Critical Play: Secret Hitler – Jiwon

Secret Hitler was developed by Goat, Wold, & Cabbage LLC, manufactured by Breaking Games, and designed by Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges.

The game’s target audience seems to be young adults and older, as it is a relatively complex social deduction game that requires a high level of deductive reasoning and bluffing, and it deals with political themes of fascism and liberalism.

Notable elements of the game:

  • Players: 5-10 players, team vs. team: the Liberals and the Fascists. On the Fascist team, there is one person who is assigned the role of Hitler. The Liberals make up the majority but do not know the identity of anyone else for sure, while the Fascists are aware of who is on their team as well as who Hitler is.
  • Objectives: The Liberals’ objective is to enact 5 Liberal policies or to identify and kill Hitler. The Fascists’ objective is to enact 6 Fascist policies or to have Hitler be elected as Chancellor after 3 Fascist policies have been enacted.
  • Outcomes: Zero sum. Either the Liberals win, or the Fascists win.
  • Procedures/Rules: The game is played in rounds. Each round entails an Election, a Legislative Session, and an Executive Action:
    • Election: The President and Chancellor are chosen. The Presidential candidate is selected in a clockwise order per round, who then will choose who they want as their Chancellor. Everyone must vote on the election of the Chancellor. If the vote is a tie or the majority vote NO, then the vote fails and the Presidential candidacy is moved on to the next person. If the majority vote is YES, then the President and Chancellor roles are locked in.
      • If at this point, 3 Fascist policies have already been enacted and Hitler was voted as Chancellor, then the game ends there, and the Fascists win. Otherwise, the round moves on to the Legislative Session.
    • Legislative Session: The President draws the top three tiles from the deck of policies, which are marked as either Fascist or Liberal. They look at them in secret, discard one tile, and then pass the remaining two policies to the Chancellor. The Chancellor will then look at the two tiles in secret, discard one tile face down, and enacts the remaining policy by putting it on the corresponding board (there is a Liberal board and a Fascist board) face up.
      • If any of the game ending conditions mentioned in the above Objectives section are met, then the game ends here.
      • On the Fascist board, there are presidential powers shown over enacted policy spots that can be granted when a tile is placed there. If a presidential power is granted, the round moves on to the Executive Action. Otherwise, a new round begins with a new Election.
    • Executive Action: A Presidential Power is granted to the President by the recently placed Fascist policy. If the game has not ended after the Power has been used, a new round begins with a new Election. The Presidential Powers include investigating loyalty, choosing the next President, peeking at the top three tiles in the Policy deck, and executing one player. If the executed person is Hitler, then the Liberals win.
  • Resources: Policy tiles, the Fascist and Liberal game boards, role/party-membership cards, Yes/No voting ballot cards, placards for President and Chancellor.
  • Boundaries: The boundaries of the game are the physical boards.

Other games I’ve played in this same genre include Mafia and Spyfall. What differentiates Secret Hitler from these games are the more complex mechanics of the game that give rise to unique dynamics. Through the lens of available mechanics, Mafia and Spyfall are simpler than Secret Hitler — for example, with Spyfall, the main relevant mechanics involve the hidden location and each person’s role, and that’s all you really need to play the game. With Mafia, a moderator handles a lot of the actions in the game, and your main role as the player is to discuss their ideas. With Secret Hitler, there are many more moving parts to keep track of. This can make the game experience better or worse in some ways — better in the sense that the complexity of the mechanics allow for many different angles that one can exploit to deduct things about other players, but worse in the sense that the learning curve is far higher. It can even be less enjoyable when playing with a group of people with skill levels that are too varied. In fact, there exists an established meta for playing Secret Hitler online that hard to be aware of and/or follow when you are a beginner, but more skilled people might assume that everyone will follow the meta.

The game we played was fun! Everyone in the group had some familiarity with the game as they had played it before, but no one was an expert or super experienced by any means. We all had fun experimenting with different ways of bluffing and exploring the dynamics that the mechanics gave way to, such as by placing a Fascist policy down as the Chancellor when handed a Liberal and a Fascist policy by the President, and claiming that they were given two Fascist policies so they had no choice. Since we were not all experts, there were moments when it was clear someone was bluffing or not telling the truth, which we all laughed about (in good spirit). The game made for a fun Thursday evening! One particular moment of a fail was when the person with the Secret Hitler role was very close to being elected as Chancellor after 3 Fascist policies were already enacted, which would mean that the game would end and the Fascists would win if they were indeed chosen as the Chancellor. The vote ended up being an exact tie, but the Secret Hitler forgot that that meant that the vote was NO and thought they won the vote, so they immediately exclaimed that they were Hitler right after the vote. Seeing the face of realization that they just revealed their identity without them actually having been chosen and winning made for a very funny moment.

One thing I may want to change, simply because these political themes might be sensitive for certain people, is the overall theme of the game. The mechanics could be the exact same and untouched from the original game, just with different teams than Liberals and Fascists and a different role than Hitler to make the game more inclusive. For example, it could be re-themed to be more of like a Game of Thrones type theme, where the President and the Chancellor are the King/Queen and the Hand of the King/Queen, with the two factions being two Kingdoms at war or something like that.

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