Secret Hitler board game an unlikely hit for Chicago game-makers

on Sep15

15 September 2017 | 5:00 pm

It’s game night. Everyone’s huddled around the table. Dice are rolled, cards shuffled.

And someone shouts the phrase that declares them the winner: “You’re Hitler!”

Figuring out who at the table is the Nazi leader is the premise of the board game Secret Hitler, an unlikely hit created by a team of Chicago game-makers including Max Temkin, one of the minds who brought the world Cards Against Humanity — the “party game for horrible people.”

Secret Hitler began to ship in the summer of 2016 after an online crowd-funding effort for the game brought in more than $1.5 million. Two production runs have sold out. More are in the pipeline.

“We’re printing them as fast as we can,” says Tommy Maranges, another of the game’s creators. “We don’t give an exact timeline because we can’t promise nothing goes wrong. But it’s very likely we’ll have games available in the first couple weeks of fall.”

In Secret Hitler, there are fascists and liberals, and the liberals try to figure out who’s Adolf Hitler. | Taylor Hartz / Sun-Times

Secret Hitler is a secret-identity game — like Mafia, Werewolf and Avalon, the object is to figure out who’s the bad guy among the players. It’s set before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

Five to 10 people can play. They’re dealt identity cards. One of those identities is Hitler. Up to four are fascists — conspirators who often communicate in code in an effort to obscure that they’re fascists and hide which player is Hitler. The rest of the players are liberals. To win, they need to pass five liberal policies or identify — and thus assassinate — Hitler before the fascists pass enough of their policies to install Hitler as chancellor.

Very quickly, the accusations start flying. And so do the lies. The game gets intense.

Maranges says that’s because being accused when you’re innocent can conjure “white-hot, blinding rage. … It makes you want to destroy each other.”

The creators also say players sometimes feel real guilt and anger if they’ve allowed “Hitler” to win. “It adds to the sting of the game that you are accused of allowing history to repeat itself,” Temkin says.

Maranges says he thinks of the game as “a simulator for people who think it would be so easy to spot Nazis” — and a chance for them to see it might be harder than they think.

After developing an obsession with social deduction and deception games, Temkin and Maranges decided to create one of their own and worked with Mike Boxleiter and San Francisco-based designer Mackenzie Schubert on Secret Hitler.

Temkin says he studied the origin and use of the game Werewolf around the world, collecting dozens of versions, filling shelves at their Lincoln Park office.

Boxleiter and Maranges got hooked on the game Avalon while snowed in at a Super Bowl party in Chicago. “We started tinkering with the mechanics of the game,” Maranges says. “We wanted to take it apart and re-engineer it.”

For Secret Hitler, the team developed prototypes and then spent hours after work playing each new version. But everything didn’t come together the way they wanted until Boxleiter binge-watched Steven Spielberg’s TV series “Band of Brothers” — hundreds of hours showing the Nazis’ rise to power. That gave them their theme.

“The elements of this game are textbook fascism,” Temkin says. “Once we had the story, it helped us figure out the mechanics. And that’s the sign of a good theme.”

The game was announced on Kickstarter in November 2015, with a goal of raising $54,000. The creators thought that might be unrealistically high. Cards Against Humanity had raised just $15,000.

But they wanted to be able to pay for what they say as necessary touches: Schubert’s designs include foil inlays, a hardcover box and cards with unusual designs of lizard-like fascists and everyday-looking liberals.

The day they first posted about Secret Hitler, more than 35,000 backers pledged $1.5 million to the game’s production.

Hitler is the focus of the game, but the creators say the game isn’t really about him.

“Hitler is such a compelling figure, he’s a lightning rod of interests and issues,” Boxleiter says, helping to drive home that one side in the game is inherently bad.

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