I discovered Secret Hitler about a month ago, through a friend who likes board games way more than I do. He sat me and three others down, explained the rules, and then promised things would click once we gave it a try. So we did.
“Well?” he said when we finished our first game. He was slouching back in his chair, his eyes all wide and a told-ya grin on his face.
Opposite me, Sam raised his index finger in the air and swirled it. Another round.
Mike, still smiling, reached for the deck and started shuffling.
Kickstarted at the end of last year, Secret Hitler is a hidden-identity game in the vein of Mafia, Werewolf, and Bang!. Players comprise the fragile Weimar Republic of 1930s Germany and belong to one of two groups: the liberals or the fascists. The liberals hold the voting majority, but each liberal knows only her own identity. The fascists, meanwhile, hold a minority but know everyone’s role. And, of course, there’s the game’s namesake, the Secret Hitler, a fascist who, like his counterparts, looks to exploit the liberals’ trust in order to be elected chancellor.
What follows is a whole lot of hair-brained scheming and skullduggery as players try—or pretend to try—to evaluate evidence and figure out who is who.
Which you can do. Almost.
In contrast with games like Mafia, which lives and dies upon its players’ intuition, Secret Hitler introduces a mechanic that brings reason (or maybe reason’s bastard, hunch-prone son) to the table. Each turn begins with the election of a president and a chancellor, whose job it is to pass one of three policies drawn at random from the deck. Policies are either liberal, which accomplish little in the short term, or fascist, which give increasing power to the elected president; and the president and chancellor may lie freely about the policies they choose not to play. The result? Constant bickering and attempted card-counting as players try to gauge the probability of Ashleigh’s having actually been saddled with three fascist policies at the start of the turn.
It’s this uneasy balance struck between confidence and uncertainty, trust and distrust, that makes Secret Hitler work. And not just work, really. At the risk of overstating my case, this game is devilishly fun. Aside from the considerable amount of strategy already involved in playing it, Secret Hitler invites its participants to talk through (i.e., compulsively rehash) their strategy post-game. The consequence of these discussions is a robust metagame, in which the analysis of one round turns into the canny ploy of the next. Moreover, since play itself generally lasts just fifteen minutes, it’s easy to squeeze multiple rounds into a single session.
And if all that were not enough, Secret Hitler is surprisingly thought-provoking for a game that is (finally) about Nazis and (more to the point) also designed by Max Temkin, who had a hand in Cards Against Humanity. So without falling too far down the “serious” and “reflective” rabbit hole, I’d suggest that Secret Hitler stages the tightrope democracy walks between totalitarianism and its by-the-people-for-the-people ideal. I’d argue that it illustrates how fear not only summons forth our most autocratic tendencies but also gums up the political machinery. Heck, I’d even say it offers a lesson in communication. Demonstrating the extent to which conversation depends on the assumed good-will of its participants, Secret Hitler forces language through endless contortions so that you can never say what you mean. You might swear up and down on your dead kitty’s grave that you love the principles of liberal governance, but all that the other players are going to hear is “I’m a lying sack of fascist scum.”
Then again they might believe you. Maybe. But probably you’re just some clever fascist executing a double bluff.In any case, if you’re itching for a new game to try, this one’s got my recommendation. Hop over to Secret Hitler’s website and download a FREE print-and-play copy of the game. The official version has yet to hit shelves, but that shouldn’t stop you from making your own tatty version of it (mine’s equal parts tape, cardboard, and savaged Magic: The Gathering cards). And neither should it stop you from forcing your friends and loved ones to play your tatty version with you—over and over and over again.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.