Play Time: 45-75 mins.
Taking out Hitler is one of the great recurring themes of gaming. In Black Orchestra, you’re acting as high-ranking members of the Third Reich trying to assassinate Hitler from within.
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Black Orchestra Introduction – Serious Business
There’s always opportunities in any medium to reach out to a completely different space and bridge the gap. In this case, Boardgames have reached into History and pulled back a very specific time period and event. This is hardly a new phenomenon, as I personally think Tabletop gaming is the perfect place to stuff a bit of History and Education in. Recently we featured the Stay Hungry: Donner Party Kickstarter, for example, and I poured over the historical circumstances surrounding the brave pioneers’ tragic journey for a few hours afterwards.
Black Orchestra takes on a more popular common theme of trying to take out Hitler, but makes the unique move of not placing players in the role of Allied agents. Instead, each player will take on the persona of a high ranking member of the Third Reich trying to assassinate Hitler from within. This is a slightly more obscure part of World War II History, and an incredibly fascinating section of it that is well worth at least having some cursory knowledge of!
The only hangup that I occasionally have had with History-based Boardgames before is that they have the tendency to be on the dry side, and the mechanics don’t always stand up quite so well on their own. In taking a look at Black Orchestra, we’ll be examining the game primarily from the gameplay aspect, as I’m just not well-versed enough in this facet of WWII history to comment too much on accuracy. With that said, let’s take a deeper look into Black Orchestra and see if Game Salute has created an experience that both Boardgamers will appreciate and enjoy!
Before proceeding, I want to make the point that many of the characters that players will select are representatives of real people who lived (and many who died!) during the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. The wikipedia article for the Schwarze_Kapelle lists many actual attempts on Hitler’s life and those that perpetrated them. This game provides a lot of highly tense moments but plenty of cheers and laughs as well, but the fun must be tempered with the knowledge that this was a part of our World History that we should do everything in our power to never, ever let happen again.
Medium Weight Cooperative: Some tough decisions and challenging gameplayBlack Orchestra is a notch or two more difficult on a turn-to-turn basis than something like Pandemic, but the overall difficulty of the game is quite a bit higher. There is an option for an easier mode, however, which is recommended for the first game!
Black Orchestra’s overall presentation is outstanding. The artwork on the box, for starters, is just fantastic:
It comes across immediately as a game that is intent on showing you just through a quick glance what it is about: secrecy, suspicions, and daring plots.
Inside the box, the map is actually quite a bit larger than I was expecting! You’ll need a decent amount of table space to lay this out, but thankfully the rest of the components that are not map-based are made up of a few decks of cards and player sheets.
Also included are some cardboard tokens for different items that the conspirators can pick up as well as tokens for Hitler and his deputies as well, who will be moving around the board.
I really can’t say enough about the overall presentation of Black Orchestra. Everything looks stylish and pretty gorgeous, in my opinion, and the theme seems to fit perfectly throughout the product. Even the color schemes are evocative with the gradual fade of red to darker red as the time phases of the game goes on.
Instructions and Rules
The Instructions for Black Orchestra maintain the gorgeous theme that is plastered on the entire product, and it doesn’t get in the way, which is a good thing too! The setup guide is pretty outstanding and makes getting the game on the table a breeze.
That said, if there’s one area of relative weakness in Black Orchestra, it’s the instructions – though just barely. While most of the individual actions are not very complex, the sheer amount of them will take a little bit of getting used to. In addition, some of the actual reasons why you would perform an action and not another don’t become clear until you are into the game!
For example, the item tiles start facedown on the map. For one action, you can flip them over. A separate action is then picking them up. Early on, we just flipped and grabbed everything in an automatic way. It didn’t become clear until later that we may want to reveal items and then only pick them up when preparing to enact a plot!
Also, the rules describing “Key Events” tripped us up for a few minutes and required three or four re-readings. It’s entirely possible we’re just idiots, BUT we’re definitely idiots that play a lot of Tabletop Games!!
Little points like this will make sense as you play through the game the first time or two, but I think the rulebook could have given a few more examples or even just tips to help new players formulate some of their strategy!
On the other hand, Black Orchestra’s designers have done a tremendous job of plastering the set of basic abilities everywhere! The bottom of the board has a similar list which serves as a constant reminder of what every action does!
The main objective of Black Orchestra is successfully enacting one Plot that will take down Hitler. It will take a lot of planning and a good bit of luck! To start with, each player is given control of one Conspirator character:
Each Conspirator has two key tracks – their Motivation and Suspicion. As Motivation goes up, they increase their hand-size and also gain access to their unique ability! They also are only allowed to attempt to enact a Plot if they are on the highest two points of Motivation.
The Conspirator’s Suspicion determines how many failures they can withstand on a plot, but ALSO is their susceptibility to being captured in a Gestapo raid! This is critically important and can be deceptive in how horribly it can wreck your game if it gets out of control!!
Each Conspirator can also hold 3 (or 4 in 2p/solo) items. These are useful as bonuses for plots… or, more accurately, REQUIREMENTS for success in all but the luckiest of circumstances!
Items can also be turned in on most of the spaces on the board for some sort of bonus, but be wary of the limitation that once items are discarded, they are very difficult to retrieve!
All of the items and planning and Conspirators are working towards the goal of enacting one of these plot cards successfully. This will provide a number of dice to the Conspirator to roll, along with bonus dice for certain items and other means, and you’re required to roll red targets equal to Hitler’s current military strength. The eagles, however, could cause a plot to fail even IF enough red targets are rolled! Given that each dice only has 2 faces with targets, this becomes a monumental challenge.
The dice are also used for the Conspire action, which is truly one of the remarkable gems of greatness in Black Orchestra! This action lets you roll up to 3 dice, costing one of your actions each. The results then can dramatically alter your turn – with eagles giving you +1 suspicion for each, and the numbers (1, 2, 3) giving you back that many turns. The Targets are used on the conspire track to stack up and eventually either raise one Conspirator’s motivation OR drop Hitler’s Military strength.
I absolutely adore the design of this action and, while some gamers may not be in love with luck-driven elements, it’s that very same luck that you’ll NEED to have a decent chance in Black Orchestra.
Compounding the challenge of taking out Hitler with a Plot are his deputies, which will be moving around the map at certain times and cause the Conspirators to take penalties depending on the deputy in question. Starting on the same space as Goering can be devastating as items are limited and difficult to come by!
The Event Cards are the primary method of tracking time left for the game, and also do most of the Hitler and deputy movement. The Event Cards each have a stage represented by the number on the back, and as the stages go up the game generally becomes more difficult with increasing frequency of Gestapo raids and bumping up Hitler military support.
Not all of the cards in the game are bad, however. As an action you can draw a card which could be a one-use or persistent card, as well as a new potential plot! Having a decent hand of these will really help swing some of the luck back towards the players.
Some of the cards (and ALL plots) are restricted, however. Holding on to these during a Gestapo raid can raise suspicion and may have to be discarded. For this reason the timing of cards and not keeping too many restricted cards is another very critical part of the strategy.
Black Orchestra has a fixed map, and also has a fixed set of Event Cards that drive the timer of the game. Still, each phase has two cards removed randomly, so while you’ll never be able to completely predict what will be happening at certain points in time you’ll usually have a general idea of what is coming up!
The difficulty of the game is also quite high, and can be tricky even on the easy level of play. Given the relative accordance to a timeline that Black Orchestra maintains, presenting the player with a high level of challenge is one factor that bumps the Replay Value up a good bit.
With all that said, if your group prefers games that provide a more random experience every time, Black Orchestra may not quite scratch that itch. It follows a similar timeline in every game, which provides for a tight experience that can’t be completely predicted, but also typically displays a similar set of ebbs and flows.
Black Orchestra is the kind of game that is all about taking that one big shot. Early on, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, and the thought of “well, let’s give this a try, and then maybe use that as a fallback,” with every player picking up a few random items, cards, stocking up as if each of you will be going to take out Hitler as a bunch of individual Conspirator Rambos.
This style of play might score you a lucky win on the easy mode of the game, but in any game from Normal to Hard, will most likely end in miserable failure.
The early lull of slow build-up soon gives way to Hitler’s Military Strength climbing to incredibly high levels, and even one Conspirator landing in jail from a Gestapo raid can soon send your entire group into a spiral of Gestapo raids that take a few of you out of action. All the while, each player (jailed or otherwise) has to keep drawing Event Cards that make the board bigger and click turns off the clock that seems to never have enough time as the game goes on.
Black Orchestra doesn’t pull too many punches, and will demand that your group truly work as a team – and also take individual risks for even a CHANCE of overall success. The Conspire Action plays a huge part of long-term success and finding ways to try and mitigate the luck in this game is crucial.
When it’s running at full steam, Black Orchestra hits some really high marks. This isn’t a Cooperative game like Pandemic where you can make progress and slowly work your way to a victory – this game will come down to one conspirator making one roll, with maybe one or two other conspirators playing cards, and another one or two having taken excessive risks placing them in jail for their own crimes that were just enough to give that Conspirator enacting the plot the time she needed.
At the end of it all, if you’re lucky enough to have pulled off the impossible and taken out Hitler, the rulebook will give you an idea of how many millions of lives could have been saved if history went with the alternate path that your victory provided. It’s a sobering moment after an exciting victory or defeat and serves as a reminder of the gravity of history behind this experience.
Black Orchestra – The verdict
Black Orchestra serves up a beautifully thematic and serious Cooperative Tabletop Experience that delivers a high level of challenge and tests players to take risks for that one big shot at taking out the big bad.
What we Loved about Black Orchestra
– Gorgeous artwork and consistent theme.
– Forces players to work as a team to pull off one lucky and luck-mitigated turn.
– Follows a familiar pattern of build-up that creates ebbs and flows of pacing.
– Conspire action drives home the need for daring play and luck.
What we didn’t Love as much about Black Orchestra
– Highly luck-driven, which can be a turn-off to some.
– A somewhat obscured learning curve.
– Being stuck in jail can lead to some boring individual turns.