Board Game Review: Secret Hitler

Have you ever played a game of Cards Against Humanity and thought, “This game is great, but it needs to involve more lying to my friends and references to Hitler”? Do you not know what Cards Against Humanity is, but do know you like social deduction games? Do you not know what a social deduction game is, but do enjoy the bluffing of poker and have a good poker face? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then you will probably enjoy the game Secret Hitler.

What is Secret Hitler? As implied above, it is a social deduction game for five to ten players where participants are split into two teams: The Liberals and the Fascists (and yes, I believe the humor in the names of the respective groups was at least partially intentional). I could explain how to play the game, but I’ll instead leave it to noted gaming expert and acting hobbyist Wil Wheaton to describe how the game is played instead:

As with most social deduction games, Secret Hitler relies heavily on logical deduction, bluffing and sometimes outright lying. I’m not normally a big fan of social deduction games because I’m frankly not very good at them. I once confused the whole table during a game of One Night Ultimate Werewolf when I admitted to being a werewolf when asked who I was at the very beginning. Apparently such blatant honesty breaks the game; who knew? In the half dozen or so games of Secret Hitler that I’ve played, it seems a little more forgiving for newbies. If you’re a Liberal (the most likely role to be assigned in the game), then no lying is required at all. The game is all about figuring out who can be trusted. For Fascists, it’s a little more complicated, but the lies that need to be told are thankfully easier to figure out and much simpler. First, don’t tell anybody you are a fascist. Second, sometimes lie about what policy cards you were passed. For these reasons, I tend to enjoy Secret Hitler more than the standard social deduction game.

Fascist cards including Trump
Even though Secret Hitler was created before the rise of Trump, it’s hard to believe the “Liberals vs Fascists” design choice wasn’t intended as a dig at Republicans.

Which isn’t to say the game is faultless. Of all the games of Secret Hitler that I’ve played, a few have been truly epic, with betrayal and masterful manipulation and buckets full of drama. Unfortunately, for every one of those games, there’s been two games which have ended up as complete duds where the game is over quickly and without much drama, leaving behind frustrated Fascists complaining about having no chance at winning. The problem is that the Liberals always outnumber the Fascists, and the game encourages Liberals to keep nominating players they think they can trust. If the Liberals manage to stumble upon other Liberals with the first few governments formed (again, a likely occurrence considering they outnumber the Fascists), then they can easily rotate control of the government between them and make it virtually impossible for the Fascists to win, let alone do much to alter the outcome of the game. It can be incredibly frustrating.

The encouragement to exclude can ruin even an incredibly epic game for some players. I was a Fascist in one game where the Fascists made the biggest comeback possible to win the game. Unfortunately, one of my fellow Fascists was identified early on and was essentially excluded from any sort of power by the Liberal majority for the rest of the game, which made for a poor playing experience for him.

There are also some unavoidable acting and emotional issues that can somewhat unbalance the game. Players are supposed to maintain a poker face when drawing policy cards in order to avoid giving away information (e.g. heavily sighing when drawing three Fascist policies). However, in almost every game I’ve played, a player has broken that rule. In addition, if a player is killed off during the course of the game, the rules state: “Executed players are removed from the game and may not speak, vote, or run for office” and “The table should not learn whether a Fascist or a Liberal has been killed.” Seems fairly straightforward, except how a player reacts to being killed can be quite telling, with Liberals often acting more exasperated than Fascists would. It can also be surprisingly hard for the “dead” person to not speak for the rest of the game and to maintain a poker face.

Which brings me to perhaps the biggest issue with the game. Unless you play with a bunch of very skilled liars, it can handicap the game somewhat in terms of what kind of lies can be told. It can be easy to lie by omission, but if/when somebody directly accuses somebody of being something they are not (or doing something they did not do), a person’s personality can give away a lot. I’ve played in games where information was (correctly) gleaned simply by the fact that the group didn’t believe that somebody was a good enough liar or somebody else was acting too passionately to not be telling the truth. To me, that ruins the game just a little bit because it can limit the possibilities for people not skilled in the art of un-truth.

Final Thoughts

The best way I can sum up a review of Secret Hitler is by calling it “uneven”. Fans of social deduction games will almost certainly enjoy it. Those who are not social deduction fans will probably find it easier to tolerate than games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf and might even find themselves enjoying it if the cards fall right. Literally if the cards fall right, because so much depends on the cards you are dealt and the first few turns of the game. It can either be an epic, hours long game with drama and surprising betrayals… or it can be a completely anti-climatic 20 minute exercise in frustration as the Liberals figure out early on who can be trusted and freeze out everybody else. Also, while it can be tempting to immediately jump in to a second game after the first one (especially if the first game went particularly well or poorly), I would caution against playing too many in a row. Emotions can run high, and once trust is broken in one game it can be hard to win back in subsequent games. “Miranda was Hitler and killed me off last game, so I won’t nominate her as Chancellor this time.” There can also be a tendency to have information from games run together. Did Ashley and Kaiden pass a Fascist policy this game, or was it last game?

Verdict

In short, Secret Hitler is not a perfect game, but every game has the potential to be great… or terrible. If you have a good group of willing friends, I definitely suggest giving it a try.

Paul Essen on EmailPaul Essen on FacebookPaul Essen on LinkedinPaul Essen on RssPaul Essen on Twitter
Paul Essen
Founder and Chief Discourse Officer at Rampant Discourse

Proud geek. Trekkie. Browncoat. Entil’Zha. First human spectre. Hokie. Black belt. Invests Foolishly. Loves games of all types and never has enough time to play as many as he wants. Libertarian who looks forward to the day he votes for a winning presidential candidate. Father to two beautiful daughters.


Continue the discourse