25 August 2017
The Cold War heats up tensions in this sneaky game of lying and deceit
The second collaboration between lauded designers Eric Lang and Bruno Faidutti after the prisoner’s dilemma-inspired HMS Dolores, Secrets is – like that previous game – built around a very simple decision: accept or reject.
Players take it in turns to draw two cards, show the group the options and then offer one facedown to another player. If it’s accepted, it’s placed in front of that player and takes effect. If it’s rejected, it returns to the offering player, who similarly displays it face up and uses its ability. Each card is worth positive or negative points – four or five cards in front of any player ends the game, with scores deciding a winner. Simple, right?
Only it’s not quite that straightforward. You see, each player is also secretly assigned a team. In the game’s Cold War stylings, it’s a showdown between the CIA, KGB and hippies. Players sneak a look at their lovely, thick plastic allegiance chips at the beginning of the game, but can’t check later on unless a specific card ability allows them. This is the meat of Secrets, as chips can be swapped, revealed or peeked at by other players if they accept the right cards, confusing who's on which side – although accepting can be risky, as two matching cards in front of you means losing the points on both (which can actual be quite useful in the case of minus scores).
Scores are tallied as teams, which results in amusing attempts to jump ship if you’re stuck with low-scorers – while hippies work alone and win independently if they have the lowest score of any player, encouraging a fun race to lose as many points as possible without being forced onto a team that will suddenly make your low score a burden rather than a boon.
Things become especially interesting with more players, as the rules allow you to see the allegiance token of the person to your right in addition to your own from the off – meaning you can try and convince them you’re on their side and get them to offer you useful cards. Until you’re revealed as a manipulative liar, that is.
Secrets has a striking look, lovely components and is relatively easy to pick up and play due to the simple gameplay, as you only really need to know what the two cards potentially on offer do, and none of the effects are overly complicated.
While there are all the ingredients of a cracking little bluffing game present, the social deduction aspects never properly clicked during any of the matches we played. The most exciting role to be in is that of a undiscovered hippy, who suddenly reveals their apparently poor play as a winning low score at the last moment.
Because scores are largely visible (although the assassin can dish out negative bullet cards that remain hidden until the end), Secrets should be a game about constantly switching sides and lying through your teeth to try and stick with the winning team as long as possible. This doesn’t necessarily pan out, as the random nature of the two cards drawn limits the strategic play – even if allegiances are discovered, there’s sometimes little you can do to impact the situation.
The standout card is the diplomat, which allows you to secretly swap one of your neighbours’ tokens with the centre loyalty chip, often throwing the knowledge of who is who into disarray. It’s just a shame there aren’t as many cards that offer such an exciting shake-up of the social elements during a match, as the tension more often than not evaporates by the mid-point.
When things hit their stride, Secrets is a unique and enjoyable game of bluffing, chance and deduction – little beats the feeling of flipping over your token at the last second to reveal you were on the opposite team the entire time. The problem is that this never seems to be a consistent experience, relying more on the luck of the draw than quality social interaction.
Secrets looks fantastic, has a brilliant concept on paper and can be fantastically good fun when everything pulls together, but the experience varies wildly between games based on the luck of the draw, making it hard to fully recommend. It’s a real shame, as there’s so much here to enjoy otherwise.
Genre: Social deduction
Time: 20 minutes
This review originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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