When I Played Secret Hitler

I spent the last days of 2015 the way I spent the beginning and middle days, and the way I intend to spend 2016: playing games. For the 10 days we were in Berkeley, I packed a big stack of games. With my friends and family, most notably my sister’s 8 year old girl Madeleine, we played J.S. Joust, Slap .45, and Discount Salmon, which was by far my niece’s favorite and will be her next birthday present for sure.

But what I was most excited for was Secret Hitler. I was very excited to have a chance playing the game, so here is my report.

I should start by saying that I feel like I have a lot of experience learning rules and teaching them to new people, even if it’s a game I’m not familiar with. I hosted Food Chain from “The Genius” twice in the last two years and explained to a room of 20 people at widely varying levels of tricky-game-comprehension how to play Food Chain, which is also about secret identities, incomplete information, bluffing, and strategy.

I’ll also add that the “Print and Play” PDF provided generously by the game’s designers to every backer on Kickstarter is, while awesome, named somewhat misleadingly. Quite a lot of cutting is involved, so it’s lucky I brought scissors and set aside some cutting time in advance of game night. Also, buried in the rules is the suggestion that coin envelopes should be provided to the players. If I’d known this before departing LA, I could have easily provided them for the players, as I have many, but as you’ll see below I advocate for some revisions to gameplay that make the envelopes unnecessary.

Though it’s not in the rules, one of the blog posts or KS updates indicated that, with the policy deck, it’s very important that the cards not be flipped over, and that the print and play versions of the cards are a little too flimsy, so I had the bright idea to tape all the policy cards to dominos and put them in a bag that players could draw out of. The problem of course is that the dominos were all different colors and they end up going back into the bag, so this idea was actually terrible, but it didn’t end up impairing our game, though it could have. The other mistake I made was, when the policy bag was down to just 2 dominos left, instead of pulling those out and then putting the discards back into the bag, I refilled the bag before the next legislative section, so we didn’t quite get the proper experience of having every card from the deck get played once before any got played twice. Next time I would do it differently.

We gathered at The Albatross on San Pablo in Albany, my favorite game bar in the world. My mother-in-law says she used to socialize with friends there in the 60’s and 70’s, so it’s been a fine bar for generations. I’m proud to be part of the tradition. We got the best table in the bar, a huge round number made of serious lumber in the back corner, conveniently close to the popcorn machine and self-serve water station.

Me and my wife were in attendance along with my friends Mimosa, Austin, and Casey. I’ve been friends with those three for years, dating back to when we were (variously) campers and counselors at Live at CCCT Drama Camp in El Cerrito. Casey brought her friend Arianna. Sal also came: Sal is another drama camp alum but one I don’t see nearly as often, and he brought his delightful girlfriend Monica. They provided chips and salsa for everybody. The last player was Jake, a dear friend from high school I haven’t seen in years and years. Nobody at the table knew him except me, and Laurel a little bit. That’s a 9-player game, where nobody knew everybody. Seemed like a promising group for my first outing. I was excited.

Once everyone was settled and we got to the rules, it became clear – to me at least – that the rules were too long for non-experienced gamers. Everyone there was eager and willing to try the new game but, and this was especially the case since we were at a bar and many people had been drinking, I was absolutely deluged the entire time I was reading by people going “I’m confused,” “I don’t get it,” “Wait, what?” and asking many, many questions. This is quite common across many games, and people do a better job of understanding once they begin playing, but since the game involves secret identities, players really should be armed with all the info they need before the game begins, because if you’re secretly a Fascist you don’t want to give it away by asking questions about how the Fascists win. I mean, you can do that, and if you’re a savvy game player it’s simple enough to do so under the guise of pretending to be a Liberal, but it was too much for most of this group.

I also found the strategy notes at the end a mixed blessing. They are quite important, but after the painful process of getting us all the way to the rules document, I then had to say, “OK let me just read these strategy notes before we get started. There are NINE OF THEM.” Groans. The rules lack brevity, is what I’m trying to say. I think part of the problem is that things that don’t happen very often – such as Veto power - are described in detail, when perhaps they should be in a separate section called “Things That Don’t Happen Very Often.”

Another source of confusion was the name “Policy Deck.” Since the cards in the deck themselves do not actually represent policies at all, but instead unlock policies on the Fascist victory track (except for when they don’t), it took a lot of explaining for the players to grasp what exactly the policy deck represented.

Although we never failed more than 1 election in a row, the failed election gameplay mechanism doesn’t seem quite right to me. Since the Liberals’ majority is so small, and the deck is so heavily weighted in favor of the Fascists, it seems that failed elections favor the Fascists. I think if bots played this game, the Fascists would vote Nein on every election, hoping that at least 1 Liberal would do the same, and just let the random draw of policies help advance the Fascist cause. Fortunately, bots don’t play this game, but I do think there are some holes in the mechanism of failed elections.

A more practical problem with failed elections is that the print and play version of the game has a “Failed Election” track on the Liberals’ board, but no token to advance, nor is one mentioned in the rules. As long as you have someone at the table who knows how games work, that person can find a penny or a cigar butt or something and move it along the tracker when elections fail.

Speaking of the rules, just in case anyone from CAH is reading this, the version that I downloaded has a few typos. In paragraph 1 sentence 1 (really?), the word “are” is missing between the words “players” and “German.” In Gameplay>Election>Vote on the Government, at the end of sentence 2, it should be “ready to vote” and not “read to vote.”

Also on the topic of game bits, our group’s biggest problem by far involved the game cards. What happened was this: a player revealed her Fascist Party Loyalty card face up during an election phase because she thought it was her “Ja!” card. This had a chilling effect on game play, since she had investigated another player in the second round, who it turned out was Hitler, so electing Hitler Chancellor became impossible. As it turned out, the Fascists still won, and although this kind of error is really one player’s fault for making a mistake, it did illustrate to me how a little more economy of design could prevent such a thing from happening.

When I was giving the game bits out to the players, I was in fact quite surprised by the redundancy of the Role cards and the Party Loyalty Cards. Once game play began, I understood that they exist solely to protect Hitler’s identity during investigations. Put another way, in order to protect 1 player during 2 of a possible 11 (or more) rounds of the game, we double the number of cards we give to every player. As my Jewish mother would say, “Ongepatchket.”

I suggest that role cards are simply marked with Red (Fascist) or Blue (Liberal), or any color scheme you want. During investigation, you show the color of your card but not its text. This idea is inspired by “Two Rooms and a Boom” from Tuesday Knight games.

Furthermore (Fuhrer-more?), I suggest the “Ja” and “Nein” cards be combined into a double-sided, circular card, like a drink coaster. So now instead of giving each player 4 identical rectangular cards, we’re giving them a round one and a rectangular one that have different functions and that look and feel differently.

I’m actually really surprised this hasn’t come up before with other playtesters. Like I said, it could have just been my friend, but I think the principle stands.

Lastly, the clockwise rotation of the Presidency meant that, with 9 players, it was quite a long time before the people at the far end of the table got to do anything other than vote, and the prospect of the Special Election meant that it could have been even longer.

Anyhow, those are my main objections to the game as it stands. All that aside, the game ended in a fun, dramatic fashion: it came down to one final policy that would win the game for one side or the other. The President and Chancellor – Jake the stranger and my diabolical wife - were two terribly clever Fascists who had successfully duped everyone for the whole game starting right from the very beginning. Despite the accidental outing of a Fascist and the useless Hitler, the Liberals had a tough road because Ari was so suspicious of everyone at the table that she voted Nein on everything. No matter how much we tried to explain that any Liberal at the table is allied with HALF the other players, and she should consider trusting at least one of them, we could never get any traction so the Liberals had a real uphill battle.

I left feeling like I didn’t get a real good experience of play, and slightly miffed that an error resulting partly from player foul-up and partly from overabundant game bits undermined the significant investment in time that I’d put in to preparing, explaining, and trying the game. If I wanted a powerful force with an exposed frailty that made the whole structure vulnerable to collapse, I’d build a Death Star like in 3/7 of the “Star Wars” movies.

tl;dr Secret Hitler could surely be fun for a group of experienced game players, but the rules and strategy tips lack brevity, and there is redundancy in the design of the game bits that can create confusion and spoil the fun.