There were many secrets during the Cold War, there had to be. One of the most interesting was what was found years later in a hidden bunker somewhere on the outskirts of Berlin. A bunker, where they were trying to make the best game ever. Mechanics from great games like Cockroach Poker, Mascarade, and Love Letter had been unethically mixed together. Their components strewn across the floor. Above them in a glass container on a table, was the culmination of their research: Secrets.
Secrets is a 4 to 8 player party-social-deduction-strategy game, based on the Cold War. Players are secretly put onto teams and then duke it out for the most points, or the least if you’re a no good stinking hippy.
How to Play
At the start of the game players are given a team token, this can be either a blue eagle, a red hammer and sickle or a green peace symbol. Once received, players look at their own tokens, and then look at the token owned by the player to their right. If you’ve ever used a public urinal you’re probably already familiar with this mechanic.
Then the game begins in earnest. A turn requires a player to draw two unique character cards face up from a draw pile. These cards are open information, and have both a number of points, and an ability on them. The player then hides the cards, and picks one to give to another player around the table. They can say anything they want about the card, what it is, what it’s not, how it tastes. Anything.
If you’ve played Cockroach Poker, you may suffer deja vu with the next bit. The player can either accept the card, in which case they activate the card’s power and then place the card in front of themselves, or reject the card and the card goes back to the person trying to offload it.
A small twist on this recipe is the United Nations token, which goes to the person who has the lowest number of cards in front of them. If they have this token, then they’re allowed to interrupt and take the card being offered.
Once a player has five cards in front of them, or Gorbachov is asked it tear down that wall, then the Cold War is over. Everyone’s identity token is revealed, and points are added up. If a player with the hippy identity has the lowest points of everyone, then they win alone. Otherwise, the team with the most points wins.
I’ve had some fun with Secrets. For me the game works best when emulating that confusion found in Social Deduction games. When you’re asking yourself the same questions you would after a bottle of absinthe: who am I? Where am I? Whose false teeth are these? Secrets doesn’t go to these extremes because unlike other games of the genre there is enough concrete evidence on show that you’re rarely without a clue. Not having to rely on someone telling the truth or not, it stops the game from devolving into arguments about who’s a fascist or spy.
The other novel mechanic that I like from Secrets is the United Nations token. If you can imagine two people on a romantic night out at a fancy restaurant, and then a random third person pulls up his chair and starts eating their food. That’s what the United Nation token feels like. Since the most obvious strategy is pass the best cards to your team mate, this token does a great job of breaking this flow.
I always feel weirded out talking about game components, because for the most part they fall background to gameplay. However, I need to make special mention here because we held a component beauty competition on the weekend, and the team tokens from Secrets won out over Splendor’s gem tokens. This may have something to do with one of the judges dating the team tokens, nevertheless Secrets has some top-notch components and artwork for a small box game.
Despite this game not living up to my expectations – as I’ll explain below – there is still an addictive quality to it. We never had an awful time with Secrets, but we never had a great time either. We just had a middling time, yet there is something intangible about the game that keeps bringing us back. Whether it is the solid amount of deductions, the excitement of having hidden information, or its good looks and we’re just a very shallow group, we just keep coming back for more – and that’s got to count for something.
For me, this game is Frankenstein’s monster, it has sewn together mechanics from some of my favourite games. However, it’s missing that lightning bolt that gives the monster life. I feel with a few tweaks that this game could have been amazing, but it falls short with some seemingly obvious design errors.
There is a famous study written in 1956 called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two:Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” by George Miller (different from Mad Max George Miller) which says that the number of things people can remember in their working memory is 7 plus/minus 2. A lot of video games mess around with this concept; Secrets straight up gets it wrong. Not only are there 8 different character cards, but their solution to remembering what they do is a unique icon for each card. Why have icons at all then, why not text? This onflows into the gameplay as players constantly have to reference the player aide, even after six or seven plays. This hurts the pacing of the game.
If you told me that the game Secrets had just spent all their savings on a convertible, and left its wife for a younger woman, I’d believe you. This game suffers from a mid-life crisis. It doesn’t know if it’s a party game where it’s all light and fun, or a strategy game whereby you can win by playing correctly. This is most evident in a player’s turn.
The player starts by drawing two cards – meaning they can’t do any pre-thinking. They then pick one, but which one to pick? Then who to give it to? And then what should they say? The decision space here is just too large for the game to have the pace of a party game.
On the other hand, it’s not a strategy game because, despite there being multiple agents in the game, there is little player agency. The only time you affect the game state is when it’s your turn, or someone’s offering you a deal, and even then, you’re never guaranteed to affect it in a way that you want. For instance, one time I knew I was the hippy, and then had to show everyone that I was the hippy. From then on, everyone avoided me like my Tinder profile. The only way I could change my outcome was with a swap role card, which never came, for three turns. By then the game was over and I’d lost. There was nothing I could have done.
Another example of this limited player agency, was on the last turn I pulled what is known as a ‘dick move.’ I traded a team mate the Psychiatrist – this allows the player to swap two team tokens. We swapped the leader at the time, who was on the opposite team, with a hippy token. This player had played the game to perfection, but then all of that was taken away by a smart and good-looking board game reviewer. This kind of play would be right at home in a fun fast pace party game, but not a strategy game.
Aside from the pacing and player agency, I feel that the game often offers up too much information to the players. For a lot of the time, the strategy becomes find out who your team mates are and ply them with as many points as you can. The interesting cards, the ones that swap or change team tokens are either too big a risk to play, or the number of points you’d get from them are sub optimal. This means that these cards rarely see play because when facing a choice of two cards, it’s much easier to pick the safer option. An additional side effect of this is that the information you receive at any point of the game never changes, so you’re always gaining information rarely losing it.
Finally, the finale, the big reveal at the end of the game is never as exciting as it’s billed. After a game of gathering information you either already know who you are and if you’ve won or lost. Or you don’t know who you are, and have no satisfaction attached to winning or losing. Either way it’s a terribly flat ending.
To me Secrets is an exercise in hubris – I’ve always wanted to say that. It feels like a great game that didn’t see enough play testing to make it live up to its potential. That said I’ve still had fun with it and I’m a pretty big fan of Lang and Faidutti’s previous games, so I hold onto hope that they’ve learnt from this experience. Final judgement: when it comes to Secrets this game is more cheating on a high school exam than Area 51.
Thanks for reading my review, I’m currently ranking all my board games in one totally non-secret list. You can see Secrets’ initial ranking below.
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