Spymaster

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A good Spymaster can find the correct pairings to lead their team to victory in Codenames, but there is much more to the role than simply choosing the correct word. There are subtle strategies towards being an effective Spymaster that often go unnoticed. Here are seven simple tips to remember to become a better Spymaster.

#1 Less is more when it comes to guesses
Generally, unless I am certain that it will be blatantly obvious, I never give a clue with more than three guesses, and even three guesses can be misleading. With each subsequent word intended for the clue, the strength of the overall clue diminishes. On three occasions, I have been given a clue of [word] five, and, in all instances, we guessed one word before failing on the next. While the Spymaster may have intended for some words to be loose at best while still providing direction, you instead open the possibility that any of the others could have a possible correlation, thus obscuring the overall connotations. In your team went first, it may be worthwhile to go for three since you have one additional word, but only if it is extremely unambiguous. It is statistically more likely that the third word, if chosen loosely, will not be your word.

#2 Never double back on the same word until the end
There are very opportunities to provide information to your team as a spymaster, and the rules prohibit you from acknowledging whether the words you intended were selected. Consider the case where words A and B were intended but A and C were chosen. If you’re next clue involves B and D, you have only provided information about four words, whereas if you chose D and E, you will have provided information about five. This is not a trivial difference, particularly if the team was split between B and C in the initial round. Doubling back also reduces the effectiveness of the extra guess; instead of using it on the word that may have been missed, you are using it on the main target. Since most Spymasters average two words per clue, 50 percent of your clue is wasted providing no new information. But how does your team know that they have used a clue incorrectly?

#3 Know when to use the Zero and Unlimited Rules appropriately
These two rules are actually in the rulebook and exist for several purposes, although they are rarely used to their full potential. The Zero rule seems self-explanatory – your team is hovering on a word that they should not be picking, so direct them away from it; it generally is the assassin. The Unlimited rule, however, has many more applications than just being a Hail Mary when the other team will win on the next round. Consider the case when two words remain and your team doesn’t realize that they have used a clue incorrectly. They will have two guesses regardless of what you do, because of the extra guess rule. Yet it is completely legitimate to use meta-game tactics here through the Unlimited Rule, which can be interpreted as “you have everything you need to win.” If you can bridge the final two words, then simply offer two guesses; if you only offer one guess, it implies you are playing conservatively; and if you offer two guesses and the words are not connected, you risk leading them astray. However, if you use Unlimited guesses, particularly when you are winning, that conveys more information. Your teammates do not need the extra guesses, and you clearly aren’t concerned with how many words to which the clue pertains. Therefore, the only logical conclusion is that you misused a previous clue, and your teammates can revisit all the clues in the past to discover their mistake.

#4 Do not be afraid of Neutral words
The extra guess rule exists for a reason – to allow your team to catch up when incorrect guesses are made. Many spymasters are afraid to potentially overlap with a Neutral word because it will end the turn, but if done early enough, there is plenty of time to catch up. Barring unprecedented overlap or the Assassin, each round of Codenames will take at least four turns per team. Even if your team guesses the Neutral word on the first guess of the first turn, if that was the only possible overlap, they will have recovered by turn three assuming everything else is equal. Empirically, I have seen it be the case that the second word was the Neutral word, so my team recovers within one turn rather than two. Unlike selecting another team’s words, Neutral words have no severe consequences early in the game. To give yourself the most time to recover from this scenario, be sure to remember …

#5 Do not lead with your strongest clue
This tip will seem very counter-intuitive to some, but mathematically it makes sense. It builds upon the lessons about Neutral words above, but goes one step further by tricking your opponent Spymaster. If you have a clue for three about which you are certain, do not lead with it. You will always have that same clue later in the game. If your opponent begins to think that they are matching pace or even ahead, they will be more inclined to play conservatively. That’s when you can take them by surprise and end the game when they think there are multiple turns left. Additionally, the more words off the board, the less words your opponent’s team needs to consider and the less likely it is that they will pick one of your words for you, prematurely ending your turn. Instead, lead with a moderate clue of two words that may be difficult to connect, especially if the only overlap is the neutral word. Whether you go 3-2-2 or 2-2-3 results in the same amount of words chosen, but it changes the tempo at which the opposing Spymaster gives clues; it may even cause them to stretch too far because momentum has swung in your favor.

#6 Compare the other team’s words and hold their words hostage
There is a limited amount of time to do this, but it is a good idea to consider what words your opposing Spymaster will try to link and whether they will overlap with yours. If any such words exist, do not attempt to cover up those words. By leaving them open, you make it harder for the other team to make easy connections while increasing the chances they will pick that word for you. Additionally, if you can anticipate which words can be connected, you get a rough estimate of how many rounds they will need to complete their set, which allows you to raise or lower your own tempo accordingly. Don't make their job any easier.

#7 Check every word with the assassin multiple times
You would think that this last tip would be self-evident, but based on my personal experience, when the other team loses, 20% of the team it is because someone picked the assassin, which is extremely high. Spymasters should have a mental checklist to process before giving a clue, and chief among them is to determine any possible way – no matter how much of a stretch – the given clue can overlap with the Assassin. Many of those opportunities mentioned above were legitimate interpretations of the clue, which should never happen. It is better to abandon correlations altogether and simply go for one than risk picking the assassin. If you have a great clue that combines many words but also the assassin, consider using the Zero rule preemptively, assuming your team knows the implications of the rules.

Not all seven tips can be followed at all times, because the exact situation will call for abandoning one in favor of another. Yet these are tried and true methods that I have used with great success and, if used appropriately, will help you win the majority of rounds of Codenames, even against an experienced cluegiver.