It happened when I was sitting at a table taking a breather after an exhilarating game of Captain Sonar. Someone pulled that long sleek box out from their bag. While I had heard of Secret Hitler—it’s Kickstarter success was virtually unavoidable—I had little interest. Coming from the team behind Cards Against Humanity, I expected it to be another alcohol-fueled card game of mindless shenanigans. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Secret Hitler is a social deduction game clearly influenced by the smash hit Resistance. Its defining characteristic is that it’s damn smart. While the structure is very similar to its progenitor, every single turn and divergence is clever. This is a design with a very editorial presence all the way from its art direction to its subtle interwoven mechanisms.
You know the drill: several players at the table are bad guys (Fascists) while the majority lean good (Liberal). Team progressive is trying to ferret out the Mein Kampf book club so they can control what policies are enacted each round. It’s a classic game of cat and mouse with the shady individuals misdirecting and attempting to lay low. Social combat ensues, Jeremy starts yelling at Ben, and the whole thing goes pear-shaped. If I was the type of person that said “awesomesauce,” this is where I’d be saying it.
There is one key element where the setup differs here: one of the villains receives the Hitler card. At larger player counts (where the game is best) the dictator-to-be is blind to their teammates and must function in a clouded area of subterfuge. Trying to catch a wink from a teammate who is trying to signal their allegiance is crucial to organizing your rise to power.
The primary element to securing victory is controlling the President. Each round the role passes clockwise very similar to the leader position in the Resistance. This person chooses another player at the table to be Chancellor and everyone votes simultaneously with a hilarious “NEIN!” or “JA!” card. If the majority likes the selection then a session of legislation will be conducted which has a great chance of resulting with a fan covered in poo.
The President draws three thick policy tiles from the draw stack, discarding one and giving the remaining two to the Chancellor. The Chancellor then selects one of the two options they were dealt to put into play, discarding the other. Policy tiles clearly display “LIBERAL” or “FASCIST” and if passed are placed onto the corresponding track for that particular party. Whichever team reaches the end of their track first wins.
What separates this game from the Resistance is hard information and direct conflict. The stack of tiles consists of six Liberal and 11 Fascist policies. This means you can easily count cards to some degree and measure probabilities. It also means that if you’ve passed four blue laws you only have two remaining and there’s an exceedingly likely chance that the next leader will draw three red regardless. When the President throws up his arms in frustration claiming that they had only Fascist tiles are they telling the truth or spewing bile?
This direct action of passing the onus of success/fail to another player with a dash of random chance really exhilarates the genre. Most designs functioning in this space rely on pure social deduction, but Secret Hitler dials it back a bit and instead crams an extra gallon of paranoia and suspicion by shining the spotlight on individuals. You can’t shirk the center stage and clam up when you enact a Fascist policy as we want the truth, even if we can’t handle it.
By centralizing confrontation and making the game so direct, all of the dull soft moments are eliminated. Preconceived conventions upon how certain players should act are chucked out the window and it feels like a completely new ball game within an epic stadium.
You also have the stellar inclusion of an increased tempo due to an accelerating Fascist track. Red policies enacted will trigger special actions such as the current President looking at another player’s loyalty or even assassinating a target. If they’re lucky enough to nail Hitler they outright win.
The flipside is that once enough autocrat filibusters are pushed through the track reaches hostile territory. If Hitler is ever elected Chancellor while in this danger zone the Libs instantly lose and the fate of the free world suffers.
While the setting is certainly handled well and with a light tone, it’s hard not to remark how precisely thematic the whole experience is. Secret Hitler manages to capture a distinct element of paranoia where a small group injects terror and suspicion into a larger body to thwart progress and subvert. It can be an emotional experience that subtly ties back to its cultural tethers and leaves an indelible mark.
If you asked a couple weeks ago I’d have happily proclaimed Resistance: Avalon as king. At this point, the king is dead. Long live the king. Even if he sports a lame ‘stache.
Are you a fan of social deduction games? Have you played Secret Hitler? Do you plan to give it a shot? Let us know in the comments below!
All images courtesy of Max Temkin and Breaking Games