|Secret Hitler (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.73]
|Player Count (recommended)
|Mike Boxleiter, Tommy Maranges and Max Temkin
A review copy of Secret Hitler was provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for a fair and honest review.
In today’s ‘meandering monologue on stuff only vaguely related to the topic of the review’, let’s discuss about the accessibility of first impressions and how Secret Hitler is layers and layers of case study on how important they can be. At least, let’s talk about that for a bit before getting depressed at the gradual revival of fascism in a world environment that seems singularly incapable of recognising it as it strides openly amongst us. How is it possible in the 21st century that Nazis are back and winning the Culture Wars?
It turns out Secret Hitler may have some insights to impart on that topic.
The first thing that strikes you about Secret Hitler is the name, and that’s where a lot of people stop paying attention to anything else. It strikes some people hard. There was a recent newspaper story, one I linked in one of our monthly roundups, where a Jewish anti-defamation league condemned the game for its glorification of fascism. Quoting from that article:
‘This is beyond normal. What’s next, a board game set in the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz?, the Jewish group’s chairman Dvir Abramovich said.
Board game enthusiasts struck back. ‘It’s not remotely disrespectful’, ‘You’re actually trying to stop Hitler’, ‘It’s a fun game and the fascism stuff isn’t presented positively’. Those are all relevant points. The problem is though that the damage was done. The title, and the way the game presents itself, was the only thing needed for people to forever dismiss it and everyone that plays it.
Lots of people dislike the framing device of Secret Hitler. The game has been remixed into dozens of fan versions including Secret Palpatine and Secret Voldermort. Many people like the game. They just find it troubling to be too cavalier about fascism, especially given that it is aggressively on the rise throughout the world. It’s an inaccessible way to present a game to people.
Also though, I think that’s sort of the point. The title is intended to be provocative. It’s intended to be transgressive. It strikes me as the wielding of intentional inaccessibility as a marketing gimmick. Secret Hitler is a great game – a really enjoyable game of social deduction – but I don’t think it would be anywhere close to its prominence were it to have an inoffensive theme. For all the people that decry the game, and its title, there are legions more that react in opposition to that opposition and strengthen it as a result. Stephanie Rodgers and J from 3 Minute Board Games recently clued me in on the work of Anat Shenker-Osorio. She talks about the power that resistance groups transfer by fighting against regressive elements. ‘What you fight, you feed’, she says. Secret Hitler looks pretty plump from that perspective. I think it’s supposed to make you feel uneasy. Understanding doesn’t need to change the fact, but it’s a reason why you might want to hold off on judgement until you drill down a little deeper.
That’s two layers of first impression already – the original shock factor, and then the consideration of what that shock value is intended to deliver.
The next layer of first impressions that Secret Hitler provides you is that it is gorgeous. Foil embossed boards. Wooden nameplates for the chancellor and the president. Thick, heavy voting tokens. Era-appropriate illustrations of liberals, and repellent anthropomorphisations of fascist animals for the bad guys. The interesting factor here is how the second layer of first impressions undercuts the layers to be found in the framing.
If this were a ‘we’re selling the cheapest product that can be produced’ proposition you’d be well within the bounds of reason to assume the whole thing was designed to sell large numbers of copies on the back of energised outrage. It’s not though. It’s a quality product. A premium product, arriving in a box with all the heft and insouciance of a case of fine cigars. The first impression of the product, as opposed to the first impression of the name, is a weird juxtaposition. I spend a lot of time arguing with myself about what it means. In the end all I can settle on is, ‘Trust that we anticipated the response that every part of this design was going to elicit’. It’s a game that is either respectfully subversive or a little bit too smug for its own good. I don’t know which, but it’s one of the two.
First impressions matter, who would have thought?
The general structure of Secret Hitler will be familiar to anyone that has played a social deduction game before.
For those that haven’t, it works like this. You get assigned a secret role. You can be a liberal, working to stop the fascists. You can be a fascist, looking to undermine the liberals. Or you can be Hitler, who is pretending to be a liberal until such time as he can be elected to chancellor and enact his brutal Reich. In smaller games, the fascists and Hitler will know each other. In larger games, the fascists will know who Hitler is, but Hitler will not know who are the fascists. No-one else knows allegiances. It’s very similar in that respect to the Resistance. A random chancellor and a random president are selected. Then the game begins to go through a series of rounds where the table, as whole, works to pass ephemeral and non-specific ‘policies’ of liberal or fascistic bent.
The presidency rotates around the table, and part of being a president is nominating a chancellor for election by the collective. Once a certain number of fascist policies have been passed, the fascists win the game by electing Hitler to the chancellorship. Until that happens, everyone has to be very wary because the chancellor wields considerable power. However, legislative deadlock moves the country further towards anarchy at which point the first policy drawn from the deck is enacted. The deck is weighted in the favour of fascism, so chaos tends to benefit Hitler and his crew. As such, it’s often necessary for people to compromise on candidates, especially if they think most of the liberal policies have already been discarded.
The president draws three hidden policies from the draw deck, looks at them, and passes two on to the newly elected chancellor. The chancellor discards one of these policies and the last is what is enacted. In this way, information about the loyalties of every player begins to seep into the game, with enough uncertainty threaded through the scenario that there’s always plausible deniability. ‘I had to pass a fascist policy because the President passed me two’. ‘I drew three fascist policies from the deck, bad luck’. Or, perhaps, ‘I passed over two liberal policies! The current chancellor is a fascist!’. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in Secret Hitler.
As the country slides more towards fascism, new one-off powers are unlocked permitting more information to be obtained about players around the table or permitting outright assassination of suspect politicians. This all continues until either Hitler is chancellor, dead, or the requisite number of fascist or liberal policies are enacted. At that point, everyone reveals their identities and reaps the social reward, or approbation, associated with their performance.
Sounds pretty standard, right? Is it a good game? Yes. It’s a lot of fun. Social deduction is fertile ground from which to grow playability and Secret Hitler does it as well or better than many other games. The problem in a review is that all social deductions are kind of the same game. The only thing that changes is the weighting of incentives and the trickle of information. In the end you’re doing the same thing in every single one – pretending to be something good so you can do something bad, or trying to convince everyone that you’re as good as your claimed role would say you are. Everything else is window dressing. I like social deduction games a lot. The one I pick though has a lot more to do with the group I’m playing than it does the game design itself. With newer groups, I’ll choose simpler games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf. With highly combatative groups I’ll maybe go with the Resistance. For those inbetween, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a consistent crowd pleaser.
Under what circumstances though would I pick Secret Hitler?
To answer that, let’s talk about the ecosystem of effectiveness in storytelling.
Bear with me.
Different kinds of media are very good at telling certain kinds of stories. Novels, movies and TV shows tend to be personality driven. They have characters, doing important things, and the story depends on the trials and tribulations they face. Breaking Bad would not work as a story without Walter White. It’s an amazing television show that lives and dies on the strength of the connection you feel to its main character. ‘I am the one who knocks’, threatens White in his adopted persona of Heisenberg. It’s a great line – a great televisual moment – that only works because we know who this person is, what they have done, and what they have shown they will do in protection of their schemes and goals. We are invested in the individual personalities of the story, and if they were not there we’d have nothing. If Walter White died in the first season, we’d have no show.
System-based storytelling is something you see less often in what’s sometimes known as ‘passive media’. This is when the story is framed in such a way as to make the characters largely irrelevant. They’re cogs in a machine and can be swapped in and out as necessary. As an example of this, consider the television show The Wire. The characters there are… fine. But they’re not the focus. The focus is on the systemic interrelationship between poverty, politics, crime and class struggle. The people in these stories are defined primarily by the role they play in those systems and the important factor there is that systems are self-repairing. When someone dies, someone else will step up to take their place. When a good person finds themselves in a position of power and authority, they’ll find the system turning them into the bad person that they had fought the entire time. Place a bad person in a good system and it’ll become a bad system. Place a good person in a bad system, and they’ll become a bad person.
Consider this whenever anyone asks you if you’re go back in time and assassinate Hitler. Asking the question by itself says a lot about how they view the world.
Game of Thrones, at least initially, had this kind of systemic framing. A show that can kill off its main protagonist as a way of capping off its first season (spoilers I guess but there’s a statute of limitation on how long you get to complain about that) is one that’s telling a tale of sociological impact. There is a fantastic article in Scientific American about this basic storytelling divide. I’d recommend it but it has many spoilers for the last few seasons of Game of Thrones so you might want to avoid it if you’ve somehow managed to keep yourself free of those until this point.
Back to Secret Hitler.
We often think of the narrative in games through psychological lenses. Really where games excel is in exploring systems of sociological impact and incentive. A well designed set of intermeshing game mechanisms creates a context for examining the consequences of decision making. Good mechanisms are an integral part of storytelling. It’s in here that I think Secret Hitler is considerably cleverer than many of its competitors. Not necessarily better as a game, but better at implying a certain kind of story. It’s a game that tells a very insightful and interesting sociological tale about the mechanisms of political power. Secret Hitler has a relatively provocative title. I suspect that’s because it’s actually putting forward a relatively provocative thesis regarding the nature of power in society. That thesis loses its applicability the further away it gets from real life contexts. Sure, ‘Secret Palpatine’ has a less problematic framing but it puts psychological distance between players and the way they may, even subconsciously, be enabling the encroachment of fascism in real life.
‘You are responsible for this’, is the argument I read into the core of Secret Hitler and there’s no other game I own that comes equally close to swinging a punch at the faces of anyone playing. It’s a case study in the power of crypto-fascism and the impact of that is diminished by the application of a more acceptable framing device. Keep the darkness hidden until it’s too late for anyone to cast any light. You win Secret Hitler by constantly shifting the Overton window until ‘normal’ by itself is an alarmingly extreme state. That should resonate with you in real life. Liberals in Secret Hitler are enabled by fascist policies just as much as the fascists are. When a liberal chancellor uses their power of unilateral extra-judicial murder to assassinate a fascist that happened to be Hitler… well. That’s not exactly the happy ending that the liberal win-state would imply. ‘So this is how liberty dies’, remarks Natalie Portman in perhaps the only great line of dialog George Lucas has written for decades. ‘With thunderous applause’.
When the liberals tear themselves apart looking for the fascists, you see the story of leftism as it has been told from its earliest days. The right looks for converts. The left looks for traitors. In Secret Hitler, uncertainty, chaos and distrust benefit the fascists. Within that anarchy they act with uniform purpose towards a uniform goal. And in the middle sits Hitler, acting as the most liberal of all, until such time as he can be positioned into power. The wolf with the sheep. The fox amongst the hens. The snake in the suit.
Secret Hitler tells this story with every single one of its mechanisms. Good people are forced into doing bad things, because a chancellor can only enact one of the two policies they are handed. That though also gives moral cover. The president is in a position to stack the deck, and natural distrust of ‘the system’ also gives room for bad people to do bad things by pretending to be good people doing bad things. ‘There are more fascist policies than liberal policies in the deck. I can’t give you options I don’t get’. The fact the fascists know each other gives everyone a distrust in the ‘establishment’. It creates a worry that the president and chancellor are conspiring together to enact a secret regime. It’s ‘the establishment’ that’s to play, but the constant churn of political leadership is supported by a populist agenda at the table. The fascists act in concert to ruthlessly pursue an agenda bigger than they are – they rarely win by getting all their policies to the table. They win by getting Hitler to the throne and they will sacrifice themselves to make that happen. They are united in purpose. The liberals on the other hand are constantly alert for any signs of unworthy behaviour, ready to leap on imaginary enemies and undermine insufficiently pious allies. Passing fascist policies gets shit done. A sensible liberal might well want to grant extraordinary power to a trusted liberal president to deal with the otherwise unbearable uncertainty. That systemic authoritarianism though never gets dismantled. Authority rarely cedes its own power. The tools of authoritarianism that were okay in the hands of a noble leader will eventually fall into the hands of their successor. The first few fascist policies don’t do anything, but they have exponential impact the more that are brought into play. That in turn is fodder for the crushing paranoia that leads to futile inaction and self-destruction of the left.
The circumstances then under which I’d choose Secret Hitler over the alternatives are when I want people to go away feeling bad about the role they played in the outcome and then take that contemplation with them into the real world. I’d choose Secret Hitler when I wanted people to get out of the idea of ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’ and into a world view that also accommodated ‘good systems’, ‘bad systems’, and ‘bad systems that look like good systems’. I’d choose Secret Hitler when I think the group would appreciate a sociological story where their specific role is to enable a system, not a person. Hitler’s assassination may end the game for the liberals, but rest assured – those fascists will be looking for the next candidate to take his place and they’ll be starting from a stronger position.
We’re all currently playing in the largest mega-game of Secret Hitler and it’s happening all around us, all the time. We’re LARPing our way towards totalitarianism with the world’s least deserving monsters being shoved into positions of power by the least aware electorate. It’s a game that encapsulates the modern political zeitgeist. It might just be a useful tool in helping bringing balance to our troubled systems by encouraging people to be more critical of their own roles within them. Not just in terms of macro-politics but in terms of finding the toxic people and toxic systems in the micro-sociologies in which we function on a day to day basis. We need to get better at this.
God, we need to get better at this. And soon.
A review copy of Secret Hitler was provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for a fair and honest review.