My mouth was watering for Secrets the second I heard about it. This is a joint effort from two well-known board game designers Eric Lang and Bruno Fiadutti. Eric Lang’s Blood Rage is one of my favorite games and I am all in on his new big thing: Rising Sun which looks even better. Bruno I know a little less, but I was immediately beguiled by Incan Gold for it’s fun and simplicity. Now I hear that these two got together to create a cold-war era bluffing social deduction party game with cool artwork? What could possible go wrong!
How It’s Played
4-8 players all get a hidden role which is either CIA, KGB or hippie. CIA and KGB players are on teams and add up their scores at the end of the game with the highest scoring team winning. The hippie players (1 or 2 of them depending on number of players) are not a team, they are playing independently and win alone if one of them has the lowest single-player score at the table.
In addition to player’s roles there is another extra face down role in the middle of the table. All players get to look at their own role, and the role of the player to the right at the 5-7 player count. At 4, players only look at their own role and at 8 the middle role is also revealed.
There is also a deck of cards. This deck is comprised of 8 different characters like the Diplomat, Scientist, Assassin, Double Agent etc. Different cards have different abilities, such as: swapping the roles of two other players, peeking at any role on the table, swapping a player’s role with the role in the center, forcing a player to reveal their role to the table but not themselves and a few others. Each card is also worth points. Suffice to say a cards are either good or bad in varying degrees relative to the team you are on.
Game play consists of a player drawing two character cards off the deck revealing them to everyone, then presenting one of those cards face down to a player of their choice.
For example if you are CIA and you know the player to your right is CIA, you might offer that player a “good” character. On the other hand if you know the player on your right is KGB you might offer them a “bad” character. Of course the player on your right doesn’t know who you are, so they need to decide if they want to accept or reject the card you offer.
If they accept the card it is revealed and played in front of them, they must activate the card’s ability and then keep the card for it’s point value. If they reject the card, then you take it back, reveal it, activate the ability and keep the card for points.
There are a few other minor gameplay mechanics to consider as well. If a player ever has the same two characters in front of them, both of them are flipped upside down and are worth zero points instead of the printed value. Also the player who has the least cards gains the UN token granting them the ability to intercede and steal a proposed card.
The game ends when a single player has 4 or 5 cards in front of them (depending on player count). Once a player gets that last card, all players reveal their roles. First it is determined if the hippie has the least points, if not, both teams add up their total points and the highest scoring team wins.
What Alex Thinks
Though it’s hard for me to call this a bad game, I will say there is no place for this game. It doesn’t do anything better than other popular games that already do the same things.
It is a worse quick filler party game than Love Letter
It is a worse bluffing game than Coup
It is a worse social deduction game than Resistance
It takes longer to play than most of them
Being worse than other games isn’t even the worst of it, the worst part is that Secrets isn’t fun. The game offers no satisfaction, it isn’t fun to win, and it’s even less fun to lose. Allow me to illustrate the game’s shortcomings.
To be fair, I played this game only ten times with a mix of 4-7 players. I know that isn’t a huge sample size, but how many times should I be expected to force an inferior game on my friends?
“Why don’t we just play Resistance” they would ask. I had no good answer. After ten plays most players were already yawning at the idea of bringing the game out, so I had to shelf it.
One of the fundamental problems with the game is that both the CIA and KGB team have the same goal: score as many points as possible. During the game you will probably switch teams a few times, but you take your points with you so it actually doesn’t affect your strategy very much to have your team switched.
The hippie role exists to mitigate this a little but there is only 1 (or 2) hippie in the game, and because of all the random role-swapping that will eventually take place, you are never actually going to play for least points because the chances that you end up being the hippie are very slim. Even if you get the hippie, unless it’s near the end game, you should still try to gain as many points as you can for the mid and late game. Because of this, game play is pretty stale and samey.
What Are We Deducing?
Another symptom of the symmetrical player goals is how it waters down the deduction. You don’t need to know the roles of all players, you only need to know the role of a single team mate before you can start playing your gameplay (giving your ally all the good cards, and accepting good cards back). There is bluffing of course… But I am not sure what the point is.
The game isn’t short. For a game that has about as much strategy as Love Letter, it still finds a way to last five times longer.
We tried to play this during lunch at work and we were lucky to get a single game in. While we regularly play 2 games of Resistance.
Especially in the late game when it’s kingmaker time, decisions can get pretty complex and analysis paralysis can strike. Maybe with enough plays it gets easier and faster but in my plays that it took a surprisingly long time.
The biggest problem with the game is also the most damning. Winning isn’t fun. The end-state of the game generally looks like this: all players are one or two cards from ending the game (totaling between 2-6 points). Both teams have pretty good knowledge of at least a single team mate and most everyone knows who the hippie is.
This means if some players get just one more card, the game is over and the outcome is obvious. At this point whoever is the dealer basically gets to choose who wins. Either by simply giving a high-scoring card to a team mate and ending the game, or by giving a team mate a role-shuffle effect to simply swap a high scoring enemy with a low scoring hippie (not too low!) ending the game. Either way, it’s uneventful and no one get’s the coveted bluffing moment of truth:
“Ugh I am not sure what to do… You could be lying but I trusted you all game… I am just going to take a chance and give you the scientist… NOOOOOO YOU ARE A COMMUNIST!”
More like this:
“Alright, this is a journalist for you, and I think I have less points than the hippie so pretty sure we win right? Ok good game.”
The hippie “wild card” is a complete joke because of the late-game role-shuffle. Even if you foolishly think you are going to be a wise guy and just reject every deal to stay at your pristine 0 points, you are just going to get swapped with a blue or red guy. There is NOTHING you can do about it. It is in the best interest of BOTH teams to swap the 0 point player with a player from the other team because not only does it remove the possibility of a hippie loss, but it also secures a team win. So… have fun being clever with the hippie.
Secrets doesn’t have a place. It takes longer then other light filler games like Love Letter, Coup or Skull. It has worse deduction elements then Resistance or Secret Hitler. It offers no epic plays or amazing throw-your-hands-up moments. But most importantly it isn’t fun.