Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dave Reviews: Sneaky People Sneaking Like Sneaks


BGG revamped their ratings at one point (though I don't know if it was the whole system or just what number we see), and scores spiked. Where anything with a 7 or higher previously tended to be quite good, now if a game doesn't at least hit a 7, there's a good chance it's trash.

If you click the above link, as of this writing, the approximately three hundred reviewers of Secrets have put it at 6.8. Trash level.

Those people are wrong.

Secrets is a social deduction game for a group of four to eight players, where everyone belongs to one of three factions: the KGB, the CIA, or the hippies who keep asking the KGB and CIA, hey man, why all the hate. You're trying to recruit people to your side and help your team end with the highest score, if you're KGB or CIA; if you're a hippie, you win if you have the lowest score, because fuck the military-industrial complex. The points a given person is worth is roughly based on what they do; positive points tend to mean a negative effect for you (e.g. the journalist is three points but makes you show your affiliation to the rest of the players), and negative points have a positive effect (e.g. the detective is negative-two but allows you to look at one other player's identity token).

How you recruit these people is where the game between the players lies. Whoever controls the deck flips up two cards for everyone to see (redraw one if they're both the same). That person then chooses one of those cards and offers it to another player face down. They can say anything, or nothing, about the offered card. The second player then chooses whether or not to take the card or give it back to the one who offered it. After each turn, the deck passes to the left, but any player can be the recipient of an offer.

Here's how it plays out in practice: you start by looking at your identity token and the one of the player to your right (unless you only have four players, in which case you might just want to play a different game). With seven or eight, you also get to see the center token briefly before it goes face down again, which can noticeably change how people view using the double agent, and to a lesser extent the detective, at the start of the game. Then everything becomes a balancing act—you need to act in the interests of your faction, keep in mind the faction of the person to your right, yet behave in such a way as to not give away your faction so people are less inclined to use a psychiatrist or diplomat on you (which swap out your identity token for another player's or the one in the center, respectively). You also need to try and track where the tokens you know end up as best you can, not just to keep from helping an enemy, but also to talk teammates into cooperating if it's late enough in the game that nobody can fight back if you acknowledge your faction.

Or to make people think you're on their team and screw them over. Espionage!

When the game's humming, it's a lot of fun. One of the reasons I'm guessing BGG has such low scores is that if you play enough times, there will be occasions where it's hard for you to get involved, and that feels bad enough to plausibly override whatever positives the game has for some people.

If you're a six player game, for example, you're guaranteed to act once every six turns, when you choose the cards to hand to someone. Even if people are moving fairly quickly, this is still going to take 3-5 minutes. On average, you'll also be offered a card one time. Between those two acts and mulling over the information building (or breaking down), there's generally enough for you to think about to keep you occupied until you get the deck back.

However, there will be games where you're just not getting card offers. Logically it shouldn't take that long for it to start, because the game ends when any one player holds four cards, and rarely do people want to spam one or two people early and often. For as long as that situation maintains, however, it can be difficult to stay engaged, not because there isn't enough to think about but because you're watching everyone else play more than you. That's part of the design, and there will be other games where you're the center of the action, but in the moment it sucks.

It's also easier for the game to fall into silence, because the mechanics don't require discussion, but it's a game that improves when people are chatting it up. Nothing about the game is going to fix that. You just need a group that likes to talk.

On the other hand, if you don't have a problem thinking critically about what's going on around you without being part of the action—deducing who's part of what faction from tracking the movement of tokens you've seen, player behavior, which cards everyone else offers and to whom they offer those cards, and determining if you can talk people into making decisions advantageous to you—there's more to work through here than in most social deduction games. That's admittedly a pretty specific type of gamer, but there is definitely a niche for Secrets.

If you're new to social deduction games, buy The Resistance. Saying Secrets isn't as good isn't a knock against it, because nothing's as good as The Resistance. But if you know what you want from this genre, and you have a group that fits what this game offers, it's a good game with great value for the cost.

Score: Ten deported spies out of fourteen involved in the prisoner swap

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