Please turn off your mobile phones and take your seats: the performance is about to begin.
Black Orchestra is a cooperative game where players take on the roles of the historical conspirators of the Schwarze Kapelle (literally “Black Orchestra”), the group within Nazi Germany who tried to assassinate Hitler. There are many tasks to complete along the way, and various options open to you, but ultimately there is only 1 outcome that results in victory- the death of Adolph Hitler.
Can you change the course of history? Can this sort of subject really be tackled by a board game? And is the resulting product any good? Let’s find out!
Black Orchestra – what’s in the box?
The component quality of Black Orchestra is fantastic. The board is clear, and packed with all the key information you need, there are high-quality, etched, custom dice, and plenty of cards. The event cards give a detailed account of Hitler’s rule, with archive photos adding to the thematic immersion. The wooden player pawns are a little bit small, but it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise exceptionally well-produced game. The rulebook is very short, but it manages to convey this remarkably straightforward game clearly.
What’s my Motivation? Just a roll of the dice!
In each game of Black Orchestra, you control a historical character who was in some fashion involved in the conspiracy against Hitler. But they didn’t start out throwing bombs, and to begin with that character is “Timid.” Being Timid is limiting as you can only hold 2 cards, can’t perform key actions (like plotting), and don’t have your unique ability, so you need to do something about it.
One of your best bets early on in Black Orchestra is the “Conspire” action – once per turn spend 1-3 actions to roll that many dice. Any successes are placed on the Conspire track, and once you have 3, you can increase someone’s motivation by one, or reduce Hitler’s Military support (the determiner of how hard it is to assassinate him.
Increasing your motivation early on is vital to open up most of the game’s actions. After “Timid” you become “Skeptical”, meaning you can have more cards in hand, allowing you to make better use of the “draw cards” action. Next is “Committed” which activates your character’s unique ability, and allows you to attempt the plots which will eventually lead to victory. You can even become “Reckless” which unlocks a few especially desperate plots, and gives you a cushion against motivation-lowering effects.
The problem with the early focus on Conspiring, is how random it is. Each roll has a 1 in 3 chance of getting the success needed, but you can also find yourself with more actions (if you roll a number) or simply increase the Gestapo’s suspicion of you. Too many actions early game (particularly when Timid) is frustrating, as there isn’t much you can do – Black Orchestra may be the only game where I’ve ever heard people complaining “I have too many actions available on my turn.”
Your character sheet in Black Orchestra, and the things you have amassed are your “dossier.” The number of cards and items your dossier can hold depends on the number of players in the game, as well as your motivation.
There are 3 types of conspirator cards that you might draw: plots to attempt (more on these later), normal events, and illegal cards. Illegal cards are very powerful, and used rightly they can make the difference between victory and success. However, as the name suggests these are cards the Gestapo will take a dim view of, and you might have to discard them unused if a raid happens –frustrating coming from randomness you can’t control.
Where do we go? Follow the timeline!
The overarching narrative of Black Orchestra follows real-life fairly closely. The game is divided into 7 phases, from when Hitler first takes power through to the end of the war, and after every turn you will draw a new event. Before each game remove 2 events per stage at random, and shuffle the remainder, to retain an element of unpredictability.
Each event presents a historic happening, an archive photo to match, and a game-play interpretation. Military successes increase Hitler’s support, revelations of atrocities raise conspirators’ motivation. Some events simply move Hitler and his cronies around. The level of detail in this aspect of Black Orchestra is superb, and the game really does feel like it has been meticulously researched.
We have ways of making you talk
From stage 2 of Black Orchestra, you will start to find “Gestapo Raid” cards shuffled into the event decks. Fittingly, being raided by the Gestapo is not a pleasant experience: anyone at extreme suspicion is arrested immediately, and players lose if they are ever all incarcerated simultaneously! A raid also discards all dice on the conspiracy track, and makes you choose between discarding illegal cards in your dossier, and raising your suspicion by 1 for each one you want to hold onto.
Once you’re in prison, your world narrows – simply draw one card per turn from the interrogation deck, resolve it, then proceed directly to the event step. Interrogation cards are nasty, with a selection of unpleasant things to choose from. In another thematic win for Black Orchestra, you aren’t allowed to discuss the contents of these cards with other players, but will often need/want to resolve an option which negatively impacts them – even when you manage to regain your freedom, damage will have been done to the cause, with seeds of suspicion sown through the ranks.
Losing the Plot
Assuming you manage to avoid the Gestapo and muster your courage, every game of Black Orchestra will eventually reach a point where you are ready to attempt a plot (hopefully). Plot cards are drawn from the Conspirator deck, and will feature a number of requirements – where Hitler must be, typically – as well as a series of optional elements. You will roll one dice for meeting the requirement, but will be able to add others based on the options – having a certain affiliation, or discarding particular items.
Hitler lives to fight another day…
When you make your attempt, you need to roll as many successes as Hitler’s current “Military Support,” whilst rolling fewer Nazi Eagles than your current level of suspicion. If you roll well enough, Hitler is dead, and you are heroes. Otherwise the game goes on, with little fall-out if you simply failed to roll enough target symbols, or instant arrest if the gestapo spotted your plans.
This is probably the biggest let-down of Black Orchestra. No matter how well you prepare, it always comes down to a dice roll, and the level of randomness is just infuriating.
Delivery for Herr Hitler?
One, slightly unexpected, element of Black Orchestra is the option to deliver items. Most spaces on the game board will contain a face-down item tile and you can spend actions to reveal those items, and to pick them up. As well as using these to add dice to plots, the revealed space beneath will also list a delivery option –you can go to this space, discard an item, and lower your suspicion by the indicated amount. Sometimes you will need to lower your suspicion, but it’s an interesting balancing act – any item you discard for its delivery reward is an item you can’t use later as part of a plot attempt. You can never have more than 4 items, so delivering things you can’t hold feels attractive, but you may end up kicking yourself when you draw the plot that really requires the item you just ditched.
This is also where Black Orchestra can get pretty dark. It’s all-too-easy to gloss over the implications of a delivery until you read “Auschwitz: Discard Poison to lower your suspicion by 3.” As soon as you read that properly, it’s a real gut-punch.
I shot the Fuhrer – but I did not shoot the Deputy!
As I’ve already mentioned a fair few times, the aim of the game in Black Orchestra is to kill Hitler. However, you also have to deal with his 5 most trusted Lieutenants – Goering, Goebbels, Himmler Hess and Bormann. Like Hitler, each has a unique ability that triggers if you start your turn in their space: sapping your motivation, discarding your cards, and generally preventing you from doing things.
You can play a variant of Black Orchestra where you need to kill a certain number of the deputies before taking on Hitler, but this always felt like an extra layer of difficulty that the game just didn’t need. Trying to avoid characters who can be moved by random events is already challenge enough.
Are we the Baddies?
Black Orchestra is based on historic events. All of the characters you get to play as in this game were involved historically in attempts to bring down Hitler.
However, whilst times of war can lead to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thinking, it’s worth remembering who these people really were. Most of them were Nazis. Most of them did some pretty awful things.
Admiral Canaris is the man who suggested that Jews be made to wear a Star of David for easy identification. Tresckow authorised the mass abduction of Polish and Ukrainian children for forced labour. Von Stauffenberg was contemptuous of Polish Jews and Kordt was a Soviet agent.
Even amongst those who consistently opposed Hitler many, like Beck, did so from simple military pragmatism, believing that Germany was not able/ready to defeat the combined strength of the Allies, rather than taking a moral stand against him.
Aside from always trying to play as Dietrich Bonhoffer (or Sophie Scholl if you pick up the recently kickstarted expansion), it’s probably best not to get too attached to your character in Black Orchestra.
History repeats itself: First as tragedy, then as farce
The Fuhrer Ascendant
I’ve already praised the level of historical detail and accuracy in Black Orchestra: the game is meticulously researched, and that research is deftly translated into game mechanics.
However, we know how WWII played out – in 1942 things looked pretty bleak. If you don’t manage to assassinate Hitler within the first 2 or 3 stages of the game, it’s virtually pointless trying to try during 4 and 5 as Hitler’s Military support soars on the back of successful campaigns in Africa, the Balkans and Russia.
If you can survive long enough, then by stage 6 or 7, Hitler’s Military Support is likely to be at a low ebb, and your chances of being able to muster enough success are greatly increased. At that point though, it starts to feel like a bit of a hollow victory: Hitler may be dead, but so are 6 million Jews, and history tells us that it’s only a few weeks until he would have done the job himself.
Black Orchestra: Final Thoughts
Black Orchestra is a strange game. It’s beautifully produced, very well-researched, and does a good job of turning a dark theme into a game that is neither flippant like Secret Hitler, nor spirit-crushing like This War of Mine.
Mechanically it’s a bit of a strange mish-mash. There are elements of hand-management, pick-up and deliver and a few other things beside. At the end of the day though, it comes down to a roll of the dice. Or several rolls of the dice. You can play the perfect game and still lose.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a historical game and, despite the best efforts of the Black Orchestra, Hitler wasn’t assassinated. Whether it be a pyrrhic victory in the last moments of the game, or a strange counter-factual where his death comes before the invasion of Poland, victory in this game is a departure from the norm.
For all the strengths of this game, it’s hard for me to give it a really high rating: ultimately it’s too random and (potentially) much too long for it to become a regular/favourite.
7/10 – well worth a play, but still a game with lots of issues.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.