Table of Contents
|Name||Secret Hitler (2016)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [1.69]|
|BGG Rank||175 [7.59]|
|Player Count (recommended)||5-10 (6-10)|
|Designer(s)||Mike Boxleiter, Tommy Maranges and Max Temkin|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
A review copy of Secret Hitler was provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for a fair and honest review.
It’s easy to dismiss Secret Hitler as yet another shock product from the makers of Cards Against Humanity. I think that does a disservice to the genuinely insightful sociological storytelling that can be found during play. The name does inspire a lot of strong feelings, but the game is something dramatically at odds with what those initial reactions may be. Unfortunately, you only ever get to make one first impression and that has an accessibility implication for the game. One of many, perhaps!
We liked Secret Hitler a lot – it got four stars in our review. But now we need to see whether that promise translates into an accessible game. Often in these introductions I’ll make a joke or a pun as a way of launching into the analysis but it’s hard to think of one for fascism. I guess it’s just not a funny topic. Who would have thought.
Anyway, let’s get started.
Colour is never used as the primary channel of information in Secret Hitler. The cards used have large and prominent symbolic iconography as well as written text to identify them. Fascist and Liberal policies are clearly indicated as such, and the Liberal and Fascist boards are differentiated not just by colour but also by style of art.
Secret roles are similarly unlinked from colour, consisting of graphical representations of people for the liberals and creepy anthropomorphic animals for the fascists.
We strongly recommend Secret Hitler in this category.
As is often the case in hidden role games, the largest burden here comes in the form of visual information that must be kept secret and selectively revealed. The roles which are assigned at the start are hidden information, but covert disclosure of those roles is handled with eye contact and/or the physical revealing of hands. These are both likely to be problematic areas for those for whom severe visual impairment must be considered.
The cards are all greyscale, and occasionally exhibit poor contrast. The fascists are always creepy looking animals, which helps a little with visual differentiation, but not to the extent that it solves the problem. At best it alleviates it a little. There are alternatives and compensations that can be applied as is always the case, but those are something a group will need to design around themselves and they all have awkward downsides. Basically a group would need to have a tactile indentifier for roles, and as soon as you have something like that it means role information is no longer truly secret because the absence of certain tokens in a draw will be notable. It’s possible to solve the issue but care is needed.
Identifying other fascists is the other large issue with play, and it’s the same issue as we encountered in One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Making eye contact is fine for sighted players but massively problematic for those that are visually impaired. There are, again, the usual workarounds of having more prominent indicators (raised hands or such). For those that are totally blind more substantive compensations are needed and they become increasingly more onerous the more blind players are in a group. Holding out a fist for a fascist to fistbump for example would risk leaking auditory information to the table as well as add a burden of directional ambiguity to proceedings. Having a sighted player sit out a round and indicate allegiances means essentially adopting a moderator role.
I am though in the rare position here of being able to point you to a very useful resource to solve the problem – Ertay Shashko over on the Sightless Fun blog has an actual software tool that can handle all of this. I would much prefer games were accessible out of the box rather than with the use of external tools, but I also much prefer games are accessible with external tools than not be playable at all.
The next level of problematic design in the game relates to enacting policies. The president draws three cards in secret, passes two to the chancellor, and the chancellor secretly chooses one of these to enact. The cards are reasonably well differentiated visually, but again for a blind player this is going to be a problem point. If you don’t mind modifying a game set it’s easy enough to give indentations or tactile markings on one set of cards, but this does mean potentially ‘defacing’ the cards with a corresponding impact on resale value for the game. Other alternatives include the chancellor and president quietly discussing what has been handed around but that would need to be done out of earshot of the rest of the players. A blind player would need to be very trusting that when the president says ‘All three are liberal cards’ that they aren’t passing fascist policies their way. The conversational solution also breaks down if both the president and the chancellor are blind.
So… out of the box Secret Hitler is largely unplayable for those with total blindness, and moderately unplayable for those with moderate to severe visual impairments. However, Ertay’s app and a little homebrew work alongside indentations and will bring it into full playability for those with visual impairments. That is in conjunction with a screenreader and headphones. As such, we’ll recommend Secret Hitler in this category with the proviso you don’t mind the use of external tools. If that, or modification of components, is a dealbreaker than we’d strongly advise you avoid this game.
Like most social deduction games, there’s an awful lot to track in a game of Secret Hitler and everyone at the table is going to be giving out information that contradicts other people. Fascists will claim to be liberals until such time as it’s useful for them to reveal their true nature. The Hitler player will try to be the most liberal of everyone, meaning that consistency of liberal philosophy in play is actually not necessarily a sign of liberal affiliation. People will be suspected of being particular roles and the consensus of the table, aided by the overt misdirection of the fascists, will shift and alter as the game goes on. The veracity of data points in the game will change, and honesty is not always a helpful policy. Your ability to convince people to take a course of action is part charisma and part damage mitigation. You often need to construct your credibility from components that were broken by the very people you need to sway.
The rules of Secret Hitler are not especially onerous, but the complexity that goes into voting is considerable. The presidential position rotates around the table but one of the few tools that players have to shape the emergence of the policy platforms is voting or not to endorse the chancellor candidate. Fascists want fascists in place, liberals want liberals in place. Fascists also want to make sure the Hitler player is kept out of sight as long as is possible because at a certain point they win if Hitler is in power. As such, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote that each player casts has weight – especially since political gridlock can be a tool worth manipulating depending on how confident everyone is about the next contents of the draw deck.
In terms of more tangible accessibility trouble points, there’s very little literacy required for play and no explicit numeracy. Understanding deck probability is really important though – the purported make-up of the draw and discard deck is deducible and this impacts on how much trust you’re likely to assign to individual players. If someone says ‘I drew three fascist policies’ then you’d expect from the discard deck to have only eight pile in the draw deck. There are six liberal policies and eleven fascist policies in the deck and having a shrewd idea of where they are in the draw and discard decks is an important way to force actionable information into the game state. A fascist president will work to provide themselves just enough cover against accusations by saying that what they passed to a chancellor to enact was largely out of their hands. The chancellor will claim likewise. A fascist president and a fascist chancellor can essentially endorse each other in this. ‘I drew three fascist policies so I had to pass two to the chancellor’. ‘Yeah, that checks out – that’s why I enacted a fascist policy’. Given the draw deck is weighted towards fascism, it’s not outlandish. You need to keep at least some of your thinking on the likelihood of that given what previous incumbents have said.
The game state complexity gradually increases over time, but not massively. Once a certain number of fascist policies have been enacted, voting for the chancellorship becomes much riskier as voting in Hitler becomes the insta-win fascist condition. There are restrictions on who can be chancellor and president (they are ‘term limited’ roles) and the bureaucratic deadlock that grows as chancellor candidates are rejected means that every so often the flow of play is interrupted by a random policy being passed from the draw deck. Otherwise the order of play is reliable but the flow of conversation isn’t. There aren’t ‘turns’ as such – just new reasons to argue with everyone.
So – in terms of fluid intelligence there’s a lot of deduction, assigning of ‘fuzzy’ trustworthiness values, and interpretation of uncertain actions against a backdrop of plausible deniability. Navigating this terrain is a hard ask of anyone, but especially hard given how the fascists most often win by electing Hitler rather than passing their full legislative agenda. People can be convincing in their duplicity, and your own ability to sway things depends on being able to unpick the allegations that have been cast your way.
In terms of memory, you need to remember not only the composition of the policy deck (and adjust its proportions as policies are passed), but also what’s likely in the draw deck versus the discard deck. Unlike most games, the discard deck is face-down and secret information. You need to hold a model of who belongs to which role, and ensure that model is flexible enough to shift on the basis of new information. And you need to do this in an environment where the fascists around the table will actively be trying to introduce distrust and disinformation into play.
We don’t recommend Secret Hitler in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
The ability to bluff, counterbluff, lie and pick up on lies is a massively important part of many hidden role games and Secret Hitler is no exception. Emotional intelligence is an important asset in play, and those that don’t feel comfortable leveraging it can be at a large disadvantage.
Also, it’s a game that requires people to step into a confrontational persona. If you are a fascist you need to vigorously defend yourself against any taint of suspicion. If you’re a liberal you need to be equally strident in identifying traitors and agitating for their ostracization. The only real tools you have when you’re not the president or chancellor are your rhetoric and a vote. As such, you need to convince people to see things from your perspective and vote in accordance with what you think is best for the game. If you don’t, you’re mostly playing a passive game of voting according to the whims of the most vocally dominating member of the table. A bit like being in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet really.
Since persuading people is a ‘real life skill’ there’s also an extent here to which your competence in shaping the actions of the table reflects on your actual skill. If you can’t convince people, it’s because you failed to convince them. There’s not enough solid information in the game to be able to convincingly argue that the facts were biased. Similarly if someone fools you, they fooled you.
I’m also going to note here that the theme of Secret Hitler is very likely to be genuinely upsetting for some people. Regardless of the sociological storytelling in its design, the fact is that fascism and the rise of Hitler is an understandably sensitive theme for a lot of people. I don’t believe the game egregiously trivialises the topic but I do get why people aren’t willing to give it a try to find out. Even those that don’t have a personal history that makes the topic painful can be reasonably turned off by the content.
Still, this is all in the nature of a game like this with this name and presumably everyone knows when sitting down what they’re in for. We can only very tentatively recommend Secret Hitler in this category but truthfully you probably already know if it’s a good fit for your group without me droning on and on.
With support from the table, Secret Hitler is a game that is likely to be playable regardless of physical impairment or disability. Most of the game is conversational, as is usually the case for titles like this. The only physical interactions are:
- Checking your role
- Indicating your role (if necessary)
- Voting for chancellorship
- Passing / receiving policies
Passing policies can be done by shuffling drawn tiles and permitting a player to verbally indicate which to pass on or discard. Checking role can be done by revealing the contents of the envelope in a way that permits only the affected player to check. The only difficulty really is that fascists indicate their role to each other with eye contact but Hitler himself doesn’t always know who the fascist are. Instead, that role is indicated by closing eyes and giving a thumb’s up. Some other mechanism would be required in the event this is an onerous ask, but there are plenty of alternatives. Really any physical gesture could be substituted. Raising a finger, or sticking out a tongue… there’s almost certainly something that would serve. This only becomes an issue in games of seven players or more and if there is genuinely no way to physically indicate Hitler status in games of that player count it’s easy enough to homebrew an alternative. Let the fascists and Hitler know who they are, but have one fewer fascist. The game permits that kind of modification right up to the max player count.
In extreme circumstances, the Sightless Fun app could serve as an effective way to permit roles to be communicated if technical tools are an appropriate compensatory regime.
We’ll recommend Secret Hitler in this category.
We’ve already briefly discussed the issue of the theming in this teardown, and it’s relevant here too. The theme is likely to be offputting because while the representation in Secret Hitler is generally good, you’re still taking on the role of fascists and a man widely considered to be one of the most monstrous to have ever existed. To its credit, Secret Hitler does graphically cast the fascists as sinister looking animals, but I think you can still have a problem with this. However, as I remarked in the review, I don’t think this is done for frivolous shock value – it’s to reduce the distance between us and the ‘lessons’ at the core of the game.
For the liberal cards there are three men and three women, two of whom are POC. However, again – there are layers here. Given the explicit genetic component of National Socialism the mere presence of POC characters has a resonance that can be quite disturbing. It all depends on how much you can separate out ‘Secret Hitler: the game’ from ‘Cryptofascism, the thing that is happening all around us’. I think people will have reasonable objection to the theme even in the absence of a personal relationship with the consequences of Nazism. All I can really say is – I think that’s supposed to be part of the whole thing.
Secret Hitler is currently retailing for around £27, but honestly I’m not sure how you’d tell a legitimate copy from a counterfeit at this point unless you were paying very close attention. Low availability for a while led to a glut of fake copies, and since it was available as a print and play that allowed for a remarkable degree of consistency in those fakes. Anyway, while it’s on the pricey side for a social deduction game (the Resistance is £16, ONUW is currently available for £10) you do get some pretty excellent components, including wooden name-plates that feel very satisfying to move around the table.
We can only very tentatively recommend Secret Hitler in this category.
Oof. There’s little literacy required for play, but the amount of communication – and communication at odds with other people – is massive. Players will be talking over each other, shouting each other down, and actively trying to create misleading fogs of misinformation to protect their interests in play. There are no natural pauses in the discussion and much of the discussion will be intensely argumentative and adversarial. In more competitive groups there is even a chance that accessibility issues will be seized upon as a way to further support an agenda at odds with your own.
We don’t at all recommend Secret Hitler in this category.
We only recommend the game for those with colour blindness, visual, and physical impairments. For those with socioeconomic or emotional concerns, we are on the verge of not recommending the game. This is a set of recommendations that have few intersections. There are no problems with colour blindness and visual accessibility because colour is just not a major factor of play. Close inspection of the game state is not often required, and verbalisation will be an appropriate solution in all cases where close inspection is onerous. Really, I’m not sure there are any specific intersectional issues I would note here and that’s maybe a unique circumstance as far as the blog goes.
Rounds of Secret Hitler are reasonably quick, but there’s very little down-time because everyone is involved all the time. It does grind on a bit with more players, especially because conversation becomes more intense and difficult to manage. However, in my experience it’s done with in about an hour or so and while that’s likely to be a very intense hour it’s not long enough that it is likely to be the cause, in and of itself, of discomfort or distress. The nature of the group playing though may be a multiplier on that – competitive groups adopting a strongly antagonistic style will likely be considerably more draining than the baseline experience.
For all its troubling framing, it turns out that Secret Hitler’s largest problems are the same ones we tend to encounter in all social deductive games – complex decision making, ever shifting perceived roles, and the difficulty of ensuring collegiate conversation in an adversarial design space. All of those are common in games of this nature.
It still though keeps coming back to that Hitler framing, which is effective and also potentially distressingly on-the-nose in the current political climate. Less troublesome rethemings are available but… as an object lesson in the power of crypto-fascism I think it’s worth taking the time to engage with Secret Hitler on the terms it sets for its players. That of course is not always going to be possible to reconcile with real-world pain. People are not wrong to assume a game from the publisher of Cards Against Humanity has little but crass shock in its mind when they pitch a game of this nature. I think there’s more going on here though.
We liked Secret Hitler enough to give it four stars in our review. It’s a great game, but one that occupies a crowded design space. What it does to distinguish itself is to focus on a kind of sociological storytelling system that forces us to confront our own complicity in the political systems in which we operate. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that just isn’t going to be effective for a lot of people as our accessibility teardown shows. Still – sometimes the real Secret Hitler is the one worming his or her way into your own communities, political systems, and national governments and that’s where your attention should really be focused. If you can’t play Secret Hitler for fun you can sure as hell take its core message and play it in real life. The stakes are just an awful lot higher.
A review copy of Secret Hitler was provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for a fair and honest review.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.