Dirty Little Shitler
I enjoy plenty of social deduction games. Mafia de Cuba. Spyfall. A Fake Artist Goes to New York. Deception: Murder in Hong Kong. Dark Moon. Homeland. So why is it that the genre has always sounded like a swear word to me?
When I really put my mind to it, the essence of my beef is that I simply don’t enjoy any entries into the genre that feel scripted, where a person’s role or ability informs nearly all of their behavior. I’m talking about stuff like The Resistance: Avalon or One Night Ultimate Werewolf, where everyone else works out these logical identity puzzles while I sit there counting the minutes. The first time is thrilling, but the tenth? Boring. Programmatic, even. Invariably, it feels like we’re just going through the motions as our assigned characters.
Secret Hitler feels a whole lot like Avalon, and yet it sidesteps this issue completely. Let’s look at how.
The pitch for Secret Hitler is at once novel and familiar. There are two sides, the lines between them drawn in secret with the usual script that opens with a lullaby “Everyone go to sleep” and concludes with everyone waking up to a new day in the Weimar Republic. On one side is the liberal government of early 1930s Germany, dedicated to propping up their stuttering Republic and promoting ideals of yadda blah et cetera. The others are fascists, bent on ruling the world and delivering yowling speeches. Even worse, one of them is Hitler himself.
Like real-world Hitler, this secret Hitler’s goal is to play the game of democracy until he can finagle himself into a position of power. Thus, it isn’t uncommon for the most benign, liberal person at the table to be a closet totalitarian maniac.
Most of the gameplay revolves around a series of elections, deeply reminiscent of The Resistance’s “missions.” Each round opens with a new presidential candidate, who in turn nominates a candidate for chancellor. Everyone at the table votes ja oder nein (helpfully subtitled for that one person who doesn’t know those two most basic of words) to this proposed pair. When an election fails, a new player gets a whack at running for president, nominating yet another chancellor, and the Republic threatens to fall into chaos and the whims of random change unless someone finally takes charge. But when an election passes — well, that’s when the fun starts.
In order to understand what Secret Hitler is all about, you need to understand policies. These come in liberal and fascist flavors, and of course both sides want a bunch of their own policies to pass into law. However, it isn’t as simple as just deciding that you want to pass a particular policy. First the newly-elected president secretly picks up three — entirely at random — and picks two to consider. Then the chancellor takes those two proposals and picks which one becomes law. As icing on the cake, at certain milestones fascist laws will grant the current president the power to do something nutty, like peeking at somebody’s membership or even having someone executed.
Now, naturally, the liberal players win if enough liberal laws are enacted, while the same goes for the fascists and their policies. But here’s where things get tricky, because the fascists will also win if they enact just a handful of fascist policies and then get Hitler elected chancellor. Just like that, blam, Hitler merges the presidency and chancellorship and it’s the Referendum of 1934 all over again. Good job, guys. But on the other side, the liberals will win if they kill Hitler. You know, just like everybody’s obligatory what-would-you-do-with-time-travel answer.
This system of policies and the manner of their passing does two huge things for Secret Hitler.
First of all, it totally dashes the programmatic gameplay that plagues similar social deduction games. Because the draw of tiles is entirely random, it’s possible — always possible — that a particular president-chancellor duo just passed a fascist law because they happened to draw three of them in the first place. No choice. It’s also possible for a hard-line fascist to find himself in a situation where he has to pass a liberal policy. Determining whether a particular candidate was telling the truth is about as sticky as unpicking a real-world politician’s labyrinth of promises and backpedals.
Secondly, both sides are put in a position where they might want to pass an opposing law every now and then. For the fascists, and in particular Hitler, sure, it makes sense to stay hidden for a while. But even a liberal president might want to enact a fascist policy in order to gain its executive power. Looking at somebody’s loyalty card is no mean benefit, after all. And if the liberals are serious about killing Hitler, they must vote fascist at some point.
The result is at once simple in its elegance and deep in its wheels-within-wheels treachery. As a liberal, it’s impossible to fully trust anyone else in the Reichstag lest they betray you in your own personal Night of the Long Knives. As a fascist, every election that has you or one of your compatriots in it feels like you’re seconds away from tipping your hand before you can play it. And as Hitler, unsure of who supports you and who is out to get you, every election and resolution hides the promise of your ascension or the threat of an assassin’s bullet.
The social deduction genre feels young in many ways, not least of all because it continues to evolve by leaps and bounds. And for the time being, Secret Hitler is the pinnacle of the whole mistrustful pyramid. It’s dynamic and presents ever-changing situations, leaving you on your toes even as you get a handle on the cross-stitch of loyalties that threads its way across the table. Watching as understanding dawns across a fellow player’s face — and questioning whether they’re with you or against you — has never been quite so good.