I was house-sitting for my brother this summer when I saw something suspicious: a box in his living room emblazoned with the words “Secret Hitler.”
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On his return, I confronted him. “What in God’s name is that?” I asked, pointing at the box.
“It’s a board game,” he said, rolling his eyes.
More specifically, Secret Hitler is a social deduction game, one that has caught on quickly since it began to ship to players last summer. It’s like Mafia, or Werewolf, or other games in which players try to identify a traitor in their midst.
In this version, anywhere between five and 10 players are divided into two uneven teams: a larger team of liberals and a smaller team of fascists. (There are no antifa.) One player is chosen as Secret Hitler. The fascists, aware of their leader’s identity, work to install him by fooling the liberals, who are kept in the dark.
The makers of the game have raised close to $1.5 million since announcing it on Kickstarter in November 2015. It briefly become the top-selling item in the toy and game category on Amazon when it launched, and it recently sold out its second print run. (The company does not publish sales data, but the money they have raised suggests that they have sold tens of thousands of copies.)
The game was conceived in early 2015 and boosted by its association with Max Temkin, 30, who is one of the creators of the provocative party game Cards Against Humanity. But Secret Hitler benefited from another, unforeseen trend: a significant surge in interest in fascism around the 2016 election, which also saw brisk sales of dystopian literary classics and a rejuvenated discussion of the movement that brought leaders like Hitler and Mussolini to power.
Secret Hitler also arrived amid a renaissance for tabletop games, which have found new purchase among adult consumers. According to Evelyn Rodriguez, a market researcher at Euromonitor International, people 18 and over have been steadily playing more board games in the last several years, with sales continuing to pick up for titles like Settlers of Catan and Enigma.
Independent games in particular have grown in popularity, Euromonitor data showed, as Kickstarter has become a hub for creators with ideas that may be too risky or too strange for traditional publishers. On the crowdfunding platform, creators can raise money while also finding an audience for idiosyncratic titles and getting feedback from potential buyers as games are still in development.
The secret ingredient in Secret Hitler’s development was a round of binge-watching. Sometime in late February or early March of 2015, one of its creators, Mike Boxleiter, 32, spent a weekend with the Steven Spielberg-produced World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers.”
Boxleiter, Temkin and a third creator, Tommy Maranges, had been obsessing over the intricacies of deception games. When Boxleiter returned to their shared office on Monday after having watched 705 minutes of Americans battling Germans, he had an idea for a new game, based on Hitler’s rise to power. The group had a playable prototype of Secret Hitler 48 hours later.
“It was a month before even Hillary announced,” Maranges, 27, said. “It truly was like, what if we made a game about the past, and not about any other time in history.”
They set up a Kickstarter campaign on Nov. 23, 2015, with a goal of raising $54,450 to print its first run of the game. In 24 hours, it had raised more than twice that amount. By the time the game began shipping, in August 2015, it had attracted more than 30,000 backers, making it one of the five most widely supported tabletop games in Kickstarter’s history. (The game is not yet available overseas, but it does not include any Nazi symbols or images of Hitler, making it more likely to be accepted in countries like Germany.)
Though it is easier for edgy games to find support at Kickstarter, even people at the crowdfunding site were unpersuaded by the name at first.
“I advised them not to call it that,” said Luke Crane, Kickstarter’s head of games. “I said don’t call it that. My exact words were perhaps a bit more colorful.”
He said that even with the success of the game, he still knew some people who would not play it because of its name. But he added that it was clear that the game’s creators had tapped into a topic of discussion in a way that was difficult to achieve, even among the subset that reach to do so.
Secret Hitler’s creators are aware that some consumers will not find any humor in the game’s title, either because Nazis are not a laughing matter or because of fears about the growing visibility of white supremacists and other extremists since the election of President Donald Trump.
The gamemakers have not been shy about linking the game to the president. At the website, they advise those who “don’t think there’s anything funny or cool about fascism” to address complaints to the White House. They have also sent copies of the game to senators and released a Trump administration expansion pack, with cards for some members of the administration. It was quickly outpaced by news events, given that there are cards for Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer, who left the White House over the summer.
None of the game’s creators, who are based in Chicago, voted for Trump. Temkin, who has worked on Democratic campaigns, said he does not think he knows anyone who did — and his victory took the gamemakers by surprise. He said they even felt a twinge of regret that about their timing.
“Oh, it’s too bad that when this game comes out, Donald Trump won’t be relevant to American politics anymore because it would be great marketing for us,” Temkin remembered thinking.
Niraj Chokshi contributed reporting.