Podculture: Secret Hitler, Monopoly and the Historical Board Game

Susanna Kemp, Reporter

In 2016, a board game called Secret Hitler was released. Some people loved the game. Others were upset by it. Is it ever ethical to situate entertainment, like a game, within the Holocaust? Is it possible to make a board game that teaches about tragedy, history or a political system in a way that works? What would that even look like? To answer that question, we take a deep dive into Secret Hitler and some other games, including one of the most well-known games in the country, whose real story was buried.

SUSANNA KEMP: Before we begin, a content warning: this episode includes discussions of the Holocaust and Hitler.

SUSANNA KEMP: In December, one of my housemates texted a picture in our group chat of a board game called Secret Hitler that she received as a holiday gift. I’d never heard of this game, and the idea of a board game that had anything to do with Hitler made me uncomfortable, especially as a Jew with family who died in the Holocaust. I grew up hearing stories about survivors and reading about concentration camps. We talked about Hitler and the Holocaust all the time in my Hebrew school. Our parents didn’t want us to forget it. So hearing that something meant for a fun night with friends was about Hitler made me confused and upset. But it also made me want to know more. Secret Hitler made me wonder: Is it ever ethical to situate entertainment, like a game, within the Holocaust? Is it possible to make a board game that teaches about tragedy, or history, or a political system in a way that works? What would that even look like? To answer those questions, I took a deep dive into Secret Hitler and some other games, including one of the most well-known games in the country, whose real story was buried. From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Susanna Kemp, and this is Podculture, a podcast covering arts and entertainment on and around Northwestern’s campus. 

SUSANNA KEMP: Secret Hitler was released in 2016 and is part of this genre of games called social deduction, where players try to uncover each other’s hidden roles. The game’s three creators developed the game right here in Chicago. Only one of them is Jewish. Back in January, my house played Secret Hitler. I wanted to see what it was all about. One of my housemates had played before, and she explained it to us all. 

HOUSEMATE: So you will either be a liberal or you will be a fascist. The fascists win if they enact three fascist policies and…

SUSANNA KEMP: Here are the basics. Everyone picks an envelope at the beginning of the game, and inside is a card that assigns them a role. One of the cards says Hitler. Another says Fascist. And all the others say Liberal. 

HOUSEMATE: Then we all close our eyes and the Fascist and Hitler open their eyes to identify one another. 

SUSANNA KEMP: So no one knows who’s who, except for Hitler and the Fascist. Each round, someone is assigned to be the President, and the players also elect a Chancellor. These are roles you have in addition to your other role as Fascist, Liberal or Hitler. Each round, the president draws three policy cards that only they look at. These cards say either “liberal” or “fascist” on them. 

HOUSEMATE: So, let’s say I start as President and I’m a fascist and I know that Hannah is Hitler. And I’m gonna say I elect Hannah as Chancellor. We don’t know anything ‘cuz the game’s just started. You all vote “ja,” I get this hand: liberal, fascist, fascist. I discard one.

SUSANNA KEMP: The President discards one card and passes the remaining two to the Chancellor, who looks at both in secret then picks one of the policies to publicly pass. 

HOUSEMATE: And then I would give the other two to Hannah. And then everyone would go, “What was in your hand?” and you would say that you had no choice. And then you’d all look to me and be like, “What the hell? You gave her two fascist cards? What were your three cards?” And would say, “I got three fascist cards! I had no choice.”

SUSANNA KEMP: If you’re a fascist, you win if you pass six fascist policies, or if you pass three and Hitler is also elected Chancellor. If you’re a liberal, you win by enacting five liberal policies or by killing Hitler. 

HOUSEMATES: The liberals win! Ja! 

SUSANNA KEMP: So that’s my roommates and I playing. We’re talking in German accents. 

HOUSEMATES: Are you fascist? Vaaat? Nein!

SUSANNA KEMP:  We’re laughing. 

HOUSEMATES: What’s your liberal policy? Is it free public education? Is it free healthcare? Healthcare for all! Housing for all! Education for all! Woo!

SUSANNA KEMP: And I had a really good time. And… I was Hitler. It felt wrong to pretend to be Hitler, but not as much as I would have expected. I wasn’t sure if the game trivialized the Holocaust or not, and I was wondering why the creators decided to make this game about Hitler, because nothing about the game is very specific to fascism. The policy cards don’t include any real historical info. They’re just labeled “fascist” or “liberal.” In fact, Secret Hitler is so unspecific to fascism that there are spin offs of the game that situate it in different contexts. I was curious if anyone else had thought about this, so I talked to some people who had played. One of them was Elam Blackwell. He’s a Communication junior at Northwestern and part of a team called Mark IV Games that’s working to develop a game called Factions of Sol. 

ELAM BLACKWELL: There is a version of Secret Hitler that we used to play at my church, actually, called Secret Voldemort, which is the exact same game except it’s with Voldemort and Death Eaters from, you know, Harry Potter. But Secret Hitler is obviously fraught with a lot more historical complexity than Secret Voldemort.

SUSANNA KEMP: In other words, Secret Hitler doesn’t really need to be about Hitler.

NOELLE PALMER: I think it’s probably just good, like, flavor for the game. 

SUSANNA KEMP: That’s Noelle Palmer, another student I chatted with who’d played Secret Hitler. She’s a Weinberg second-year.  

NOELLE PALMER: You need a good design point to, like, make your game around. You need something that’s eye-catching. What’s more eye-catching than Hitler?

SUSANNA KEMP: Could making this game about Hitler just be a marketing ploy? Is it possible that a few guys would decide to center a game around a violent dictator just because that game would be, like Palmer said, eye-catching? Turns out, that’s not really the case. One of Secret Hitler’s three creators, Tommy Maranges, agreed to chat with me. In 2015, he had a desk at a co-working space in Chicago. So did this other guy, Mike Boxleiter.

TOMMY MARANGES: We were playing a lot of Avalon at the time, which is a game that’s in the same genre as Secret Hitler. Then, afterwards, he and I would sort of sit around wondering, like, why does this work? Why is this fun? One Monday he came in, eyes kind of on fire, and he was like, “So I just binge watched “Band of Brothers” all weekend, and it made me think, “What if we made the game about World War II? How would that change the mechanics, the dynamics?” And that was the birth of Secret Hitler. Within about 72 hours, we had a pretty close prototype.

SUSANNA KEMP: So the game’s Hitler theme actually came before the creators decided on any rules or gameplay, not after. But using Hitler was a way to make a more interesting social deduction game than we’d played before, Maranges says. 

TOMMY MARANGES: Social deduction is an inherently political genre. It’s about a well-coordinated minority working in secret to overthrow or subvert the will of a less coordinated, easily confused majority. The games that had explored that before used pretty bland contexts to explore that, right? The Resistance is a really popular one, but there’s just a resistance and some spies, and you don’t know, is this a people’s resistance, is this a crypto-fascist resistance? So I think that social deduction in particular lends itself to saying something about what it is we’re doing when we work together or when we’re performing politics.

SUSANNA KEMP: I asked Maranges what he hopes people get out of the game. Social deduction games have helped him gain an awareness of his own difficulty separating manipulation from morality. And he hopes Secret Hitler works in the same way for players. 

TOMMY MARANGES:  I personally have the experience playing social deduction games of being really surprised at how bad I am at recognizing when I’m being lied to, when people are telling me what I want to hear. I think it’s really easy to look back in history and say, “well, obviously, I would have been on the right side of history.”

SUSANNA KEMP: Maranges wants this game to make you wonder, if you were living during a historical period that had clear bad guys and good guys, who would you have been? Is that actually what people think about when they’re playing Secret Hitler? For some, maybe it is. And for others, not really. In 2019, a Jewish-Australian group, the Anti-Defamation Commission, asked Amazon to stop selling the game, which it didn’t do. They argued that the game normalized Hitler’s behavior. But on the other hand, some Jews were grateful for this game. 

TOMMY MARANGES: We’ve heard from Jewish groups who have reached out to thank us for making the game. We’ve heard from rabbis who want to take the game with them on Birthright trips to play along the way.

SUSANNA KEMP: For those who may not know, Birthright is a free trip to Israel for young Jewish adults. There were also conflicting opinions about the game among senators. In 2017, the Secret Hitler team sent the game to the 100 members of the U.S. Senate for free. 

TOMMY MARANGES: We heard from some senate offices that the interns kind of fought over who got to keep it and it became really popular. We had some offices send it back.

SUSANNA KEMP: And when Maranges and his co-creators were testing the game, some people loved playing it but didn’t think the game was explicitly anti-fascist enough. 

TOMMY MARANGES: People did tell us that they felt uncomfortable playing a fascist with no in-game indication the fascists were the bad guys. And so that informed our decision to make the fascists reptiles.

SUSANNA KEMP: Maranges is talking about game design here. On the role assignment cards, the fascists are reptiles and the liberals are humans. In other parts of the game, like on the policy cards, the fascist party is represented by a skull, and the liberal party symbol is a bird. It looks like maybe a dove, or an eagle. But some people didn’t think this design did enough to signal that fascism was unacceptable. 

TOMMY MARANGES: We shipped the game out finally in December of 2016. People said they didn’t like that the fascists were lizards, because it suggested that fascists were this evil “other” and no human could be a fascist. I think we would have to be pretty daft to think that no one was going to get upset about it.

SUSANNA KEMP: It’s possible that some people would have been more on board with Secret Hitler if there was a more clear indication that the game was anti-fascist. But this gets back to our original question about games based in reality: would the game be fun if it was more informational?

TOMMY MARANGES: I think that if I were trying to make a game that primarily had a message, it would not be fun. No one likes to feel preached to in a medium that is not a sermon.

SUSANNA KEMP: In other words, games should be fun. And they shouldn’t just be pushing a message, Maranges says. But are there any games that really do get a message across and are also popular? 

I want to dive into the story of one game you’ve probably played before. It’s a game whose creator wanted to make a political point, but the original politics of the game have gotten a little buried over the past century. I’m talking about Monopoly.

Mary Pilon wrote a book in 2015 called “The Monopolists” about the secret history of the game. It all came out of some reporting she was doing for The Wall Street Journal in 2009. 

MARY PILON: In 2009, the economy was in total disarray. And so a lot of people were drawing comparisons to Depression-era, you know, pastimes, movies, pop culture.

SUSANNA KEMP: Like Monopoly. 

MARY PILON: I was going to mention in passing, ‘Oh, Monopoly was invented during the Great Depression,’ because that was the story that was tucked into the game box that my family had, and you know, countless others. 

SUSANNA KEMP: The pamphlet in the game box said for many years that the game was created by Charles Darrow. But that wasn’t really true. 

MARY PILON: And I looked around, I looked around, it wasn’t adding up. 

SUSANNA KEMP: So she used this reporting trick. 

MARY PILON: You call folks who are involved in litigation. Because if you’re suing someone or being sued by them, you might know something. 

SUSANNA KEMP: She called up Ralph Anspach. He created this game called Anti-Monopoly where players could break up monopolies. Parker Brothers was the board game company distributing Monopoly at the time, and they brought a trademark infringement case against Anspach in 1974. And while he was preparing for the case, Anspach uncovered this Monopoly backstory that Parker Brothers had buried: the story of Elizabeth, or Lizzie, Magie. Monopoly actually started out as The Landlord’s Game, and Lizzie Magie invented it in the early 1900s.

MARY PILON: As a teaching tool to teach against the horrors of capitalism.

SUSANNA KEMP: Unlike the Secret Hitler creators, who really were designing a game just for the sake of designing a game, Lizzie Magie created The Landlord’s Game to present a solution to a problem that she thought a lot of people didn’t understand. She wanted to present the evils of some people accumulating extreme wealth at the expense of others and to imagine a world in which everyone could be rewarded when wealth was created. She structured the game around land value taxation, which tends to produce a lot less inequality. And Ralph Anspach actually argued in his case that he was bringing back the original Monopoly. And eventually, he won. 

MARY PILON: This really nutty lawsuit in the 1970s from this economist who was trying to make anti-monopoly games unearth the whole true history of the game. 

SUSANNA KEMP: Lizzie Magie created her game with two sets of rules. One was similar to the monopolist rules we use now, and the other employed the concept of land value taxation. She wanted people to play both games, observe the contrast, and think something along the lines of, “Oh, capitalism sucks, and we, the 99 percent, are getting very screwed over.” 

MARY PILON: I think she’s a fascinating woman. You can’t separate her from the story of Monopoly. I think she is the pulse of it.

SUSANNA KEMP: Magie was born in 1866, and she led a life that was really unusual for women of her time. She supported herself through work as a stenographer and secretary, but she also performed comedy routines and wrote poetry and short stories on the side. She married late, too, and mocked marriage very publicly. In 1903, she applied for a patent for The Landlord’s Game, and it spread. People started creating their own versions of the game, and some people actually used it as a teaching tool. 

MARY PILON: It was played at Harvard, it was played at Wharton. When you look at who was playing it in those days, it’s like this who’s who of left-wing America. So Upton Sinclair had played the game. 

SUSANNA KEMP: This one guy, Charles Darrow, took the version of the game that was circulating in Atlantic City to Parker Brothers in 1933. He was unemployed, and Parker Brothers was on the brink of bankruptcy. He got rich, and Parker Brothers stayed in business. They created the narrative that Darrow was the original inventor. I should note here that Magie brought the game to Parker Brothers in 1924, nine years before they started distributing Darrow’s version. They told Magie her version was “too political.” Even though we only play the monopolist version of Magie’s game, that doesn’t mean her original aim of exposing capitalism’s horrors was lost. 

MARY PILON: When I started reporting what would become the book, I was also covering Occupy Wall Street, which, you know, was a huge encampment. And I would see the Mr. Monopoly image as part of the protest signs. And I still see it. You know, in L.A. or New York, like, now, the imagery from the board is often used in this very cartoonish way to kind of poke fun at Wall Street and rich people. The first time I saw that, I thought, “Oh, well, that would make Lizzie Magie proud.” Right? She was trying to change the political conversation.

SUSANNA KEMP: People are still using the game as this prop in conversations about things like corporate power and economic inequity. And Pilon thinks we can learn a lot from Monopoly. The Atlantic City-version board that we use today, for example, reflects the city’s segregation in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

MARY PILON: The Quakers, who were predominantly white, lived in these gated communities. The boardwalk of Atlantic City was incredibly segregated, and they had Black housekeepers who lived on Baltic, on Mediterranean. 

SUSANNA KEMP: Those are the lower-priced properties in Monopoly. 

MARY PILON: Atlantic City was a receiving station for a huge influx of Black Americans who were moving to the North to seek better opportunities, only to find that the same kind of Jim Crow policies that were so oppressive in the South existed up North as well. I think that board games, we don’t think of them as cultural artifacts the way we do film and books and movie(s). And I think that that’s a mistake, that they are works of art and they are things that are created of their time, and we should analyze them and think about them critically. 

SUSANNA KEMP: If you want to learn something from a game, Pilon is suggesting you just have to be curious and do some research or Googling. But the irony of Magie’s game—that she made this anti-monopolist teaching tool and instead a monopolist version caught on—still made me think: Lizzie Magie’s original version of Monopoly likely morphed into the monopolist version in part because a competitive game is more fun than one where everyone wins. And Secret Hitler has likely been successful in part because it doesn’t include a lot of historical details that could slow down gameplay. 

But are there any games rooted in history or politics that haven’t significantly evolved away from their original version? I spoke to David Rapp when I was researching this piece. He’s a professor in the psychology and learning sciences departments at Northwestern, and he’s a big board game nerd. 

DAVID RAPP: For a period of time, I had an absolutely enormous collection. Like, top 10 (percent of) people in the Midwest number of games. Maybe that’s exaggerating. It was a lot. 

SUSANNA KEMP: And then he met these people who design games, and he got interested in how to make games. He mentioned around 15 games during our conversation that I’d never heard of, including a bunch of war games. There’s actually a big war game culture. Like Secret Hitler, a lot of them are about WWII. But unlike Secret Hitler, these games tend to physically represent war with a board that’s a map. One of these games that came out more recently, in 2005, is Twilight Struggle.

DAVID RAPP: That’s about the Cold War, and one side plays the U.S. and one side plays the USSR. And you learn a lot about the history. And there are things that both governments do that aren’t comfortable and things that both governments do to support their sides. But that game is really good about extra detail about what happened in this history here. We want you to learn about this Cold War situation. A card will have an action on it. But then underneath says the history, like, what this card means. So how is this important to the Cold War?

SUSANNA KEMP: I want to put out here too that this is a game that people really like. It’s currently ranked as the number one war game and number 10 overall game on the forum BoardGameGeek. For comparison, Monopoly is in the 20 thousands. So in these war games like Twilight Struggle, you’re playing this game that’s rooted in history. And someone’s always going to need to play the bad guy. 

DAVID RAPP: If anyone’s playing a game where they’re on the side of someone who is in that historical precedent, now, what does that make them think? Good board game designers usually include some statement about why they’re doing this, like, ‘This is a way to figure out the historical precedent of how things happen. We want to understand the campaigns and military strategies.’ 

SUSANNA KEMP: The pamphlet in the Secret Hitler box does not include anything along those lines. And the closest thing on their website is the question in the Q&A section, “I don’t think there’s anything funny or cool about fascism. Who can I complain to?” And the answer is a list of U.S. senators and their contact info. 

SUSANNA KEMP: Maybe you feel okay playing the bad guy if you’re learning something while you’re doing it. I spoke to Kyle Nolla, who’s a Northwestern graduate student in the psychology department. She studies video games. 

KYLE NOLLA: I have not played Secret Hitler, in part because I was worried about, like, is this game rewarding somebody being a fascist? 

SUSANNA KEMP: But she did have a thought about why it might feel okay to pretend to be someone evil, someone like Hitler, in a game. 

KYLE NOLLA: So the idea of like, having to be a fascist and trying to trick people, on its face is a little bit uncomfortable. But ultimately, I think it’s important that we have those kinds of mental exercises – like, how does somebody end up using manipulation or whatever? We need to be able to recognize those signs in order to, when it happens in the real world, be able to recognize it for what it is. 

SUSANNA KEMP: And she thinks that social deduction games like Secret Hitler give license to lie, too. 

KYLE NOLLA: Social licensing is if we say, like, this thing is okay in this circumstance, even though it wouldn’t be universally okay. And so the game context gives licensure to lie, deceive, manipulate people. And so for some people, that’s enough. It’s like, all right. It’s all just a game. So now I’m going to use these skills.

SUSANNA KEMP: For other people, it’s not enough. Nolla, for example, doesn’t like playing social deduction games where she has to lie because people in her life have compulsively lied to her. It all hits too close to home. I think maybe games like Monopoly are easier to play, even if you feel really passionate about lessening the economic divide, because you’re not pretending to be any definitive person. You’re a landlord buying up properties, but you’re not the specific person who’s charging you, or who evicted a friend, for example. On the other hand, if someone asks if you want to play Secret Hitler? Maybe you don’t want to pretend to be Hitler, or to see someone else pretending to be Hitler, no matter how the game is presented to you.

SUSANNA KEMP: If you’re looking for something to do and want a game suggestion, let me tell you, David Rapp knows his stuff. I told him I liked word games, and he introduced me to a few games I might like. If you asked, I’m sure he’d give you a suggestion, too.  

SUSANNA KEMP: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Susanna Kemp, and this has been Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of the Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected] 

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