Publisher: Game Salute
Game Designer: Philip duBarry, Dann May
Artwork: Cody Jones, Dann May, Lucas Soriano
Ages: 13 and up
Playing Time: 45-75 minutes
Game Mechanics: Action Point Allowance System, Co-operative Play, Dice Rolling, Hand Management, Point to Point Movement, Press Your Luck, Set Collection, Variable Player Powers
Parental Advisory: Safe for children
As Hitler’s grasp on Germany tightens and his maniacal fervor is unmasked, men from the highest levels of the Reich begin to plot his assassination. As the clock ticks, and Hitler’s dire ambitions and list of atrocities grow, these brave few must build their strength and prepare for the perfect moment to strike. Day and night the Gestapo hound their trail, calling these conspirators “Schwarze Kapelle, the Black Orchestra. Will this band of daring patriots save their country, and Europe, from utter ruin before it is too late?
Black Orchestra is the new title from Philip duBarry, now available for pre-order and being published by Game Salute. I recently joined several other reviewers for a play through of the open beta on Tabletopia with the design team, which you can also do yourself to try out the game right now.
The object of this cooperative game is for player’s to work together in an ever-evolving story to plot the assassination of Adolf Hitler and in doing so, change the course of history and save millions of lives. This isn’t some pulled out of the air plot either; the Schwarze Kapelle were a group of German military and civilians who were actively working to carry out an assassination plot against the Führer. They knew that the only way to preserve Germany was the destruction of the Nazi Party and plans for Hitler’s removal were well underway prior to the outbreak of World War II, making the subject matter very compelling in this heavily thematic game.
Players take on the role of one of the several real-life conspirators of this plot, each with their own historical identity, traits and unique strengths that become available as the character’s motivation increases. Motivation, as you would expect in an enterprise like this, is a major factor and I like how this is modeled in the game.
There are five levels of motivation, from the starting point of timid all the way through to zealous but the third and fourth levels are the most critical, because you’re character’s special ability comes into play and you can enact plots. While working to increase motivation, you’ll need to mind your suspicion levels because if you reach extreme suspicion and a Gestapo Raid card comes up, you’ll be sent to the klink for interrogation. I know, I got a little overzealous and got my butt in a sling and it sucks when it happens, but we’ll come back to that a bit later on because being in jail is not the same as being out of the game and is handled very well.
During your turn you’ll use your 3 action points to carry out various tasks such as moving to different locations on the map, drawing Conspirator Cards, searching locations for items necessary to carry out plots and share cards or items with other conspirators. The intent here is to build up to the right plot for the right person and take out Hitler and since the game controls Hitler and his deputies’ movements, you need to coordinate your actions well to be able to accomplish it all. This leads to lots of table talk that feels much like the tense, back room meetings the real-life conspirators had, which adds to the heavily thematic feel of the game.
Movement around the map is limited to spaces matching the Event Card level you are at, of which there are five, starting at one and moving through each deck which in turn opens up further areas of the map to you. Some of these map spaces may have effects as you move out of the space if any of Hitler’s deputies or the man himself show up at your location. This adds to the pervasive air of paranoia because you never know when or where any of them will show up!
Event cards also add Key Events, historical situations that carry out different effects such as raising Hitler’s military support for example, which makes your plot against him much more difficult to carry out if it’s too high.
The Conspirator Cards that you can draw on your turn create the narrative, increasing suspicion levels, providing plot cards that force you to search for items to carry them out and may even throw some roadblocks at you with Restricted cards, making it tougher to carry out your plots.
As players venture around the map, coordinating moves and working to get all of the right tools to the right conspirator, an increasing sense of urgency envelops your progress. I really dug this constant and growing pressure, it’s very fitting for the weight of the theme. Suspicion’s continue to grow and they are important to level up at the right time to carry out a plot, but increasing it too much can put you in a world of hurt.
If your suspicion level gets too high when a Gestapo raid hits, you will languish in jail until broken out by another conspirator but even worse if you’ll face interrogation! The Interrogation process is actually pretty cool and although you’re stuck in jail and are effectively out of the active plot portion, you’re not out of the game and can still play a key role in the overall story. Can you resist interrogation long enough for the plot to unfold, steer the Gestapo off course completely or will you break and give away key intel?
Interrogation is handled quite cleverly, you first roll a die to attempt to avoid interrogation and if you fail, you draw three interrogation cards. In the rules this was originally just one card but we tested a variant and I think this is far superior to just using the one card. This gives the interrogated player much more agency and a chance to fill the role of hero by possibly guiding the Nazi’s in the wrong direction, limiting the impact on an upcoming plot.
The Interrogation Cards posit three options (with the three cards) of you giving the Nazi’s information, which generally translates into removing items or locations as a couple of examples, for use by your fellow conspirators. Since you know what it is your team is plotting, you can choose to take the least impactful route. Now, it doesn’t always work out for the best but you do feel involved and can make a difference, rather than just sitting in jail twiddling your fingers and bored by the side of the board. The wait there is bad enough, but you are still involved when it is your turn. Oh yea, the other big key here is you have the make the decision by yourself, without consulting with other players. So it adds a little more tension and uncertainty to the mix for everyone while they await to hear the outcome of the interrogation, well done!
Once you’re set and have everything in place to take out Hitler, it’s a race to catch up to where he’s going to be or direct his movement if you have the capability at the time. If you’ve managed to cut down his military support, your chances of success are greater and the risk of failure lower, although it’s never a guarantee that you’ll succeed. By having the correct items for the plot, you can create a dice pool to try to match up the rolls necessary for success, as dictated by the military support level while also avoiding matching the suspicion level to be found out.
If you fail but are not detected, you can try again but any items you had are discarded, so it’s wise to keep options open and have multiple items necessary for more than one plot. If the “documents found” card is pulled, you’re sunk. Hitler’s henchmen have found you out and you’re all set for a one way trip to the back of the prison and Hitler can continue his march to doom unabated. If you win, there’s an interesting scoring mechanism to show you in historical terms how many lives were saved by taking out Hitler at various stages of the war.
Hit or Miss?
My impression of Black Orchestra has left me wanting to play much more as this is a very fun, challenging and quite compelling game to play both cooperatively or solo, which is a HUGE plus for we lovers of solitaire games! There’s good variability in the cards and map setup that this game will feel fresh every time, which is important otherwise it would just come down to rapidly connecting the right dots on a static map and would quickly become tiresome.
Gamers who love cooperative games that spin a cinema-like, historical narrative in a hair-raising and tension filled story will certainly want to grab this one up quickly.
Game Salute is publishing this using a pre-order system in favor of Kickstarter, similar to how GMT Games run their P500. As I’ve had experience with missing out on some of those games and am still kicking myself for it (I’m looking at you Churchill), I wouldn’t wait and possibly miss out on this if you’re thinking about it. I know I can’t wait to get a physical copy on my table!
Game Website: http://www.blackorchestra.com/
Company Website: http://gamesalute.com/
Note: A digital preview of this game was demonstrated to me for this review.
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