Secrets Secrets Are No Fun
With its pedigree, you’d think Secrets would stand out as one of the finest creations ever put to cardboard. Bruno Faidutti stands at one end, with hits like Citadels, Mission: Red Planet, and Mascarade in his pocket, while Eric Lang inhabits the other. And if you don’t know who Eric Lang is, might I recommend Blood Rage or Chaos in the Old World? A social deduction by those two seems like a no-brainer.
But as it would turn out, no brains isn’t the right way to go for a social deduction game. At least not unless you’re content making a merely okay one.
It’s all a big shame, because Secrets does have a couple whiz-bang ideas rattling around its empty skull.
The concept hits all the classic notes. At the outset of the game, you’re aligned with one of three sides. The mighty KGB and CIA are both out to score the most points for their side, though of course they aren’t entirely certain who they can trust. Meanwhile, the lowly hippie gets off on being oppressed, and wants the fewest points once the dust settles. It’s a perfect mix of serious Cold War flick and dunderhead comedy of errors. You can almost hear the bunker chatter about identity and double agents, intercut with scenes of a bumbling hippie being treated like he knows some tidbit of crucial intel.
Perhaps most interesting is the fact that you might not actually know your own identity, let alone everybody else’s. Sure, you start out fully aware of which side you’re working for, and with more players you might even know your neighbor’s identity as well. But as the game progresses, it’s common for those delightful ceramic identity chips to switch places. And when that happens, you’d better be doubly smart or you might just wind up working for the wrong team.
Which is where the game’s setup and gameplay start to diverge. The turn-by-turn gameplay is perfectly serviceable, but often feels ever so slightly aloof from the actual spy games going on in the background. Each turn sees two different cards appearing from the deck. There are eight possibilities, each sporting some clever twist that sets them apart as somehow desirable. Most revolve around the idea of manipulating or revealing those identity tokens — the Double Agent lets you swap with the spare chip in the center of the table, the Journalist reveals your token to everybody but you, the Diplomat makes everybody close their eyes for some limited swapping, and so on. Others, meanwhile, are more about points, like the Scientist who scores a bunch until you get two of them, or the Assassin who doles out bullet cards.
With two of these cards in hand, the active player is going to offer one while tucking the other onto the bottom of the deck. Whoever was offered the card may either accept or refuse it. Either way, the card is flipped up and its effects resolved. Hijinks abound, at least in theory.
It’s all very directed, two cards spilling out of the deck every turn, and that does bestow some comfort from a beginner’s standpoint. It also, unfortunately, has the effect of railroading the action. Each turn quickly becomes more about the two cards pulled from the deck than the implications of why one player is offering something to a particular target. True, by the end of the game it’s possible to suss out who’s allied with whom, and then it can accelerate into a race to nudge your score or bring the right people onto your team — or make sure the hippie gets a few extra points and tenure at a local university — but until then, Secrets is so programmed out that far too much of its running time darts around the topic of its central mystery. There just isn’t all that much to discuss, as though the social part of “social deduction” were a distraction rather than a feature.
Furthering this sensation of disconnect is the frustrating inability to control your own agency (spy pun!). You might be on track to win when somebody chances into a Psychiatrist card, offers it to their teammate, and gets your token swapped with the hippie. Those nine points you were collecting just became radioactive. Best of luck.
These problems are especially pronounced when it comes to keeping everyone at the table engaged. Where most social deduction games are very immediate experiences, with everybody talking at the same time and trying to determine who’s playing straight and who’s lying — or running interference in an effort to muddy the waters — Secrets tends to be dominated by long periods of waiting for the right card to reveal an extra gram of information. It’s perhaps one of the first times I’ve felt bored playing a game where I didn’t know who my friends were.
None of this is to say that Secrets doesn’t hold some appeal other than the cheery clickety-clack of its wonderful identity chips. It’s lighter fare, certainly. But so is Secret Hitler and Mafia de Cuba, both of which feature more bluffing, discussion, and — oh so crucially — more control over your destiny than anything going on in Secrets. The problem isn’t that Secrets is a terrible game — it most certainly isn’t — it’s just that I can’t envision myself opting to play it over a social deduction game with a bit more punch.