We live in a world of short attention spans which are no shorter than on a college campus. Living on a campus like my own ― that tends to eschew the typical party scene present at most colleges ―means a lot of “chill hangouts” in dorm rooms. That’s all well and good, until the phones come out. Instantly, whatever is happening, whether it be a board game, conversation, or movie, becomes an afterthought and everyone sinks back into their own little world.
I hate this phenomenon, and that’s why I love Secret Hitler. Never before have I encountered a game hinged upon the delicate minutiae of human behavior. If you are on your phone, checking Twitter instead of watching the Chancellor for a barely noticeable eye twitch, you might have lost the game.
Despite all the complicated nuance of Secret Hitler, it is a surprisingly simple game to pick up. It feels familiar to anyone who has played games such as “mafia,” “werewolf,” or any of the like. Players are dealt roles randomly. The number varies based on the people playing, but a majority of the players are liberal, two or three are fascists, and one person is Hitler.
Only the fascists know who anyone else is, both the liberals, and Hitler are in the dark. Whoever passes the required number of policies first (five for liberals and six for fascists) wins. The deck contains eleven fascist policies and six liberal. For the fascists it is required to convince at least some of the liberals to trust them, and for the liberals victory means quick and effective discernment ―figuring out who to trust and fast.
At the beginning of each round the President, which rotates clockwise, chooses a person to nominate as Chancellor and the rest of the players vote on whether or not they want this government to pass. The president then draws three cards, which are either liberal or fascist and discards one. They pass the other two to the chancellor who discards one and places the other one on the board. Herein lies the crux of the game.
If the person laid down a liberal policy all is well because regardless of their role everyone publicly wants the liberals to win. If they laid down a fascist policy then the rest of the government must decide what happened. Of course the person will not admit to being a fascist, “I was given two they cry”, but isn’t that exactly what a fascist would say?
Secret Hitler tests a person’s ability to lie and trust. As a liberal player, you must always be conscious of the fact that two to three people at the table are actively trying to trick you into doing what they want. To make matters more complicated, each fascist policy strengthens the stranglehold of chaos and confusion on the game as new powers are granted to the president.
First, they may investigate the secret role of another player, then they can forgo the normal sequence and choose who will succeed them as president. By the time three fascist policies are passed, if Hitler is elected chancellor then the fascists win automatically. If a fourth and fifth fascist policy is passed, then the president is granted killing power, silencing another player and eliminating their vote from the game.
The really wonderful thing about Secret Hitler is the way that it treads the line between absurd concept and comprehensive game design. Playing it is an experience to be taken seriously, or else the fun of the game is gone, but it also leads to some crazy antics. As emotions rise, so do unorthodox tactics. Liberals may be tempted to play along with the fascist agenda in order to gain access to killing power and eliminate Hitler; a Fascist might pass a liberal policy, jeopardizing their mission but gaining trust in the long run that can be betrayed later.
Play the game long enough, and you begin to act the part. You are of course still aware that you are playing a board game, but you feel the need to sell your part, to throw yourself fully into your respective role (to date our room has received a total of three noise complaints due to impassioned speeches during games of Secret Hitler). My favorite instance was when my friend, a fascist but not actually Hitler, stood up from his chair and yelled “I am Hitler, shoot me!”
Much has been made of the game’s (not so) subtle political commentary. Fascism in the game thrives on confusion, and rule bending and things like using majority power to vote no on a policy before a chancellor has officially been nominated. Liberalism requires serious compromise, and occasional blind trust. If the statement the gamemakers were trying to make wasn’t clear enough, there is an expansion to the game that features the roles of the President and different members of his cabinet. Despite this, I’ve never really seen the game as linked to politics in any serious way other than its incidental premise. This game isn’t about political ideas, it’s about human behavior.
Modernity is increasingly shaped by digital citizenship, especially for young people. The behaviors that the internet foists upon us decrease our humanity and help us convert the things that make us people into ones and zeroes, or viral-ready objects. This is what makes Secret Hitler so refreshing; there is no filter between you and your opponent and the little idiosyncrasies that you can’t hide anymore are the name of the game. This is an unnerving world to step into at first, but with time it becomes a deeply satisfying one.
But then the game ends, and the screens come back out. There are notifications to check on, stories to view, messages to answer.