Critical Play : Is ‘Secret Hitler’ Balanced?


For this week’s critical play, I played an incredibly memorable game for me: Secret Hitler. Although I have done critical plays on this game previously, I haven’t ever analyzed this game through the lens of whether or not it is balanced, and my own findings were surprising. 

Secret Hitler is a board game created by Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges, a trio also known as Goat, Wolf, & Cabbage LLC. The target audience of this game is definitely anyone above the age of 12 years old at the very least. The reason I say this is because although this game does not involve much gore, expletives, or explicit depictions of violence, the premise of the game is quite advanced for children below 12 to understand. The necessary capabilities of beguiling opponents, passing fascist and liberal policies to remain perceptibly ‘innocent’ or ‘liberal’, and having the general level of forethought required to plan a successful campaign as a fascist or Hitler indicate to me that younger individuals will not be equipped to do well in this game. 

Formal Elements

In this game, the main formal elements include players, outcomes, objectives, rules and procedures. 

For players, the game is set up in a player vs. player dynamic but also team vs team dynamic. Each person competes against the other players to stay alive, since only in specific circumstances would another person playing the game know one’s party affiliation. This causes paranoia and puts player against each other. However, the goal of the game is for people to coalesce in factions to either root out the fascists (the liberals) or pass fascist policies and destroy the liberals (the fascists). Therefore, there is also this element of party vs. party, team vs. team. 

For outcomes, this game is pretty straightforward: either the liberals pass 5 liberal policies and therefore win or the fascists pass 6 fascist policies (or Hitler is elected chancellor after the 3rd fascist policy is passed) and they win. This binary outcome indicates that this game is a zero-sum game: either the fascists win or the liberals win. 

For objectives, this game is clear in what players are supposed to do: every player receives a party affiliation card in their envelope at the inception of the game. If a player has a “fascist” card, then their objective is to help instate Hitler as the chancellor of the government and pass as many fascist policies as possible while evading suspicion from the liberals. If a player has a “liberal” card, then they must investigate their fellow players and figure out who is secretly undermining the liberal regime, while also passing as many liberal policies as they can. 

For rules and procedures, the most significant rules/procedures center around when major shake ups occur in the government. For example, if Hitler is unknowingly elected chancellor prior to the 3rd fascist policy being passed, that person should not reveal they are indeed Hitler and act normally, because no one can eliminate them. However, if Hitler is elected after the 3rd fascist policy, the fascists automatically win. For liberals, the rule is that if they can kill Hitler, they win; the procedure surrounding this role manifests in assasination triggers: if the liberals can guess Hitler correctly and assassinate him, they automatically win. 

Type of Fun

This game’s type of fun is definitely based on fellowship. The game is fueled by players talking to each other, analyzing each other’s behavior, and then making judgments based on one’s observations of the other players. The camaraderie the game evokes seems to be the driving force behind its popularity, especially in my friend group; The desire to actually win the game seems to possess significantly less importance in all players I know, given that we all agree that the most fruitful, engaging parts of gameplay come when we are constantly talking to each other, shouting, hurling accusations at each other etc. This game definitely met its goals and it does so by pushing all players to talk to each other and get to know each other. 

Moment of Success

A moment of particular success is that the rules of the game are incredibly simple to grasp; despite the seemingly complicated facet of analyzing human behavior and trying to plan out a successful campaign to root out one’s opponents without bringing suspicion upon yourself, the actual rules of the game are simple: a president elects a chancellor and offers cards; the chancellor implements policies and all players try to surmise whether or not the chancellor or others are fascists from their actions. 

Ways to Improve

To make the game better and more balanced, I would suggest an improvement of the fascist category to make the dynamic between liberals and fascists more balanced. The liberals have more players on their team, so to counteract this imbalance, the fascists should have more resources to help them. However, it seems they do not. The fascists must implement 6 policies versus 5 policies for the liberals; fascists know who the Hitler player is but the Hitler player does not know who the fascists are, which evidently restricts cooperation since Hitler has no clue who their teammates are.

Is This Game Balanced?

Is the balance of the game responsible for the wonderful experience I have playing Secret Hitler? TLDR: Yes. Here’s why: 

Four Types of Game Balance & My Experience

In Secret Hitler, there are multiple ways to win the game, which indicated to me that the most relevant approach to balancing a game from the reading is “Balance between Strategies in a Game.” As mentioned in the reading, from playtesting or rather just playing this game over 30 times, I’ve realized that despite there being multiple ways to win and some ways being “easier” or “faster,” there does not seem to be a huge imbalance between the options. For example, if the liberals pass 3 liberal policies, they can select a person to assassinate. If the person they choose is Hitler, then the game would end immediately. This route to winning is the most “fast” or immediate. The next is if a team passes all the required number of policies; then, the team wins. The other option for winning is for Hitler to be elected chancellor after a number of fascist policies have been implemented. 

Out of these three strategies to win, none of them are markedly more likely than the rest to occur from my playing experience; there are some times where players assassinate Hitler by guessing the player correctly; there are times that Hitler becomes chancellor etc. but it seems the game makers did a good job making sure these three options are balanced.

Secret Hitler is not a single player game so the approach to finding “Balance in Single-Player Games” was not relevant; neither was the “Balance between Game Objects” since there is not much of a currency in the Secret Hitler or comparison of objects. However, the writing on“Balance in Asymmetric Games” was pertinent. As mentioned in my analysis of “ways to improve,” I think this game has asymmetry in the distribution of resources between the fascist and liberal teams. However, it seems that Secret Hitler knowingly implements less fascists and makes it harder for them to win, because they can win more easily through promoting suspicion within the players and pretending to be liberals while also pushing their agenda (for example, they could pass liberal policies themselves but only present fascist cards for the chancellor to implement, thereby removing themselves from suspicion and throwing the current chancellor under the bus). As the reading mentions, if the imbalance is part of the game and the mechanics go along with this imbalance, then set players’ expectations accordingly. In this game, we all knew from the beginning what the fascists would try to accomplish, so we did not expect complete equality throughout the game. 

Three Ways to Balance Game Objects (Transitive, Intransitive, Fruity)

Transitive: There’s an adage that perfectly characterizes the transitive relationship in this game: “Destroying things is easier than building them.” In this game, the destroyers are the fascists and the builders are the liberals. One can see the transitive relationship by the number of fascists and liberals: there are less fascists than liberals, less destroyers than builders. This makes sense since fascists are hell-bent on stopping liberals, sowing paranoia, and cunningly passing policies while convincing their peers that the fascists are actually liberal. Furthermore, the fascists know who each other are, so they can form silent campaigns to win; if there were more fascists or even an equal number and they were causing discord, the game would devolve very quickly. 

Intransitive: There does not seem to be a strong intransitive aspect within this game because, as with the rock-paper-scissors example, there is a ternary relationship between rock-paper-scissors. However, in this game, there is a binary relationship, so there is not much A can beat B and B can beat C and C can beat A type dynamic. 

Fruity: Secret Hitler seems to have some fruity elements since the comparison between the fascist and the liberal groups can be compared for the most part seeing as they have similar goals of wanting to pass the most policies they can; however, the fruitiness comes when analyzing the asymmetry of the fascists’ task of tricking liberals, supporting Hitler, and exacerbating paranoia in other players. This responsibility is not comparable to the responsibility of the liberals, highlighting the fruitiness: the apples and oranges cannot be compared here. As the reading mentions, the main way to observe how to make a game more balanced that has fruitiness is to play-test, and that is exactly what works for Secret Hitler: on paper, the liberal team would seem to be unfairly supported with resources, however in practice, when playing with real players, there is balance between the two factions. 

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