Toward the end of a game of Codenames, a team might find itself with two agents left to find and five cards still uncovered — say, APPLE, BASS, CAR, DARKNESS, and ELEPHANT. (The numbers are by way of example. My question is about the general case that there are any number of correct guesses left and any number of cards left uncovered.)

Would it be legal, while that team's spymaster is trying to think of a clue, for his teammate to give cues like the following? "If our words are APPLE and BASS, clue 'edible': they're both edible." "APPLE and CAR are 'self-driving'."


4 Answers 4


It does not address this directly in the rules but based on my reading it is illegal and against the spirit of the game. The game is wanting you to convey information from the spymaster to the operatives with a single word. While it may be acceptable to take the deliberations that the operatives have after a clue is given into account having them give directions on what to say is different.

If you look at the Keeping A Straight Face section of the rules it goes into the intent behind how clues are given.

The spymaster is expected to keep a straight face. Do not reach for any card while your teammates are considering the words. When a teammate touches a word, consult the key card and cover the word with the card of the corresponding color. When a teammate chooses a word of the correct color, you should act as though it was exactly the word you meant, even if it wasn't.

If you are a field operative, you should focus on the table when you are making your guesses. Do not make eye contact with the spymaster while you are guessing. This will help you avoid nonverbal cues.

When your information is strictly limited to what can be conveyed with one word and one number, you are playing in the spirit of the game.


I can't see the rules mention anything about information from the team to the spymaster, so in general, it's not forbidden for the spymaster to listen to their team.

The examples you give seem to be within the rules in the sense that apples and basses are edible, so the clue would be "about the meaning of the word". Then again, one could argue that after such a meta-clue is given, the clue would no longer be about the meaning of the words, but about the meta-clue.

In the end, it's something you need to argue within your group. If that came up in a game I was playing, I'd tell people to stop trying to break the game, and would stop playing with them if that didn't work.

Note that in the general case, you'd have to come up with quite a large number of possible clues to suggest clues about all the possible combinations. (There are ten even in this small example.) You'd need to come up with ways to combine words that don't need to be combined, along with the ones that do. At the same time, the spymaster can concentrate on the actual problem, so are you even sure that would help?

If you just give hints about the obvious combinations, they've probably figured them out already, and if you're really capable of coming up with ten clues in the time it takes them to come up with one, well, either wait for your turn to be spymaster, or find smarter friends to play with.

  • Furthermore, if the operatives start reciting an endless series of meta-clues for lots of possible combinations, another problem develops. The spymaster doesn't need to remember the meta-clues (so they can be pretty stupid ones, only barely touching the meanings of the words involved). They can simply wait for a set of words they like and then quickly repeat the last stupid meta-clue. In this way, they actually conveyed information through timing of their action rather than so much through the clue itself. Feb 14, 2020 at 12:57
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    It's a quite similar situation to the spymaster just listening to a typical well behaved team discussing various possibilities and giving "bingo" as the clue when convenient, except for the difference of a thin veil of having the artificial meta-clue to serve as the transient substitute of the clearly illegal "bingo" clue. Feb 14, 2020 at 12:59
  • @JirkaHanika, oh good dear, that's just horrible. It didn't even come up to me to misuse timing.
    – ilkkachu
    Feb 14, 2020 at 13:38
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    It is not against the rules for the spy master to listen to what the team says when making their choices but that is not even close to being the same as them giving instructions to the spy masters by saying what actions they will take for a given clue.
    – Joe W
    Feb 14, 2020 at 15:41
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    Feel free to edit your answer based on comments. I think that @msh210 is right that once the legal operative-to-operative channel becomes cynically aimed at guiding the spymaster, the choice of clues can get quite cynical, too. This is mainly because operatives can say lots of things while the spymaster can't. Feb 14, 2020 at 16:23

It's not legal.

It's highly stressed in the rules that clues must be about the meaning of the words.

Until two seconds ago, I didn't know that Apple made self-driving cars. If I were the Spymaster in your hypothetical, and I said "self-driving, 2", I'd be giving an invalid clue because the clue would have nothing to do with the meaning of the words. The spies might as well have said "foo" instead of "self-driving" because they defined "self-driving" to mean "apple and car" regardless of what any of those three words mean.

The fact the spies created this new definition for "self-driving" doesn't go away if the Spymaster happens to know that Apple makes self-driving cars. The Spymaster would ultimately be using that newly-invented —and illegal to use— definition.

Additionally, the rules also say that it's up to the Spymaster to think of a clue. The pressure this places on the Spymaster is a fundamental part of the game. To have the Spies relieve that pressure is against the spirit of the game.

  • I am not sure if i would say it is agonist the rules because when most people think of apple they think of the company and I would say computer for apple without thinking about it.
    – Styxsksu
    Feb 14, 2020 at 15:30
  • @Styxsksu, There's indeed no problem giving "computer" as a hint for "apple". I don't know why you mention this to me. I think you misread what I wrote?
    – ikegami
    Feb 14, 2020 at 15:32
  • @Styxsksu I think the point to remember is that the meaning of the words would change from group to group as one group may see apple and car on the board and think of an apple car (iCar) and others may not.
    – Joe W
    Feb 14, 2020 at 15:38
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    @Styxsksu, Me neither. It's creating associations from words to specific collection of cards that's illegal. There's obviously a grey area between the two, so you gotta remember: This is a party game, so play it so everyone enjoys it, or they'll stop playing it with you.
    – ikegami
    Feb 14, 2020 at 15:49
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    @hymie, You're the one being way to strict in your interpretations. I simply said you're not allowed to say "Foo means square card 1 and card 2, Bar means card 1 and card 3, and Baz means card 2 and card 3" (or equivalent) because it makes the words irrelevant. Don't pretend I said that you gotta use what's written in the dictionary; I used the same loose definition as the rules do.
    – ikegami
    Feb 14, 2020 at 17:25

Joe's answer refers directly to the rules, but here's an interpretation of them:

Strictly speaking, the only information that passes from the spymaster to the field operative is a valid clue. This excludes cues like the one you suggest, as suggested in the last paragraph of the given rules section.

Likewise, the only information that passes from the field operative to the spymaster is the sequence of cards touched. The spymaster also knows the other team's clues and cards touched. This excludes information passed from teammates discussing among themselves. This interpretation is not explicitly stated in the rules.

You can imagine it as playing the game on the internet with no chat between players. In both cases, it is up to you how strict you want to be. Personally, I've found that both stricter and more casual play is fun.

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    "Likewise, the only information that passes from the field operative to the spymaster is the sequence of cards touched. " -- no, that's a rule you made up, it's not backed by the rules as printed, and doesn't work in the common setting where everyone is around the same table. The spymaster can and does hear whatever the team discusses, and can and should consider their future clues if the team gets on the wrong track. In the worst case, the team will start considering the assassin as the correct word, which is probably a good time for a zero-clue.
    – ilkkachu
    Feb 14, 2020 at 11:17
  • To prevent the spymaster from hearing what the team talks about would take part of the fun out of the game, and would require putting the spymasters in a different room. Of course you could do that if you like, and might be warranted in some sort of a tournament, but I doubt it's a common way of playing the game.
    – ilkkachu
    Feb 14, 2020 at 11:18
  • It would also require a player just to handle the answers from the players as you would need both spy masters to leave the room as to not get ideas from the other side and that would drastically slow the game down.
    – Joe W
    Feb 14, 2020 at 15:39
  • Upvoted. Obviously nobody plays so strictly IRL, but I think August is accurately describing the "polite fiction" which we strive to emulate. @ilkkachu describes a scenario where "the team will start considering the assassin as the correct word, which is probably a good time for a zero-clue." If I understand correctly, I would personally consider that a breach of etiquette by the spymaster, not rising to the level of "Bingo, 3" but still inappropriate. Feb 14, 2020 at 17:41
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    @Quuxplusone If the spymaster realizes that one of their previous clues might accidentally hint at the assassin, whether by themselves or by listening to their team members' discussion, that's absolutely what the zero clue is for. (Obviously, the spymaster has to wait for the team to come to a decision and should not use timing as a meta-clue.)
    – Llewellyn
    Feb 14, 2020 at 19:05

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