Black Orchestra is no evening at the Pops

, | Game reviews

The last twenty years of boardgame design have taught us that there is a lot more to do with dice and cardboard than rolling to see whether or not you end up on Park Place. But to some extent this progress has enforced a sort of orthodoxy: games have to have brisk pacing, constant interactivity, and victory conditions that give first-time players a decent chance of winning, or they get quickly relegated to the shelf in favor of the latest hotness (unless they have cool miniatures, in which case apparently all faults are forgiven).

So what if a game gave you none of these, and on top of it, had a somber theme that would probably put off half the people to glance at the box? How about if it also condemned you a lot of solitary mucking about without a clear way to achieve your objective, only to have a chance to win come and go so fast you didn’t even get to plan for it, after which you settled into the despair of knowing your best chance to win has come and gone, and thought about all the ways that you could have seized that opportunity? Or instead, you planned carefully and cleverly for an opportunity that never happened? Welcome to Black Orchestra, a fantastic game that breaks many of the rules of Euro game design that we’ve swallowed without question for twenty years.

Quite literally, welcome to the resistance.

It’s 1930s Germany. You and your fellow conspirators have become convinced that Hitler’s regime requires a more concerted opposition than can be provided solely by self-righteous tweetstorming. But opportunities are extremely limited. You don’t even have a plan. Or a gun, if you were going to hatch a plan that used a gun. Hitler’s henchmen are everywhere. So begins a long game arc with constant uncertainty punctuated by painful realizations of missed opportunity. Each player (the game plays with 2-5) has to put together the pieces of a plot, and be ready to either execute it him- or herself, or quickly deploy those resources to someone else, who also isn’t right under the eye of the Gestapo. There are no brilliant card plays or triumphant token sweeps. Just an unrelenting time pressure and an often-unreachable target.

The board depicts a stylized Europe, with point-to-point movement centered on Berlin and its environs. Play is initially restricted to Germany, and the board gradually opens up into Europe as the war moves across the continent. Each space contains an item, such as explosives, weapons, intel, badges, signatures, and other things that could be used to take down a dictator. Moving from one space to another, revealing items, taking items — these all consume the limited and variable actions the players have. Additionally, Hitler’s henchmen (Goering, Goebbels, Hess, Bormann, and Himmler) travel around each turn, as does the Fuhrer. Occupying the same space as them has inevitable negative consequences. One of the henchmen may even pay you a visit. Maybe you’ll be arrested.

Players decide how many actions they will have each turn by rolling dice. Starting with three actions, they can choose to use them, or trade one or more of them for a die roll each. This is termed “conspiring,” and each die roll can bestow 1-3 actions (representing the greater freedom of action resulting from coordinated planning), increased commitment, or, of course, the suspicion of the Gestapo. Players have motivation levels that fluctuate based on decisions and events, as well as suspicion levels that leave them vulnerable to arrest. Each turn (except in the very early game) has a chance of a Gestapo raid, and when that happens, all players who are under “extreme suspicion” are arrested and interrogated.

The fact that Hitler and his cronies travel around, combined with the capricious nature of suspicion and the inevitability of roundups, makes even attempting an assassination problematic. To do so, players first have to have an appropriate plot card, which will have certain prerequisites. Then, you have to roll at least as many “bulls-eyes” on the dice as Hitler’s current level of support. But if you roll as many (or more) eagles as your suspicion level allows, the plot is detected and automatically fails. So if Hitler’s support is high, forget it. If you’re under a lot of suspicion, forget it. You might be able to place a hidden bomb, but first you must be in the same location as Hitler, which can’t be a fortified location, and you must have enough explosives for a decent shot at success. But what if Hitler moves just before your turn? Forget it. Or your compatriot is the one who has all the explosives? Sorry.

The result is a game in which players slowly, painstakingly, put together plots, collect tools, plan for eventualities, and still may not ever get the chance to even make an attempt on Hitler’s life. We had a plot to poison Hitler’s food, and even had enough poison to roll a bunch of dice, but Hitler never went back to Berlin, which is where our plot was set to go off. Or we had a plane bomb rigged up, with plenty of explosives, but Hitler holed up in the Reich Chancellery and we waited in vain for him to fly anywhere. Meanwhile, one of our co-conspirators got arrested, gave up our names, and before we could shake the Gestapo, they picked us up. Now we’re sitting in jail, being interrogated, and while we rot here, the war rolls on, and our network fractures.

The war plays out in a series of seven decks, each with events that moves Hitler and his henchmen, change his support, and generally give the game its framework. This historical framework both shapes and limits the game. As Hitler annexes Czechoslovakia, invades Poland, and conquers France, his support skyrockets. Because the practical manifestation of assassinating Hitler is simply rolling as many “bulls-eyes” on the stylized six-sided dice (more on this later), and the number of dice you can roll is limited by the plot you’re using and the tools you have to execute it, there will be times when Hitler is simply too popular for any plot to succeed (read: you can’t roll that many dice).

The game’s story arc combines with the fixed number of items (each space on the map only has one item, and there are only a certain number of items of each type) to lead players into another type of commitment: as you get toward the end of the game, you will have collected the weapons, poison, badges, signatures, or whatever else there is. These may or may not be useful given the plot cards you have. But even if they are, when you finally make your move, there aren’t going to be any more of those. They will have been collected. So you aren’t just going to hatch a last-second plot and pull it off unless you happened the have very carefully prepared for the eventuality. The board gradually empties out, just like your hopes of success.

Dice, cards, actions — there are never enough of any of them. Players can draw cards that bestow benefits, or act as items, but these can be dangerous when the Gestapo cracks down. I was waiting for Stockholm to open up so I could travel there with some secret plans to lower Hitler’s support, but when the Gestapo came calling, I had to discard them because they were a restricted item. And for each restricted item I had, I had to discard a non-restricted one. Bye-bye, safe house. This kind of irregular but inevitable shakedown keeps the viability of your plots uncertain and means you always have to have not one but two or three backups.

It also singlehandedly establishes the game’s tense, insecure atmosphere that is then rammed home by the unusually good art direction.

In fact, the game’s art direction is tremendous, with era cards that show progressively darker backs, with locations to match, and a consistent typeface and presentation that wisely avoids devolving into Fraktur-fetish. The illustrations on some of the cards have a bit of juvenile comic-book quality to them, but then, if you didn’t visually disrupt the theme in some way, it might be too dark to even play. The totality of the art direction is what keeps the dice — which show numbers from 1-3, two bullseyes, and a Nazi eagle, but could just as easily have been left 1-6 — from seeming gratuitous. Instead, they maintain the game’s almost perfectly consistent aesthetic, which the players then complement with an inevitable lugubrious mental atmosphere.

It’s not just art or mechanics that successfully theme the game — historical figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Carl Goerdeler, Ludwig Beck and others make up the conspirators, and each has a special ability (nowhere near balanced between characters) such as increasing others’ motivation or drawing extra cards or whatever else to slightly mitigate the enormous logistical problems in coordinating a plot against a tyrant in a fascist dictatorship. These logistical problems represented by just how hard it is to do anything, make Black Orchestra a slow burn of a game, where you might have only one decent chance in two hours to pull off a plot with a reasonable chance of success. And then you roll all eagles. The disappointment is commensurate with the failure. As a friend of mine observed, it’s a spy thriller game instead of an action movie game, and we all know how spies end up. Quite a theme, eh?

Black Orchestra’s theming allows it to do a lot of the things it could never get away with if it were, for example, a game about getting a unicorn to the top of a beautiful temple on some Mediterranean island. No one broods about how they could have won a game if they had just had more flowers and sunshine. But a game about plotting to kill Hitler changes the way you approach cards, dice, and even interaction with your fellow players. It’s this last point that makes the often tedious contrivance of “cooperation” into a well-themed mechanic that emphasizes how you often can’t cooperate as much as you need to.

Because for all the game’s cooperativity, the biggest advantage to playing with others is that you get to experience the suffering together. You can discuss gameplay decisions almost as much as you want, and while this might seem strange in a setting where just speaking to others about a plot would invite disaster at the hands of the Gestapo, the fractured nature of plotting in a police state is well represented by the disjunction of the items and the plot cards, and the restriction the limited and unpredictable availability of actions places on any effort to coordinate even two conspirators.

There is one nice thematic attempt at restricting information, which is that a player who fails an interrogation resistance must choose from a menu of bad choices on an interrogation card without communicating with the other players or telling them what the alternatives were. However, since the players win or lose the game as a group, there is really no mechanism for a player to sell out his or her comrades in exchange for being spared — there is no solace in failing the mission but surviving the Gestapo. Like almost all cooperative games, this one can be played just as easily solo.

For all its excellence, Black Orchestra is not a game you’ll play over and over as you master its intricacies and learn new tricks. The game’s necessary reliance on historical arc means that you know Hitler’s popularity will wane, and that he’ll eventually retire to the Reich Chancellery, which may either mean opportunity or the loss of it, depending on your plots. The game relies on a series of historical eras with key events that keep parts of each deck out of play to provide some variation, but the game’s real variation is in the distribution of the items and how their availability coincides (or doesn’t) with the plot requirements.

For all of its mastery integrating game elements into a design tour de force, Black Orchestra’s biggest achievement may be advancing games further as a unique medium for experiencing serious historical subjects. No game is going to convey the terror of the 1940s or the experience of those whose moral courage in facing Hitler cost them their lives. But neither is a book, nor is a film. Each medium, properly deployed, offers its own benefits.

The best games bring something to the gameplay that is both universally powerful and also uniquely expressed through social interaction and game mechanics. Black Orchestra doesn’t pretend to be a treatise on anti-fascist resistance, nor should you look to it for some historiographic lesson. But if you want to see what game design can say about an experience in a way that goes beyond building a medieval village or haggling over Viking booty, the second edition of Black Orchestra is in the pre-press stage after a successful Kickstarter. Your copy is waiting.

  • Black Orchestra

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Defy fascism with up to four of your closest friends, but just don't get too attached to the idea of actually succeeding.
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