Secrets Review – from Russia with shrugs

Secrets board game
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Set at the height of the cold war, Secrets weaves a devious web of shifting loyalties and paranoid suspicions. But does it bring anything new to a market already crowded with similar games?

Designers: Bruno Faidutti, Eric M. Lang
Ages: 10+
Players: 4 -8
RRP: £17.99

Sometimes the tabletop hobby seems in danger of disappearing under an avalanche of hidden identity games. From dystopian future dictatorships to Hong Kong murder scenes, political assassination attempts to werewolf-infested villages, there’s an endless stream of secret traitors, hidden saboteurs and nefarious plotters waiting to be uncovered.

These games of deduction and subterfuge offer a rare opportunity to lie to your closest friends in ways that would make a politician blush. But with so many on shop shelves, it’s tempting to think that they’re part of a trend that’s reached its peak.

Upcoming release Secrets aims to prove that there’s still life in the concept, though. Designed by Bruno Faidutti (CitadelsDiamant) and Eric M. Lang (Blood Rage, Dice Masters, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game and oh-my-god-just-everything) it casts players as rival spymasters competing to build networks of agents and turn the tide of the cold war.

Cold war clash

Secrets isn’t Lang and Faidutti’s first collaboration. Their 2016 co-design HMS Dolores cast players as pirates fighting over a stash of loot, striking deals to share it or greedily attempting to grab it all for themselves. Elegant, simple and fast-playing, it crammed an impressive amount of black-hearted backstabbing into its tiny box.

HMS Dolores board game
Lang and Faidutti’s game HMS Dolores cast players as pirates fighting over loot from a stricken ship.

At first glance, Secrets seems to cover some of the same ground. Like Dolores it encourages players to threaten, cajole and negotiate from their very first turn. And like Dolores, it offers all sorts of opportunities for deception and betrayal. But it doesn’t take long for some big differences to become apparent.

Where Dolores was an every-person-for-themselves kind of affair, Secrets divides players into teams. At the start of the game you’ll be given a plastic disc, secretly identifying you as a either a CIA spy, KGB operative or unwashed hippy. The Soviets or Americans win if their combined score is higher than their opponents’. Hippies, on the other hand, can win alone (they’re individuals, man), but only if they finish the game with a lower score than anyone else at the table.

Double agents

What complicates matters is that you’ll never be completely sure which side everybody’s on.

On your turn you’ll draw two cards from a deck of characters you can recruit as part of your spy network. Each of them gains or costs their controller some points. But they can also reveal information about players, or alter the complex mesh of allegiances around the table.

There’s the detective, who lets his handler secretly examine a player’s identity chip. Or the psychiatrist, who forces two players to swap their tokens with one another. Then there’s the journalist, whose controller reveals their identity to everyone else at the table without looking at it themselves – meaning that you can end up being the only person in the game who doesn’t know which team you’re part of.

Secrets board game
Secrets comes with a cast of characters for players to recruit into their spy rings.

It makes for an atmosphere of confusion and paranoia. But you won’t be choosing cards for yourself. Instead you’ll pick one to offer face-down to another player. They can accept it and add it to their hand, or reject it and force you to keep it for yourself. And with characters like assassins and renegade nuclear physicists able to do serious damage to players’ scores, accepting the wrong card can have devastating results.

True lies

This take-it-or-leave-it decision making is the beating heart of Secrets. You’ll never know for sure whether a card you’re offered will turn out to be helpful or harmful. You’ll agonise over players’ true motivations, and there are a bunch of possibilities you’ll have to consider.

One: they might think that you’re on their team, and be trying to give you a card that’s beneficial to you.

Two: they could suspect that you’re an opponent, and be offering you a card that hurts your score.

Three: they could be holding a card that helps them personally, and be using some cunning reverse psychology so that you’ll reject it and let them keep it for themselves.

Or four: they might have no bloody clue what’s going on.

With a bit of careful observation, you might be able to pick up some vague hints about their intent. Have they looked at their own identity token recently, or anyone else’s? Have they swapped their chip at any point in the game? Have they previously given good or bad cards to particular players?

But while these snippets of information can influence your decision, ultimately it comes down to a single moment when you look another human being in the eye and ask yourself: Do I trust them? Getting it right edges you closer to victory. Getting it wrong brings the horrible, crushing realisation that you’ve been played like a sucker.

Burned assets

It all means that Secrets becomes a succession of high-stakes judgement calls, and it makes for some genuine tension at the table. But at times the game’s constantly shifting loyalties and lack of information just get bewildering.

There are points where you’ll have to make decisions with absolutely nothing to help you predict the outcome, and making the wrong choice can seriously harm your chances of winning. The first time it happens, it’s easy enough to laugh it off. But when it keeps happening repeatedly over the course of multiple games, it gets decidedly grating.

Secrets board game
Agent cards are worth points, but they also come with effects that can radically change the course of the game.

Even when you do manage to use your powers of perception and a bit of amateur psychology to get an idea of what’s going on, you might not be able to reap the rewards of your cleverness. It’s possible to boost your own score, help your teammates and hinder your opponents, only to have victory snatched away at the last moment when another player steals your identity token, suddenly switching you onto the losing side.

In the right situation – most likely with a few beers involved – this kind of chaos can result in some big laughs. But it also strips players of any sense of agency over the outcome of the game, and if you’re playing Secrets with any intention of actually winning, it can be incredibly frustrating.

Missing the target

Secrets plays with trust and betrayal in some interesting and effective ways. It also comes with some beautiful illustrations by French artist Cari, whose blend of comic book and pinup styles lends it some punchy visual flair.

But with so many other bluffing, deception and hidden identity games to choose from, it has to fight to justify its place, and it falls somewhere in the middle of a very crowded pack. I’d choose it over the likes of CoupUltimate Werewolf or One Night Revolution. But for a team-based game that gives me more of a feeling of control, I’d rather play The Resistance: Avalon. For sociable fun with an espionage theme, I’d choose Spyfall. And for a game that glorifies treachery and squeezes surprising depth out of a simple set of rules, Lang and Faidutti’s own HMS Dolores is just better.

To stand out in such a packed field takes something special, and the sad thing about this clash of superpowers is that it comes so close to providing just that. It challenges players to read their opponents and to capitalise on fleeting moments of insight. But it has an inescapable tendency to negate all of its players’ efforts. When you win, it doesn’t feel like an achievement. When you lose, it doesn’t feel deserved.

The result feels more Austin Powers than James Bond, and if you’re in the market for some scheming and duplicity at your next game night, there are better options out there.

  • Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this game from its distributor.
Have you played Secrets? What’s your favourite hidden identity game? Let me know in the comments below.
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Author: Owen Duffy

Owen is a journalist, dad and geek from Glasgow, Scotland. When he's not playing games he enjoys photography, martial arts and heavy metal music.

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