Reviewed by Herb Levy

BLACK ORCHESTRA (Game Salute, 1 to 5 players, ages 13 and up, 75-125 minutes; $60)


If the title of this game make you think of music, you will soon be singing a different tune.  Black Orchestra was the code name given by the Gestapo for those plotters involved in attempts to assassinate the leader of the Third Reich: Adolph Hitler! In this new cooperative game designed by Philip duBarry, players are members of this secret cabal trying to change history by eliminating the Fuehrer as conspirators in the Black Orchestra

The large mounted board depicts Germany and adjoining areas. Within these areas are boxes, most of which starting with a randomly placed counter (which, when revealed, will show some sort of item – explosives, poison etc. – which may be used in a conspirator’s plot) and a bonus of sorts for dropping off an item. Hitler and five of his trusted Deputies (Himmler, Goering, Hess, Goebbles and Bormann) begin in their designated spaces while all players start at the Train Station space in Berlin.

Each player is given a Conspirator Board featuring an actual historical figure and room to hold three (four in a two player game) items. For the purposes of the game, the most important features are the two tracks that chart “Motivation” (how committed that player is to the plot – all players start at Timid) and Suspicion (how much unwanted attention a player has attracted from the Gestapo – all players start at Medium Suspicion.)

Event cards (decks numbered to represent 1 through 7 “stages”) are shuffled separately with two cards from each stage randomly removed. The remaining cards are laid out in seven decks across the top edge of the board. Hitler’s military support is set at the desired level (2 for an “easy” game, “3” for “medium” and 4 for “difficult”) and the “Conspirator” and “Interrogation” decks shuffled and placed off to the side along with the 10 dice used in the game. .

Turns follow a specific outline. First, the active player checks to see if he/she is in the same location as Hitler or one of his Deputies. If so, there is a penalty based on who is present. (Hitler, for example, will reduce a conspirator’s Motivation, Himmler will increase that player’s Suspicion level etc.) Then, the player may take 3 actions. Finally, an Event card is drawn and resolved.

Players may pick and choose from a wide menu of possible actions. Actions include moving 1 space (and for purposes of movement, ALL areas in Germany are considered connected and adjacent), drawing a Conspirator card, Playing 1 card, Searching a Location (flipping over an unrevealed tile on a space you occupy), Procuring an Item (picking up a revealed tile at the space you occupy) and Delivering an Item (dropping off/discarding an item in your possession at a space to reap whatever benefit is listed there including being able to reduce your Suspicion level). They may also Conspire and Attempt to Release a Conspirator who has been jailed by the Gestapo. Now, let’s take a closer look at Conspire, the Conspirator cards and how to Release a Conspirator.

All actions may be done multiple times on a turn EXCEPT for Conspire. With this action, you choose one, two or three dice to roll (each die counts as one action). These six sided dice show numbers 1, 2 and 3 as well as 2 “Crosshairs” or “Bullseyes” and 1 German Eagle.

Any numbers rolled are totaled and this gives you EXTRA actions to do on this turn (but no more Conspire attempts may be made). Each Bullseye rolled gets placed on the Dissent track. When you have 3 Bullseyes there, you may raise the Motivation of any one Conspirator by one OR reduce Hitler’s military support by one. For each Eagle rolled, the Suspicion level of ALL conspirators sharing the same space is elevated by one.

Conspirator cards are vital to achieve your goal. Many of them grant you additional abilities such as being able to pick up a discarded item. Some of them are “restricted” (noted by a red triangle) which aid in the carrying out of a assassination attempt and some are “Plots”.

Plot cards reveal the method and details of a conspiracy against Hitler, specifying which items may be used (to increase the chances for success) and what level of Motivation is required for the plot to be put into motion. As mentioned, all Conspirators start at a Timid level.  As the level moves upward, to Skeptical (which increases the amount of cards a player may hold), to Positive (which releases a special ability unique to a specific conspirator) to Committed (which allows a player to use some of the Plot cards) to Zealous (which allows a player to use ALL Plot cards).

At the end of a player’s turn, an Event card is drawn from the stage deck the game is in and is immediately resolved. Some of these are “Key Events” which can force subsequently drawn Events to be discarded and new ones drawn, which, in effect, accelerates the Conspirators’ race against the clock. All of these cards reflect historical events and generally move Hitler and/or his Deputies to various locations, raise or lower Hitler’s military support and more including a Gestapo raid!

If a Gestapo Raid occurs, ALL players with an Extreme Suspicion rating are arrested and placed in the Arrest area at Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin. Other players may discard any cards they hold with their suspicion level rising +1 for each restricted card they continue to hold. As for the arrested player(s)…

All Arrested players MUST discard all restricted cards held plus an additional card for each restricted card discarded! Then, when their turn comes around, they have to try to “resist interrogation”. If you roll a Bullseye, you have successfully resisted and are released with your Suspicion reduced to High. A rolled number and you may or may not be successful at resisting (depending on your Motivation level). Roll an Eagle and you have failed and must take an Interrogation card.

Interrogation cards are all BAD! The player must choose ONE of the bad alternatives on the card and, even though this is a cooperative game, decide on his own without consultation or discussion. It is possible that an arrested conspirator may continue to be interrogated and may continue to fail and create havoc among fellow plotters – which is why you may want to try to release the player as soon as possible.

To attempt a release of a conspirator, a player must move to Gestapo HQ and NOT be at Extreme Suspicion. That player now rolls 1 die. If the player rolls an Eagle, he TOO is arrested! But, with any other roll, he may release one conspirator but at a cost. The rescuer has his own Suspicion raised by 1. The released prisoner is back in play but is now at the Extreme Suspicion level.

All along, players attempt to gather plot cards and matching plot card elements to try to make a successful assassination attempt and this is how it is done. First, a plot card must be played. (Plots cards do not count as Restricted cards but they do count as an action and against your hand limit.) All plot cards grant a player 1 die to roll in the attempt. In addition, other elements listed (explosives, poison, maps, signature etc.) are optional and, if  player has them, may add additional dice to his attempt (but then must discard those elements) or they may serve to negate rolled Eagles (which are always dangerous for conspirators). Some Conspirator cards and special abilities of the Conspirators may also be used to enhance the possibility of success. The dice are rolled and compared to Hitler’s current Military Support rating.

If the Conspirator has rolled Bullseyes equal to or greater than Hitler’s Military Strength AND the dice rolled showed LESS Eagles than
shown at the Conspirators Suspicion level (and it can be as few as one), then the plot has succeeded, Hitler (and any deputies in that space) have been eliminated and the players win! If the number of Bullseyes rolled is insufficient – but fewer Eagles have been rolled – then the plot fails (and the game continues) but the plotters remain undetected. But if the Bullsyes rolled are insufficient AND too many Eagles have appeared, then not only has the plot failed but the plot IS detected. A detective plot results in the Plot card being discarded, Hitler moved to the Chancellery, Motivation levels of ALL Conspirators reduced by 1 and the Conspirator who failed (the player rolling the ill-fated dice) arrested!

If, at some point, Hitler is successfully assassinated, the game ends and the players win! But if all player are arrested OR the “Documents Located” Event card in stage 7 is revealed OR ANY Event card drawn cannot be resolved, the game is over and all of the players LOSE!

Although not the first game to cover this topic (that probably goes to The Plot to Assassinate Hitler designed by Jim Dunnigan and published by SPI back in 1976), Black Orchestra takes a completely different approach and is amazingly good at capturing the historical flavor of the time. As the game goes through stages, Hitler’s support rises (as he is successful) and falters (as his failures mount). At the same time, tension mounts as players do what they can to draw Plot cards, gather elements to improve the chance for success of a plot, continue to raise and maintain Motivations while minimizing, as best they can, levels of Suspicion, all against the “ticking clock” of going through stage after stage! By the time the game ends, win or lose, you feel exhausted as if you’ve been through the war.

By randomly removing cards from each of the seven stages of the game, you can never be certain as to when (or if) a Gestapo raid is coming or what Events may appear. This prevents anyone from “knowing” what will happen next. While there is dice rolling in the game, the luck factor inherent here is in keeping with the nature of the challenge: attempting a conspiracy of this magnitude against an adversary so ruthless with so many resources at his disposal and with circumstances beyond your control conspiring against you!  For example, in real life, Hitler was the target of an assassination attempt by bomb when attending a conference with his military in 1944. The attempt failed when the meeting place of the conference was changed at the last minute (because of the hot weather!) from an underground concrete bunker (which would have maximized the force of the blast) to a meeting room in Hitler’s military headquarters (which minimized the force of the explosion and allowed Hitler to escape with only minor injuries). Bad luck for the conspirators which, in this game, would be considered a bad roll of the dice.

The rulebook is short and to the point although a few errors and omissions appear. For example, the German Eagle markings on some of the spaces (a requirement for some of the plots) symbolizing “fortified areas” remain unmentioned in the rules. An excellent design decision was placing key rules on the board itself for ease of reference. FYI: in all cases, the rules on the board ARE correct so any disparity between those and any found in the rulebook should be resolved in favor of the board (as with the aforementioned fortress areas which are noted on the board). Graphics are excellent with good use made of historical photos to add to the ambiance (although, admittedly, the pawns used in the game are basic and generic). While the symbolism of the game may be disturbing to some (this is Nazism after all), rewriting history to soothe modern day sensibilities doesn’t change what went before and pretending that things didn’t happen prevents us from learning from the past.

So, is Black Orchestra fun? I’m not sure “fun’ is the proper word. Words more appropriate would be “stressed”, “tense” and “intense” as players skirt around their target under the impending threat of the notorious Gestapo. What Black Orchestra is is compelling and highly historical, both engaging and exciting. If co-op games with a sense of danger appeal and World War II have a special attraction, then Black Orchestra will strike a responsive chord as it most definitely hits a high note. Recommended! – – – – – – – Herb Levy

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