, Romeo Beckham, and Shaka Zulu. (I didn’t get Mike Love, however.)

Since Shaka Zulu was the only one where the phonetic alphabet word was the surname, not the first name, SHAKA is the odd one out.

(The other three questions included an encryption puzzle, a number pattern (or progressions puzzle), and a single-letter puzzle.)

Granted, since you could retake this part as many times as you wanted, you could luck your way through or brute force the game by trying every permutation. But managing to solve most of them made this part go much faster.


Part 3 consisted of word puzzles, and was easily my favorite section, because it played to some strengths of mine.

A. Complete the sequence:

Buck, Cod, Dahlia, Rook, Cuckoo, Rail, Haddock, ?

This sequence is a palindrome, so the missing word is CUB.

B. Sum:

pest + √(unfixed – riots) = ?

This one is a little more involved. To complete the formula, you need to figure out what numbers the words represent. And each word is an anagram of a French number. Which gives you:

sept + √(dix-neuf – trois) = ?

Dix-neuf is nineteen and trois is three, so that’s sixteen beneath a square root sign, which equals four. And sept (seven) plus four is eleven.

The French word for eleven is onze, and ZONE is the only anagram word that fits.

C. Samuel says: if agony is the opposite of denial, and witty is the opposite of tepid, then what is the opposite of smart?

This is a terrific brain teaser, because at first blush, it reads like nonsense, until suddenly it clicks. Samuel is Samuel Morse, so you need to use Morse Code to solve this one. I translated “agony” and tried reversing the pattern of dots and dashes, but that didn’t work.

As it turns out, you need to swap the dots and dashes, and that’s what makes “denial” read out. This also worked with “witty” and “tepid,” so when I tried it with “smart,” the opposite was OFTEN.

D. The answers to the following cryptic crossword clues are all words of the same length. We have provided the first four clues only. What is the seventh and last answer?

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song
2. It receives a worker and returns a queen
3. Try and sing medley of violin parts
4. Fit for capture
5.
6.
7. ?

Now, I’m not a strong cryptic crossword solver, so this part took FOREVER. Let’s work through it one clue at a time.

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song

The word WASSAIL both reads out in “withdraw as sailors hold” and means “festive sing-song.”

2. It receives a worker and returns a queen

The word ANTENNA both “receives” and is formed by “a worker” (ANT) and “returns a queen” (ANNE, reading backward).

3. Try and sing medley of violin parts

The word STRINGY is both an anagram of “try” and “sing” and a violin part (STRING).

4. Fit for capture

The word SEIZURE means both “fit” and “capture.”

Those four answers read out like this:

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE

And with three more answers to go, it seemed only natural that three more seven-letter answers were forthcoming. Plus, when you read the words spelling out downward, you notice that the first four letters of WASSAIL, ANTENNA, STRINGY, and SEIZURE were spelling out.

If you follow that thought, you end up with the start of a 7×7 word square:

 WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU___
INGR___
LAYE___

And the only seven-letter word starting with INGR that I could think of was INGRATE.

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_A_
INGRATE
LAYE_E_

And if the last word is LAYERED…

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_AR
INGRATE
LAYERED

Then the missing word must be ANNULAR. The original question asked for the last word though, so our answer is LAYERED.


This brings us to Part 4, Number Puzzles, where I must confess that I finally tapped out, because I could only figure out the first of the three progressions involved.

Fill in the missing numbers.

A. 2, 4, 8, 1, 3, 6, 18, 26, ?, 12, 24, 49, 89, 134, 378, 656, 117, 224, 548, 1456, 2912, 4934, 8868, 1771, 3543, …

B. -101250000, -1728000, -4900, 360, 675, 200, ?, …

C. 321, 444, 675, 680, 370, 268, 949, 206, 851, ?, …

In the first one, you’re simply multiplying by 2 as you go.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

But you begin to exclude every other number as you move into double-digits, triple-digits, quadruple-digits, and beyond.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

So the answer, 512, becomes the real answer, 52.

But, as I said, I couldn’t crack the other two, and I’m already exhausted just running through these four sections!

And, based on the answers they released recently, Part 5 only got more mindbending from there.

As a matter of fact, not a single entrant managed to get every answer in Part 5 correct. Prizes were awarded to the three people who came closest however, and it turns out a staggering 30,000+ people made it to Part 5. Color me impressed!

This was, without a doubt, the most challenging puzzle suite I have ever seen, and I offer heartfelt kudos to anyone in the PuzzleNation Blog readership who even attempted it!

You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, though. I highly recommend using this link from The Telegraph, which allows you to skip to the next part if you get stumped.


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