Hitler is satisfied.
The liberals seem to be on the fence. They can’t figure out who around the table to trust. Who among them could be a fascist, a two-faced politician pretending to be on their side but with a burning desire to see Hitler rise to power?
The next card will decide. The next election may very well end any hopes of liberals.
Thankfully, the above scenario happened over a card game at a table. Although it has some references to the German leader, Secret Hitler is far from a politically saturated, controversial game. The only risk is that your friends might never trust you again. And the whole party will love it.
Drawing inspiration from Hitler’s political rise in the 1930s, Secret Hitler is a game involving intriguing ploys of gaining trust only to mercilessly betray it at the opportune moment. Titles like Mafia and Werewolf fall into the same category as this game (they’re social deduction games where you’re trying to figure out if your friend is screwing you over).
Secret Hitler needs at least five players and can hold up to ten eager schemers. The game begins with passing around envelopes, each containing Ja! (yes) and Nein! (no) vote cards, and an identity card. That last one is key—it determines whether you’re a liberal, a fascist, or a fascist who plays as Hitler. There are always more liberals than fascists, but liberals don’t know who is who. The fascists secretly find out about each other at the start of the game and work together to elect Hitler (the Fuhrer doesn’t know anyone’s role but his or her own).
The title of President rotates with each turn around the table. The person who has the title selects a Chancellor, and then the whole table votes on the choice—the roles go through if there’s a majority of Ja’s, otherwise the next person tries to be President. The President draws three cards from the policy pile and passes two to the Chancellor, who then discards one and selects the policy to come into effect. There are only two types of cards in a 17-card deck—11 fascist and 6 liberal policies.
Liberals win if they manage to pass five liberal policies or eliminate Hitler. Fascists win if they manage to elect Hitler as Chancellor or pass six fascist policies.
Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin along with designers Mike Boxleiter and Tommy Maranges and artist Mackenzie Schubert funded the game on Kickstarter late last year, and I had the opportunity to check out Secret Hitler at the hip CAH office in Chicago.
Feeling somewhat mortified to be Hitler in my very first playthrough, the pressure to behave as a goody-two-shoes liberal doubled. Not only that, I had to figure out who my hidden fascist supporters were. The player to my left selected me as Chancellor in the first round, and passed a red fascist policy and a blue liberal. There’s so much complexity in the card passing, so much opportunity for intrigue. The President could have passed two fascist policies to me, giving me no choice but to play a card, and I may claim to the table that I am not a dirty Hitler-lover, but it’s up to them if they want to believe me. By passing me one blue and one red, the player can also see which one I’ll choose. I played the liberal card despite being Hitler—seemed like the perfect opportunity to buy the table’s trust. It worked brilliantly, and later it turned out the player who’d passed me the card was fascist all along.
The session quickly erupted in shouts and (friendly) name-calling. Accusations flew left and right as players called each other on their actions. The air was ripe with ambiguity and conspiracies. Often, the table discussed who’s been acting more suspiciously and who seemed to have a “good record.”
There’s nothing less politically correct than a Polish guy playing a Nazi leader, right? But actually, political beliefs or political correctness never came up during the sessions. Rather, you’ll be concerned about how to string your friends along and whether they’ll stab you in the back. The game turns into an intense collective game of studying body language and logic, and having a poker face.
As more fascist policies get passed, the President gets more power, like a Veto power, the ability to assassinate a player (make them leave the game), and occasional investigations of players. The investigations turned out to be one of the more catalystic options. The President is able to discreetly view a role card of one of the players (they don’t show it) and report their findings to the rest of the table. What if the President is fascist, and knowing who is fascist, investigates one of their friends, and reports them as liberal? Or the investigator yells out “he’s a dirty fascist!” and the person has nothing but their words to defend themselves?
Although there’s so much ambiguity in the game, and you might not figure out who Hitler is until he or she wins, it’s counteracted by the card deck. The main distinguisher from games like Werewolf and Mafia is that you’re playing with props.
“There are very few games that are more controversial among game designers than Werewolf,” Mike Selinker, designer of card game Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, told me over email. “Secret Hitler takes another approach. It adds in a lot of machinations that players can do, steering the game toward their objectives. There’s so much going on—secret card removal, laws changing the rules, figuring out what cards have been played and which haven’t, and so on.”
While Cards Against Humanity fans, used to seeing hundreds of horribly creative suggestions, may feel underwhelmed about a 17-card deck, that number introduces complex deck-tracking strategies for advanced players and is the result of countless hours of playtesting. The designers say a typical reaction they’ve seen is people complaining that either the Fascists or the Liberals are too powerful, but the scales never predominantly lean to one side.
“Changing up the deck composition is certainly something we’d be open for the future, but I also think that so much work went into balancing the game,” said Temkin. “It’s asymmetrical, so the two teams have very different information and knowledge, and it’s also balanced on the edge of a razor. Having an asymmetrical game that’s also extremely well balanced is a real achievement, and that’s really a testament that Mike Boxleiter and Tommy Maranges did.”
The game’s Kickstarter exceeded its $54,450 goal by an almost unbelievable amount, totaling almost $1.5 million by the end. Temkin said the best day for the campaign was when they released a free, printable version of Secret Hitler. While the project initially lacked stretch goals, backers will be able to obtain a companion app and art prints, among others. Temkin’s friend, Ben Huh (the person responsible for I Can Haz Cheezburger and cat memes), started a petition for a Donald Trump expansion to Secret Hitler, in case you wanted a more modern take.
The idea to depict fascists as animal caricatures emerged from the game designer trio.
“We didn’t want anyone to play this game and think that our opinion as designers is that it’s cool to be a Nazi. We wanted to have an editorial opinion on which team’s good and which team’s bad,” Temkin said. “We don’t include any Nazi symbols or logos or anything like that. In addition we wanted to make the Nazis sort of evil, cartoonish lizards.”
“Well, we know historically that Hitler was some kind of reptoid,” added Maranges.
Luke Siuty is a freelance journalist living in Chicago, frequently playing video games and card games, and occasionally plotting the demise of his party members. You can find him on Twitter @LukeShooty.
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