Games that let you slay Nazis are as common as whatever the opposite of ‘hen’s teeth’ is. The number of games that let you assassinate Hitler? You can count those on one hand, even if you’re a seal. Black Orchestra does just that, letting you assemble a team and navigate treacherous waters so that Adolf can give up the ghost.
The setting of Black Orchestra is both its strongest asset and most difficult selling point. It’s a cooperative design with accessible mechanisms wrapped in history and boiled in tension (yeah!) where each player takes on the role of a Nazi (wait, what?).
You’re a member of the “Schwarze Kapelle” and form a conspiracy of enraged German officers and liaisons. This includes historical figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian theologian who joined the German intelligence service in order to abet his resistance. Another choice is General Ludwig Beck who resigned when the war began and then used his contacts to fuel an assassination attempt. Claus von Stauffenberg, the German officer portrayed by Tom Cruise in the film Valkyrie is even an option. These are heroic members of the German contingent that risked it all and took a stand.
Once you settle into your role the design hums along smoothly whether you approach it solo or bring up to four of your friends. Over the course of 40-90 minutes, you will move about Europe and spend limited actions on your turn to gather key pieces of equipment and effect conspiracy. In essence, you form the worst nightmare of a tortured and paranoid monster.
The way this game handles the setting is commendable. It feels more like a sleek modern cooperative design than a rigid simulation. Historical events pop up which lend a timeline to the war and context to Europe’s status. Hitler and chief deputies like Himmler and Hess move about the board and can inflict penalties if you start in their space. This reinforces the story at hand while remaining eminently accessible.
The historical events that fire off form a timer, laying on the pressure and keeping you on your toes. During your turn you will draw cards from the Conspirator deck, move around to pick up equipment, and recruit members to the cause in order to weaken Hitler’s support. The goal is to draw a plot card or two from the deck so that you can begin to formulate the plan to achieve victory. The other actions work towards that goal and stacking the deck in your favor, or more accurately, not in Hitler’s.
Plot cards consist of narrative events such as planting a suitcase bomb, performing a kidnapping, or even poisoning the dictator. Functionally, they’re recipes giving you a location you need to be at along with resources you’ll want in tow. Most of the elements are optional, adding dice to a pool which strengthen your typically feeble odds. You’ll gather equipment such as poison, intel, and document signatures to buff your potency and offer hope.
The problem is that Hitler’s military power swells. His support is measured on a track which dictates the number of successes you need on the custom dice to enact a plot. This military support value will oscillate throughout play causing you to rely on timing and quick action to strike when the iron is hot.
The reliance on patience manufactures the tempo of the design. There’s a constant sense of pressure as you forge onward. Tension rises as Gestapo raids occur from the event deck, tossing the most suspicious of players into the cushy SS prison. Once inside, you will be grilled through interrogation and may inflict additional troubles on your allies.
This measure of suspicion makes up half of the sub-systems you must manage on your character sheet. You will universally want to keep your suspicion low to avoid arrest, while simultaneously propping your motivation up to commit yourself to the cause. Once it reaches specific levels, you unlock a special ability and may then freely participate in assassination plots.
These mechanical processes tie into the narrative and provide additional vectors to manage. You’re dealing with apathy and minimizing conspicuousness in tandem with coordinating plots and gathering equipment. After working to gather items, lifting your motivation, and whittling away at Hitler’s support–you strike.
The one or two plots you engage over the course of the game result in everyone at the table standing. You gather a (hopefully) large pile of dice and give them a toss, likely wincing as if you’ve been hit in the throat. Black Orchestra is brutal, and it doesn’t offer a helmet.
In the best of circumstances, the odds will be roughly 40-50% in your favor. Typically, they are much lower. When you do taste victory, the joy will cascade down the table and you’ll be throwing high fives like a kid shotgunning a can of Surge. It’s incredible as the drama skyrockets giving way to emotion.
The notion that a game will come down to a dice role is downright terrifying to some. Yeah, you’re sitting there right now with your eyes wide getting your Malcolm McDowell on. At my table, we’re waking up the neighborhood and falling all over each other when those successes come up.
This is the odd space Black Orchestra occupies. It’s a historical game that never quite suffocates with its presence. The streamlined mechanisms are about on par with Pandemic. Yet, it requires you buy into the notion that changing history is rough with a capital R. It will slap you around and kick you in the teeth, yet every once in a while it will give you a fist bump and lift you up on its shoulders. Those are the moments that gaming’s all about.
Have you played Black Orchestra? What are your favorite World War II games? Let us know in the comments below!
All images courtesy of Game Salute