Time was ticking; it had to be now or never. Everything was in place. I’d just met with Bonhoeffer to receive the Intel I’d asked for, and armed with the poison, I just needed Hitler where I could get to him – Berlin.
Stauffenberg said he might be able to entice Hitler back to the capital, but would we have time?
I turned towards the door, feeling the blood drain from my face, my throat went tight, my mouth dry.
“We have in our hand some incriminating documents, you will come with us!”
… Game over!!!
- Designer: Philip duBarry
- Publisher: Game Salute (Starling Games)
- Year Released: 2016
- Players: 1-5
- Playing Time: 90 minutes
- Ages: 14+
- Recommended Retail Price: £59.99
Black Orchestra, a co-op game that attempts to rewrite history and sees you trying to successfully assassinate the Fuhrer. Is it a well-executed plan, or just a shot in the dark?
What’s in the box?
- 51 Conspirator cards (Standard size cards 63 x 88mm).
- 84 Events cards (Standard size cards 63 x 88mm).
- 24 Interrogation cards (Standard size cards 63 x 88mm).
- 1 Reference sheet.
- 1 Victory card.
- 6 Nazi leader tokens.
- 5 Pawns.
- 11 Tracking cubes.
- 10 Dice.
- 24 Item tokens.
- 3 Difficulty tokens.
- 9 Conspirator sheets.
- 1 Game board.
How does it play?
If you’re familiar with how the game plays, then feel free to resist this interrogation, and advance to, ‘So, what do I think?’
Here’s a very quick overview of the game, so not everything is included, it’s just to give you a feel for things.
With the board laid out, Hitler and his deputies are placed on their starting locations.
Item tiles are randomly placed, face down, on the locations with a black square.
Event cards are separated into their numbered decks, 1 to 7, shuffled, and placed in their respective position along the top of the board. The top two cards of each deck are removed from the game.
The conspirator and interrogation decks are shuffled and placed in the relevant location.
Difficulty is set by placing selecting a difficulty tile and placing it on the Military support track. The red cube is placed on the appropriate value.
Each player chooses a conspirator and places their pawn on the starting location – the train station – and then places their cubes on medium suspicion and timid motivation.
A player’s turn comprises of three steps:
- Check for Hitler and Deputies – If you start your turn sharing a location with one or more of these, then you will suffer the consequences, such as lowering your motivation, or being unable to use your special ability. Each imposes a specific penalty.
- Take up to three actions – Act, conspire, reveal item, collect item, deliver item, dossier, move, release, or transfer. Actions may be taken multiple times (except conspire). More about actions below.
- Draw an event card – An event card is drawn from the lowest currently available numbered event deck. Its effects are then resolved immediately. This is the current event and determines the current stage. Key events represent major historical events, and remain in play until the next stage begins. If a key event is in play and an important, yellow top, event card is drawn, that card is discarded and another is drawn.
- Act – Resolve an effect from your dossier or conspirator card.
- Conspire – roll up to 3 dice, spending one action for each die rolled. Results either, raise suspicion of all conspirators at the player’s location, place a die on the dissent track, or give the player further actions. If the dissent track becomes full, then raise one conspirator’s motivation by 1 and lower Hitler’s support by 1, then remove all dice from the dissent track and start refilling it with any further results.
- Items – either reveal an item at your location by turning it face up, collect a revealed item by putting it on your conspirator sheet, or deliver an item from your conspirator sheet to a relevant location as indicated on the board and receive the indicated benefit.
- Dossier – Draw the top card from the conspirator deck and add it to your dossier – your conspirator card indicates the number of cards that can be currently held. Some cards are marked, ‘illegal’ and will have implications if you are caught with them. The conspirator deck includes cards that affect the event deck, Hitler’s movement and that of his deputies, plots, and so on.
- Move – Move your conspirator to a connected, legal space. Each location has a number that refers to an event stage. When this event stage is unlocked, then those locations become legal to move into. Berlin locations are all connected to one another, as well as to the train station.
- Release – If you are at extreme suspicion this action cannot be taken; you must also be in the Gestapo HQ location. Roll a single die, with the result either freeing an ally and raising your suspicion, or seeing you arrested too!
- Transfer – Give or take an item or dossier card to/from another conspirator sharing your location.
One of the acts you can do is that of attempting a plot. To do this you need to ensure everything is in place to give you the best chance of succeeding. You will require a plot card, which outlines the required and optional elements to carry it out, and as many of the optional elements as feasibly possible.
You then build up your dice pool, starting with the one for meeting the required elements, and then adding any for optional elements – some dossier cards may also add dice to the pool or affect the results once rolled.
You can choose to discard any number of dice from the pool – you may decide to do this when at high suspicion to limit your loses.
Roll the dice and count up eagle results and target results.
For the plot to succeed you need an equal number, or greater of ‘target’ results than Hitler’s current military support, and fewer eagle results than your current suspicion limit.
If the number of targets is lower than required, then your plot fails but you’re not detected, however, if the number of eagles meets or exceeds your suspicion limit, then your plot fails and you are arrested – all conspirators motivation is then lowered by 1 and Hitler takes himself off to the Chancellery. You then discard the plot card.
Other key concepts
Players lose if: they are all in prison, can’t draw an event card when required, or draw the documents located card contained within event stage 7.
They win if they assassinate Hitler.
Conspirators can only use their special skill when they become motivated. Motivation also limits the number of dossier cards a conspirator can hold, usually 2 when timid and up to 6 when sceptical, depending upon player count.
Dossier cards are drawn and placed face up in front of the player; they are shared knowledge.
The chance of a Gestapo raid event card being drawn increases with the event stage, as indicated on the board. These cards cause anyone at extreme suspicion to be arrested, and anyone carrying illegal cards must either discard them, or raise their suspicion by one for each illegal card they choose to keep. Finally, all dice are removed from the dissent track.
Interrogation cards are drawn when in prison, and are hidden knowledge. The player who drew the card decides upon its outcome, resolves the card and shuffles it back into the deck.
So, what do I think?
I think the artwork on the cover of the box is something that you’ll either love or hate, and unless you’re familiar with the game already, then you may be hard pushed to guess exactly what the game’s theme is. Similarly, the title may also mean nothing to you, but fortunately a quick read of the back of the box and all is revealed… almost! The title, Black Orchestra, is the term given to conspirators in Nazi Germany who had it in mind to overthrow Adolf Hitler – The Schwarze Kapelle, as the Gestapo referred to it.
I personally like the box cover, especially its clean graphical design – the title in the centre and the designers name nestled in the corner. It’s also a good solid box with a lovely linen finish.
Inside we have the board, which some may argue is a bit drab, but there’s one thing you can’t deny about it, and that’s its functionality; I’ll cover that a little later. The board is nice and sturdy with a linen finish, and once again I really like the graphic design here. Everything is in a nice font size, which is easy to read, and the board flows nicely, keeping everything within easy reach of all players.
The conspirator sheets are fairly thin card, not that that matters as they aren’t handled, and have a gloss finish, which means the slightest knock will see your cubes and item tokens flying off them! Once again everything is clear and easy on the eye. Each conspirator has slightly different skills, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer being able to raise the motivation of others in his space.
All of the cards in the game share the same high standard of graphic design – clear, well laid out and easy to read, and a good sized font. The event cards contain some excellent photographs and each has a line of historical flavour text to set the scene. Artwork is minimal – the interrogation cards feature no artwork at all – but where it is used it is pleasing on the eye, and mostly reflects the art of the box cover. The cards all appear to have a fine linen finish.
The tokens are 2mm, high density punch board, but have nicely rounded edges, which should prevent them from delaminating to some extent (and it gives them a nice feel!). Again, these are all functional – artwork is basic but everything works.
The cubes and pawns are wooden, which I like. At first I thought the pawns were a little on the small side, but when playing the game they’re actually just right; any larger and they would crowd the locations when playing at higher player counts.
The dice are some of my favourite of any game, there’s just something about them. I like their size and weight, for me they’re just right, and the gothic numbering looks great. If they were standard d6’s I would have worn them out by now, lol!
Overall, the components are top notch – very good quality with well though out design in both form and function – though you could say they are somewhat lacking in colour, but I think this fits in with the theme.
Attempting to assassinate Hitler isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea; it’s a dark, historical theme that you’ll either gravitate to, or you won’t.
The theming runs deep throughout the game and ties in nicely with the historic events of the time. From the way the board develops and opens up, to the excellent event cards (especially the key events), and often painful interrogation deck, everything drives the story along in a believable manner, one that keeps you engrossed and focused on your goal.
The conspirators all existed, and in some way plotted against the Nazi regime – there’s a brief outline of the part they played on each sheet, often highlighting the harsh reality of what they faced by finishing with the words, ‘Executed on…’
But it’s in the gameplay where the theme really comes to the fore. You really feel like you’re plotting an assassination attempt, and there’s a certain amount of pressure applied by the game mechanisms that makes things develop in a realistic manner.
If you can come up with a plot and gather the appropriate resources early on, then you might be able to make a quick attempt on Hitler’s life, trying to get it done before his support grows and things get difficult. There’s a chance you could succeed, but would you be better off biding your time for a more clear-cut opportunity?
As the game progresses to the middle stages, then the pressure mounts; it becomes difficult to bring all the resources together whilst still maintaining the motivation to strike, and of course, Hitler’s support is often at it’s highest at this point.
As the end game moves closer, things once again change. Support for the Fuhrer wains but the Gestapo becomes more active, as they’re paranoid someone is out to get them, and Hitler also seems a lot more difficult to pin down. At this point you often feel exactly as is often indicated on your conspirators sheet – reckless! Yes, in the closing stages of the game you often reach the point of just going for it, regardless of the consequences; sometimes it’s better to go down fighting than get caught by the dreaded secret police.
So, a strong and immersive theme that sees you making decisions as a team, and yet still trying to look after number one – I loved it!
The rulebook contains twelve pages, cover to cover, but don’t be alarmed, that doesn’t amount to as much as you may think.
The font is a good size and there are plenty of pictures to look at too, so it won’t take more than five minutes to read them through. They’re also well written, concise, and easy to understand – it was nice to learn a game without having to look up issues on the Internet!
Once you’ve played your first game, though, you’ll realise pretty much everything you need is printed on the board – turn actions and the procedure for attempting a plot – but there’s also a pretty comprehensive player reference sheet, which contains pretty much everything in the rulebook.
There’s a lot I like about this game, its simplicity for one – there are no overly-complicated game mechanisms – and yet the game requires a good deal of thought to play well; it pays to plan and to be patient… usually!
I was quite surprised by the conspirators, and the fact that there is only a single difference between each one, which is the skill they gain when they become motivated. But actually, this single skill makes quite a difference in how each conspirator plays, and it’s enough to add some depth to the game, as you work out how to use the skill to best advantage and combine it with those of your fellow conspirators.
The board can feel quite restrictive at the start, as you’re limited to where you can move to, but, as you dodge Hitler’s minions, you can get ahead by revealing the item tiles. If they’re not something you need for a plot, they will come in handy in the latter game to help reduce suspicion.
The way the board opens up as the game progresses through the event deck, again feels highly thematic, but it also keeps the game from becoming stale. Sometimes you have to bide your time, waiting for more locations to become available because you’re searching for items to aid your plot, whilst at others, you find yourself frustrated (in a good way), as Hitler can now put more space between you and him, and his deputies often have an annoying habit of getting in the way.
Pick up and deliver mechanisms have never been a favourite of mine, but here it works thematically – by delivering items you are seen to be carrying out your duties, and hence do not look suspicious – and as the game goes on it becomes an important aspect. Using a few items to carry out a risky plot early in the game can be a waste, one that may come back to bite you, as you could run out of items to deliver in order to lower your ever increasing suspicion. Alternatively, delivering too many items can see you running short of vital resources required for executing a plot, though you may be able to carry it out without them, they will make things easier – it makes for a thoughtful balancing act.
The event deck itself is the ticking time bomb of the game, slowly moving you towards the end of the game. It also starts to increase the pressure – more Gestapo raids, for instance – and then there’s the dreaded, ‘Documents Located’ card, placed within the final event deck and that means means game over!
Game ending card draws can often prove very frustrating, but at least you know roughly when to expect this one, and it leads to some edge of the seat finales. Ideally, you want things wrapped up before you reach event deck 7, and as you get to the end of deck 6 and actually start on the final one, then you find, like the conspirator you’re playing, you become rather reckless. It becomes a frantic dash to get everything in place and make a successful attempt on bringing Hitler down, which often leads to an exciting, climatic finish to the game.
The conspirator deck arms the players with a range of goodies to advance their plans, and it’s the illegal cards that stand out here. On one hand they provide some powerful boons, such as being able to move Hitler three spaces, or lower his military support, but on the other, you really don’t want to be caught carrying them, as it can lead to penalties.
It is the conspirator cards, along with the items, that really introduce a strong teamwork ethic. Being on the same space means you can transfer an item or card from one conspirator to another, and with careful planning you can ensure that, if one conspirator gets arrested, you don’t lose everything you’ve been working towards. Then, as the culmination of your plot moves closer, you can get together and use the cards to boost your chances of success – it really does feel like a team working towards a common goal, with each conspirator bringing something to the table. Of course, this doesn’t stop someone making their own plans and pulling off a well-executed hit.
And this is one thing I really like about the game; it’s a co-op, but you have to look after yourself sometimes too. This helps avoid the Alpha-player syndrome – you often do something that is right for you, rather than for the benefit of the team. After all, you don’t want to be thrown in prison now, do you?
The interrogation cards, which get drawn when in prison, introduce some pretty harsh decision-making, usually done without consulting the rest of the group. For example: You may have the choice of forcing everyone to discard a card from their dossier, or discard 1 plot in a dossier, both of which could be a big setback if nearing the dreaded event deck 7. Of course, you could always resist the interrogation, and though this may get you off the hook, it could also have equally harsh consequences for the team.
The interplay between motivation, suspicion, and Hitler’s military support when attempting a plot, is probably the main focus for the conspirators. It becomes a balancing act; trying to become committed enough to attempt a plot whilst ensuring your suspicion is as low as possible. Meanwhile, you have to gauge whether the timing is right compared to Hitler’s support, and do you even have access to him, as many plots require you to be in the same space as he is – not as easy as you may think, especially towards the end of the game.
This is something you’ll be trying to control throughout the game, and it’s a delight when it all comes together, though, more often than not, you’ll find the one member of your team that you really want motivated – the person you’ve lined up to carry out the plot – ends up becoming the most timid member of the team, causing you much anguish as you dash around trying to come up with a solution, which may make you all rather more suspicious!
The conspire action also bears some talking about. The thematic nature of the action is obvious; your character is attempting to seek aid in your current location, which can end in you gaining assistance (gaining more actions), spreading dissent (eventually lowering Hitler’s support and raising your motivation), or getting caught with your pants down (raise suspicion of all conspirators in your space).
It’s an interesting concept, and one that brings an element of push your luck into things, as you decide how many actions you wish to sacrifice to roll these dice. In the early game I found I took this action every turn, just to try and boost my actions, and the consequences of failure didn’t affect things too much. However, later in the game, when I really didn’t want to raise my suspicion, then conspiring became a greater gamble – again, rather thematic – but sometimes, behaving recklessly is the only way to win!
The game does have a stumbling point, though, and that is the rather narrow gameplay, by which I mean that the number of choices you can make during your turn is often limited and repetitive, especially with repeated play – there are only so many different paths to take when bringing down the Fuhrer, so, after a few games you feel like you’ve done it all before.
Balance and scaling
I found that the game definitely gets easier as you increase the number of conspirators; though when going from two to three this is minimal. There is a scaling to the number of items you can carry, as well as the number of cards you can have in your dossier, but with more conspirators you can cover more ground to collect those items, and the cards can be transferred to the conspirator who really needs them, and when he needs them. Also, having more dossier cards in play is a big boon, and you can adjust your plans to fit in with what cards each conspirator holds – basically, with more conspirators it becomes easier to exploit the dossier cards.
The biggest difference, though, comes from the individual conspirators themselves, and that’s through the skills gained when they become motivated. This creates some great interplay between the players, as they work out how to get the best from each conspirator in order to benefit the team. Having three or four conspirators motivated, can make a big difference to how your plans progress: Maybe one can discard items to lower someone’s suspicion, another might be able to move another conspirator, whilst Bonhoeffer motivates those around him – the more motivated conspirators you have, then the more options you have at your fingertips!
If you play at 3+ players all the time, then you probably won’t think much is awry, but drop down to two and you notice that things have suddenly become slightly more difficult.
There is an amount of luck to the game, but most of this can be mitigated in one manner or another, such as ensuring you have all the optional elements required for a plot attempt, and once you have the hang of this you’ll be wanting to push the difficulty up.
Increasing the difficulty simply raises the minimum level of Hitler’s military support, and I found it made no difference in how I approached the game at all, it just meant that I had to except greater odds when attempting the plot, but my win rate did decrease slightly.
However, there are a couple of game variants, which are mentioned at the end of the rulebook, and two of these do raise the difficulty. The first sees you having to bump off not just Hitler, but all his deputies too, and this really does present a challenge, especially playing at the lower end of the player count.
‘Sense of Urgency’ removes an additional even card during set up, so basically it pushes you through the game at a faster rate, and you may have to be prepared to act on a plot before you have everything in place!
There is a third variant that removes the documents located card, for those who dislike the chance of losing on the turn of a card. For me, this removed the tension when in the last stages, as you know exactly how long you have to pull of an assassination attempt.
This is a mood kind of game – one of those where I find that I have to be in the right frame of mind to want to play. If I’m playing with others I usually find a single game is just enough, but playing solo I often play until I’ve won, which sometimes can amount to several attempts!
The conspirators are varied enough that you’ll want to try them all, as you figure out their unique skills, but the actual game play is quite narrow – it isn’t the deepest of games.
You’ll draw a plot, gather the resources, wait until the conditions are met, and then attempt your plot – that’s basically it for every game, so it can be quite repetitive. However, the highly thematic feel this game gives out is something that will keep you coming back to it, just not game after game.
Not in the laugh out loud sense, no, but it is an enjoyable experience. You really have to work as a team, and more often than not there’s someone who, through no real fault of their own, drags everyone down, which opens the door for a lot of banter and cursing (in a good way).
Tension rises as the game progresses, often ending in a ‘stand up to roll’ situation, and when it comes off there’s a great sense of relief and it’s a job well done; when it doesn’t, well, I’m sure you’ll find someone to point the finger at!
Can I play it… all on my own?
I really enjoyed playing Black Orchestra solo; it had a nice pace to it and offered a light to reasonable challenge. I liked varying the number of conspirators I used, usually between two or three (though if you really want to push things then try it with one!).
The puzzle wasn’t so much in knowing what to do, but more about balance – trying to keep motivation and suspicion at workable levels – and timing – right place at the right time, when military support is as low as can feasibly be made.
This juggling act tied in neatly to the thematic feel of the game and played out wonderfully, though it did miss the tension that built up when playing with others, and of course, when it did all go wrong, I only had myself to blame!
Okay, I quite like Black Orchestra, and have had some wonderful experiences playing it; but can I recommend it?
I think it suffers from ‘Marmite syndrome’; you’ll either love it, or hate it.
Firstly, there’s the theme. If you don’t like it, you won’t like the game, it’s that simple. Everything about this game is thematically driven, and all of the game’s mechanisms function towards telling a story, you just need to add your own narration.
If you do like the theme, then there’s the game itself to consider. It isn’t particularly deep, and it can be repetitive, in the way that what you need to do is always the same – obtain a plot, gather resources, kill Hitler – the variance comes from how you go about this, and maybe there just isn’t enough divergence here to satisfy everyone.
Finally, there’s the price. RRP of around £60 may at first appear a little steep, after all, the box isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with components. On closer inspection, one can see that a lot of thought and attention has gone into the graphical design and functionality of the components – everything is very well presented and of high quality – and playing the game presents no real issues with any of its elements, including the rules. Whether this justifies the price tag though, really comes down to personal preference, and there are always bargains to be had.
Players: 1-5 – Plays well at all player counts, though I found it slightly easier with more conspirators.
Playing Time: Once you know what you’re doing then the game does tend to play around its stated 90-minute mark, maybe a little longer as you get towards maximum player count or get if into a debate about what to do next.
Ages: No blood or guts, no swearing, just the harsh reality of the theme – 12+ with parental guidance.
Expect to pay: Around the £45 mark – (£43.99 on http://www.chaoscards.com at time of writing)
Official site – Starling Games
Recommended video review – Marnaudo
BoardGameGeek page – HERE