Table of Contents
|Meeple Like Us
|Bruno Faidutti and Eric M. Lang
It’s no Secret(s) that this game didn’t land with me – our review managed to serve up two stars for a game designed by, well, two stars. It’s not the first time we’ve been down on a collaboration by Eric Lang and Bruno Faidutti. HMS Dolores received a similarly po-faced rating and looking back it’s for very similar reasons. HMS Dolores, in our view, falls short because of its misapplication of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Secrets falls short because of its misapplication of level thinking. They’re both games that are very literate in how they approach design, but less discerning than they should be about what’s a good catalyst for a fun experience.
That’s our opinion anyway, but you know what they say – an opinion and fifty pence will get you a cup of coffee. Probably. I don’t know how much a cup of coffee is.
That’s not why you’re here though – having sensibly disregarded our review you want to know if you’ll be able to play Secrets. Well, I have no reason to hide that information from you – on to the teardown!
Colour blindness isn’t a problem here. The role tokens you get make use of very distinctive iconography and there are only three possibilities – CIA, KGB and hippies:
Each of the cards has its own very distinctive art, with name written prominently along the front.
Those are the only components you need. We’ll strongly recommend Secrets in this category.
This might be the first hidden role game where the use of secret hidden role tokens isn’t a problem. The identity chips that are dealt out to players are distinctive in that they are large, chunky, and relatively easy to make out because of their size. The best thing though is that they’re also debossed – with symbols actually engraved into the plastic. More important than this is that you can reliably determine them by touch although some practise will be required to deal with the fact they’re circular and orientation may be difficult to make out. That can be easily resolved if you don’t mind making some modifications to the game – carve a little notch at the top for example.
There are eight personalities in the game, and these are represented by cards. On the one hand, eight of them is a small enough set that their effects can be committed to memory. On the other, there are no equivalent tactile indicators that would let a totally blind player identify them by touch. That said, it’s not a deal breaker because verbalisation can serve as an effective work-around in circumstances where a sighted player is also available.
Players must present a secret option to a player of their choice from a draw of two cards, and even this is going to be possible for a totally blind player provided there’s a sighted player at the table that can announce card draws. A player need only take two in hand, knowing which is in which hand, and then shuffle, or not, underneath a table where no-one can see it being done. Since there’s only two cards, the blind player can easily tell which they are presenting in the offer. This has to be face down, but as with which card is in which hand a player can be careful about orientation and thus preserve information and secrecy.
The card which the active player will want to present to another will depend on the composition of the tableaus around the table, but these are reasonably easy to verbalise since they will consist of at most five cards per player. The difficulty here though is going to be in information management. If the roles were fixed and unmoving a totally blind player would be able to commit certain tableaus to memory and contextualise them such as ‘Don’t pass this player a bad card’ or ‘This player is on the enemy team’. Loyalties shift all the time though and as such all the tableaus will need to be reconsidered constantly, even when a blind player isn’t the active one. Narration of turns will do a good job in helping manage this information complexity though.
We’ll recommend Secrets in this category, for all severities of visual impairment.
Those with memory impairments are almost certainly going to find Secrets incredibly difficult to play, as much of it is a kind of ‘Find the Lady’ game but with factional allegiances. Knowing who is on a team is difficult enough with the dearth of reliable information but those loyalties will shift as people play card effects. You might know you’re a CIA agent to begin with, and then someone swaps your token for someone else’s, then someone else’s token with your new token, and then their token with the unused token in the centre. If you remember who is who you’ll have a massive advantage as these allegiances shift. If not you’ll be at an equally massive disadvantage. Informational asymmetries are common too – for example, the journalist card forces you to reveal your token to the table without looking at it yourself, and you’re never allowed to check your role unless a card permits it.
And this in turn leads into some of the complications with regards to fluid intelligence – following the flow of information can be incredibly complex because there’s never a reliable anchor. There’s no part of the game that will always have a constant meaning other than number of cards in front of each player. Just because you’re losing now doesn’t mean you’ll be losing in the next turn – having negative points might be exactly what you want after you become a hippy. You might be part of a fantastic master team at one point and then someone swaps you onto the enemy side, or swaps your team mate’s token thus undermining everything you’ve collaboratively worked towards. All the while people will be trying to obfuscate what information is in the game through self-serving misdirection in conversation. It’s an intensely febrile game state.
Every part of the game is impacted by this – an offer of a card may be a lie (someone claims it’s one thing when it’s another) but their offer is going to be tempered by what they think your response will be. If they have reason to believe you trust them, they’ll send you a card that is compatible with that level of trust. If they’ve been misleading you, it’ll be to your detriment to accept. Unless they think you know they’ve been misleading you. This is where the leveling we talked about in the review comes into its most stark effect – thinking at the level of an opponent, plus one level beyond that. As you might imagine, that is intensely cognitively complex.
It’s also something that is difficult to for anyone to do correctly. If I’m thinking of my role, and you’re thinking of your role plus what I think your role is, then you have an advantage. If I’m four levels into that thinking and you’re eight levels, well… all that consideration is going to wildly overshoot the target anyway. I think Secrets seems like a game where all this thought and consideration is important. I’m less convinced it actually is – I think someone playing as a chaotic random character is statistically just as likely to win as someone that thinks they’re playing all the angles. In the end this is Fluxx, just in social deduction form. I confess though I haven’t done the stats to confirm this suspicion.
But in the end, I don’t think the game ultimately is fun enough when you lean into the ‘agent of anarchy’ aspect because it’s just not satisfying to win on a coin flip. There are too many moving parts in the game for it to be really possible to puzzle your way through the possibility space and it’s not enjoyable enough to simply ride the uncertainty. The game thrives, as best it ever does, in the space between those two extremes and that’s when the illusion of competence can be projected.
On top of this we need to add the literacy requirements, which are reasonably significant, and the numeracy requirements which are pivotal – simple arithmetic but with uncertain pairings of card sets. It’s a lot to manage.
We can’t recommend Secrets in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
It’s possible to pull off some very clever plays in Secrets, but the thing is it’s far more difficult for them to actually land where you want them. You offer a card to someone who rejects it and then you end up with exactly what you needed in order to resolve the uncertainty about someone else’s loyalties. You can feel very good about that, and other people can end up feeling like they’ve been played for a chump. More often though everything is just too chaotic for you to rely on any consistent strategy – success is often decoupled from your activities.
The cards add in an intense frustration that can occur. Imagine this scenario. You’re on six points, and you know you’re on the same team as Jasmine with four. The other team of Roz and Pauline have three points between them, and you’re pretty sure Michael is the hippy with two points. You’re on the winning team, with the winning score. And then Michael offers you a card. He drew the psychiatrist and the double agent. ‘It’s a psychiatrist’, he says. That card would force the player taking it to swap two player tokens, but that’s fine because you can just swap yours and Jasmine. You’d both be where you started. With that in mind Michael clearly isn’t giving you a psychiatrist. You would accept it and the minor point penalty. If you rejected it, he’d get to swap yours and someone else and then you’d be on a losing team. On the other hand, maybe it’s a double agent which would also force you to swap your token (this time with an unknown central token) or let him swap his way on to a different team which would change the balance of power.
What should you do?
Who the hell knows? It all depends on the leveling we discussed in the review, and the problem is if you get it wrong you’re losing the game. You’ve gone from winning to losing after being forced to essentially bet on the roll of a die. That’s going to be fun and funny for some people, and intensely annoying for others. Part of what will shove the game from one column into the other is how people respond to that – if Michael is going to act smug after you fall for his gambit even though in the end it was a mental coin flip.
Whether you win or lose in Secrets, it’s not really going to be up to you. It’ll just sometimes feel like it was.
However, what this design does mean is that it’s almost impossible for the table to gang up on another player because it might just be what they’re hoping for. A hippy taking bullet after bullet of negative points is pretty happy with that outcome. Someone being regularly targeted for role swaps might just find themselves being swapped into a winning position. Some cards have effects that are specifically targeted, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where one person is always the target, and even harder to imagine a scenario where the rest of the table benefits from it.
There are some counter-points though to this system. Winning to losing differentials can be extremely high and they can be inflicted upon a player in the very last round of play. Players often need to bluff and lie, and critically need to ascertain the honesty of other players with often vanishingly small amounts of real data. Mistakes played to your tableau are mostly permanent, and they might only become mistakes later. As a small counterpoint to that, mistakes in the past may turn out to be boons in the future.
We can’t really recommend Secrets in this category.
The tokens that you get dealt out for your identity are thick and chunky, and that’s great. The cards though are more of a problem. While you play them out as open information to a tableau in front of you, the core task of the active player is to draw two cards, select one secretly, and present it to another player. This is likely to be an issue of physical inaccessibility because of the need to covertly select one of two options and maintain mystery as to what was actually picked. For players without physical accessibility concerns this is as simple as dropping them below the table, shuffling then selecting, and then passing one face down to another player. For a physically impaired player this may be a problem although as ever it depends on the specifics.
However, there are workarounds. For example, another player might shuffle the two cards, reveal them to the active player and have them select card one or card two. This is going to depend on trust though – it’s open knowledge what cards are available for selection and a player would need to believe that the shuffle had been sufficient to remove all positional knowledge from the table. Other workarounds are possible too, but each decrease in the level of knowledge on the part of other players has a correspondingly deleterious impact on game flow.
Other than this, all actions in the game can be safely performed on behalf of another player and the majority of play is talking, arguing, and paying attention to what everyone else does.
We’ll tentatively recommend Secrets in this category.
There’s potentially going to be a lot of talking in Secrets – it’s like almost every social deduction game in that respect. However, it’s also a game where there’s likely to be more heat than light because of the way information in the game is malleable and unreliable. Players are incentivised to talk over each other, although in the end this can be mitigated with house rules. Vocabulary required is reasonably every day, and most of the information content in play comes from game actions as opposed to propaganda and misdirection.
Some literacy is required to play, but there are only eight distinct roles and they can be reasonably easily committed to memory.
Also, as with One Night Ultimate Werewolf, there are auditory clues that come along with some of the actions players can take in Secrets. The diplomat for example swaps the central token with someone to their left or right while everyone has their eyes closed. This can leak gameplay information and some form of balancing element for this might be necessary. The usual workaround is for everyone to make noise while this is underway.
We’ll tentatively recommend Secrets in this category.
Of the eight character types in the game, four are women. A range of body types are represented, and all of the characters fall into some vector that makes them cool and interesting. The box art too shows a competent looking woman on the cover and on the back, with the somewhat cliched James Bond type relegated to the side. There isn’t though much of a variety as far as ethnicity is concerned.
The game has an RRP of around £18, and it supports up to eight players in approximately 20ish minute bursts. That’s a reasonable price, especially because it’s a game that works well at all of its player counts and that’s something that isn’t always true for games in this category. For example The Resistance may be cheaper per player, but it gets progressively less fun the more players you add in.
We’ll strongly recommend Secrets in this category.
Despite the recommendation we gave Secrets in the visual accessibility category, we have to stress that the memory aspect of the game becomes correspondingly more significant. Even those that wouldn’t describe themselves as having cognitive impairments may find the additional memory burden too great to reasonably bear. You need a relatively good memory to get the best out of Secrets if playing blind or visually impaired. Absence of an impairment may not be enough by itself.
Those with physical impairments and visual impairments, depending on the specific manifestation, may find the tactility offered by the tokens is less effective for identification than we have outlined in the individual sections above. A leading cause of visual impairment for example is diabetes, and that often comes with nerve damage at the peripheral extremities. In this case, one of the few hidden role games that are compatible with visual accessibility issues would likely become much more problematic.
Secrets plays in about twenty minutes, barring accessibility considerations, and doesn’t need to take up an awful lot of space. While it wouldn’t be ideal for cramped or constrained physical circumstances, it’s something that could be reasonably easily slotted around modulating symptoms of discomfort or distress provided the requisite minimum player count could be met.
Well, I’m actually quite surprised to be able to recommend a hidden role game in our visual accessibility category but it just goes to show what can be accomplished with good component design. The identity role tokens in Secrets don’t just look good – they impart tactile information in a way that would be otherwise extremely difficult to replicate. Look at how tentative we are in that category for One Night Ultimate Werewolf or the Resistance, as an example.
Sometimes games fall down in our cognitive accessibility section just because they ask a lot of players. Secrets is odd in that it does exactly that but in a weird way – it’s part of constructing a consensual illusion. The problem with level thinking as a framework for game design is that it requires everyone to land on almost same level for it to be interesting rather than just random. If everyone can commit to it, Secrets feels like a game of bluffing and counterbluffing when it’s often just something where the outcome is indistinguishable from probability. However, playing it that way takes away much of the ambiance of play. Everyone needs to think hard to fool themselves into the game having more manageability than it really does. That’s a feature of play that has cut across this teardown.
With only two stars in our review, it’s clear that the collaboration between Bruno Faidutti and Eric Lang is one that isn’t producing games that are compatible with our preferences. Secrets is a lovely looking game with real accessibility boons attached to its presentation but it’s not one that we can enthusiastically recommend in many of our teardown categories. Whatever Secrets are contained within this box, they aren’t the key to designing fully accessible social deduction games.
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.