How To Play Codenames With 2 Players | Explained And Solved!

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Learn to collaborate against an unseen enemy. I explain how to play Codenames with two players so you will become the ultimate spymaster. Read on and enter the covert world of espionage at your peril.

Codenames was released in 2015 by Czech Games for 2-8 players. Normally you have two teams, each with their own spymaster. With 2-3 players there are not enough people to have two spymasters.

So, lets take a look at how to play Codenames with 2 players. Read on and enter the covert world of espionage at your peril.

How to play Codenames with 2 players

Table of Contents

How to play Codenames with 2 players

Codenames board game comes with a variation of the rules for 2 players and this is what we’ll look at now. The variation works pretty well and is very playable. Keep reading though as we will discuss an even better option for two players later.

Game setup

Typically you set up the game as normal with one player designated as the spy master and the others will be the field operatives. The game is collaborative and so you work together to find your agents.

The spymaster will choose a key and place it so only they can see it. As you are on the same team you will always have the 9 agent cards to find. Flip the double agent over to your color and place on top of your pile.

The other color agents are placed near the spymaster who will use the stack like a timer.

Game turn

The game follows the normal game play with the spymaster now giving a single word clue plus a number. Now the field operatives must interpret this clue into the words laid out on the grid.

They must avoid the innocent bystanders and the assassin whilst guessing. If they guess correctly then the spymaster covers the word or words with your color agents.

If the operatives find the assassin then the game is over and you lose. If they find an enemy agent then one of their cards is placed over the word and you have one less round to find all your agents.

When the go is over the spymaster takes one of the opponent agents and puts it over a word signifying their go. This is strategic and should be placed on a word that will help your team accomplish their mission.

Once the last enemy agent is placed down the game is over and you lose.

Winning the game

If you find all your agents whilst avoiding the assassin or the enemy finding all their agents then you have won the game. You can now score your achievement by counting the number of enemy agents still waiting to be found.

Enemies leftYour score
8That is … difficult to believe.
7Mission impossible.
5MI6 will be giving you a call.
4Top secret clearance.
3Your watches are synchronized.
2Okay. But you can do better.
1Well, a win is a win, right?
How to play Codenames with 2 players
Picture from Wikimedia Commons and licensed under CC BY 4.0

How to play Codenames Duet with 2 players

This stand alone expansion followed on from the base game and was specifically designed for two players. It is collaborative and also lends itself to more than two players.

The nice thing about this expansion is that it can also be used with any of the base games interchangeably too.

You can even have more than two players by just splitting the group into two teams representing the two operatives in the field.

Let’s take a look at the rules and how this differs from the original.

Game Setup

The game is totally collaborative and you are both operatives trying to find 15 of your agents. There is no spymaster but you still have a key.

It is best for you both to sit opposite each other.

Shuffle the words and then deal out 25 in a 5 by 5 grid. Place the 15 green agent cards next to the grid along with the assassin card making sure both players can reach them.

In this version the game provides 11 timer tokens to limit the turns. Take the two blue tokens and put them in the box.

Now place the 9 remaining tokens in a line alongside the grid.

Place the key stand next to the grid where both players can see opposite sides. Now take the key cards and give them a good shuffle.

Take one key card from the middle of the deck and place it in the key stand. Making sure that you both don’t see each other’s side of the key.

Each of you should now only see their side of the key.

The key card has 9 agents marked in green on one side plus three assassin locations marked in black. On the other side is a different grid with the same numbers.

“Wait Phil,” I hear you cry, “two 9’s make 18. I thought you said there were 15 agents to find?”

Well that is a great question. There will be three positions on both sides of the key that are shared agent locations giving you 2×6+3=15.

All other positions are bystanders.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Game turn

Either player can now start with a guess and is the same as Codenames.

One player will say one word representing as many word cards in the grid as possible plus a number. The number represents the number of words in the grid fits the clue.

The other player then guesses the word cards by touching one at a time. There are three outcomes.

  • The word they touched is an assassin on your side of the key. You put the Assassin card over that word and the game is over.
  • The word is a bystander in which case you take one of the time tokens and place it on the word facing the player so you know which player it was that guessed wrong. The turn ends.
  • They guess right and it is an agent. You take one of the green agents and place it on the word. The player can guess again or end their turn.

At the end of the turn pick up a token and turn it over to reveal a tick.

The play then moves to the other player who gives a word and a number clue.

If one player has guessed all the agents then the other player will continue guessing.

Winning the game

The game ends as follows:

  • If you find all 15 agents before the last timer token is used then you have won. Congratulations.
  • If you hit the Assassin then too bad, you lose.
  • If you run out of timer tokens then it triggers sudden death.
How to play Codenames with 2 players
Image by Roberto Lee Cortes from Pixabay

Sudden death

Neither player can give any hints of any kind. Now make guesses in any order and mark accordingly with an agent, assassin or bystander. If anyone hits the assassin or bystander then it’s game over, you lose.

If you guess the remaining agents then outstanding operative. You win.

There’s more…

This is where Codenames Duet comes into its own and makes this 2 player game really replayable. There is a world map displaying locations of your missions.

If you have just won the game above then you have completed the Prague mission and can tick that off the map. The next game you play can then be a different mission.

Following on from Prague you can try Cairo, Berlin, or Moscow. These have two numbers next to the mission. The first is the number of timer tokens and the second is how many of these you can use for mistakes.

This varies the difficulty of each mission and adds complexity to the game.


If you already own Codenames then try out the 2 player variation. It really is quite fun to play when you can’t gather enough players to make 4.

However, I would definitely recommend investing in Codenames Duet if you often find yourself playing two players. This is a really great game that can also work with your current game too.

If you enjoy playing Codenames with two payers then perhaps you would enjoy the excellent strategy game Santorini. For two players there is also Dice Throne: Season 2 Huntress Vs Tactician.

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