A Review of Black Orchestra

Tabby cats Juni and Mysan posing next to the Black Orchestra game box.

Black Orchestra (Starling Games) is a game of conspiracy and plotting based on historical events. Players take on the roles of real-life conspirators who attempted to overthrow the Nazi regime by assassinating Adolf Hitler. The game was designed by Philip duBarry, who’s also known for Spirits of the Rice Paddy and Revolution!

Historical Background*

One part of the German resistance to Nazism was a group of aristocrats, officers of the armed forces, and officers and operatives of the military intelligence service Abwehr. The Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, called this group Schwarze Kapelle – Black Orchestra.

The Scwarze Kapelle conspirators seem to have been motivated mainly by the fear that Hitler’s hubris and ruthlessness would lead to ruin and possibly loss of German sovereignty, but also by distaste for the violent practices and ideology of the Nazi Party.

Several attempts at Hitler’s life were made, and even more were planned. The conspirators also planned coups d’état, were in contact with British intelligence hoping for help in overthrowing the NSDAP, and helped Jews escape from Germany under the guise of intelligence operatives.

British officials were not eager to interfere in German affairs before the countries were at war and later they feared that the goals of the conspirators were not aligned with the goals of the Allies, or worse, that the Abwehr agents contacting them were secretly working for the Gestapo.

Since the Scwarze Kapelle planned to install an interim government after getting rid of Hitler, they felt that the coup or assassination had to take place at a time when the population could be convinced that Hitler was leading Germany into ruin. For this reason the plotting was drawn out over several years and appears to have been riddled with indecisiveness and changes of plans. That the Gestapo were aware of the existence of a resistance movement within the military didn’t make things any easier.

Today we know that the conspirators did not succeed, but Black Orchestra takes the player back to 1936, before the Second World War had broken out and before the worst atrocities had been committed. As a player, you fearfully observe how the political winds are blowing and hope that you can do something before it’s too late.

First Impressions

Black Orchestra is a cooperative game for one to five players. This review focuses on solitaire play. The game is card driven but the action takes place on a board with a map of Central Europe, mostly in Germany.

A game of Black Orchestra set up and ready to be played.

Besides the board and cards, the game comes with ten custom dice, counters representing different items, some pawns and cubes for tracking stats and movement on the board, and nine conspirator sheets representing different historical figures that were involved in the resistance.

The nine conspirator sheets.

The rule book is well written and accompanied by a handy rules summary sheet and some turn structure information on the board. Learning the rules is easy and setting up the game to start playing is without hassle. Using the rules summary sheet and the rule book for reference, I was playing the game about half an hour after opening the box for the first time despite having no prior knowledge of the rules.

Item counters.

Black Orchestra has few moving parts, the board offers a good overview of the game state and the turn structure is simple. All in all the game offers an uncluttered, streamlined gaming experience.

Close-up of the board centered on Berlin.

The graphical design is somber. The cards are illustrated with both historical photographs and original artwork. The stark look and black and white illustrations efficiently convey the historical theme. In no way has the publisher tried to gloss over the fact that we’re dealing with a dark part of history. The interrogation cards (more on those below) have the lightning bolt runes of the SS logo on the back, and the event cards include atrocities like the Kristallnacht and concepts of racist ideology like Lebensraum.

The game is true to it’s theme and neither glorifies nor trivializes – with one exception. Included in the box is a card called the Victory! card, and players are encouraged to take a photo of themselves with this card and to share it on social media if they win the game. The card says “WE KILLED HITLER!” and to me this attempt at getting some free publicity makes light of both the subject itself and of a game that deals with it well.

Playing the Game

When playing solo the player controls two conspirators. The goal of the game is to assassinate or kidnap Adolf Hitler, or to stage a coup d’etat. To do this the conspirators need a plot card representing a plan to set in motion, and some associated items. They also need to be in the same location as Hitler on the board.

The conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

To be able to take the extreme measures needed to make reality of an assassination plot the conspirators have to have sufficient motivation. Motivation is represented by a track on the character sheet with five steps ranging from timid to reckless. The conspirators start at the timid level, but historical events that take place throughout the game and the action of conspiring help increase motivation.

Some plots are more easily executed by Abwehr personnel, while others require a civilian conspirator or somebody from the Wehrmacht to maximize the chances of success.

Besides motivation there are two other variables that heavily influence the conspirators’ chances: their level of suspicion and Hitler’s military support. The former is tracked on the conspirator sheet just like motivation, and the latter is tracked on the board.

The game board and the decks of cards.

On a turn a conspirator has three actions. These can be used to move around on the board, draw conspirator cards, discover items and pick them up, deliver items to certain locations either to give them to a co-conspirator or as part of their professional work, which minimizes suspicion. They can also take the conspire action. This is risky business since the conspirator runs the risk of increasing his (all conspirators are men) level of suspicion. The potential rewards for conspiring are extra actions, increased motivation or lowering of Hitler’s military support.

Four of the event cards.

While the conspirators plot, gather information and items, conspire and try to avoid suspicion, cards from the event deck are drawn and the history between 1936 and 1944 is played out in seven stages represented by seven decks of cards. The power of the Nazi Party increases gradually. Racial laws are instituted.

Four more event cards.

Progroms against Jews are carried out. After the Kristallnacht it becomes evident what kind of force has been brought to power. The motivation of the conspirators increases, but so does the paranoia of the Nazi regime. Gestapo raids occur more and more frequently and the conspirators risk being sent to prison if their level of suspicion is too high.

An imprisoned conspirator is interrogated each turn and is a risk to his co-conspirators. Since the members of the Schwarze Kapelle are influential there are ways of getting out of prison, though. As long as all conspirators are not imprisoned – if that happens you lose the game. And somewhere in the seventh event deck there might be a card called Documents Located. If that card is drawn the conspirators are found out. This is another way of losing the game. Since two cards are removed randomly from each event deck during set-up, you can’t be sure when, or even if, the card will be drawn.

The event cards affect the motivation of the conspirators, Hitler’s military support and the movement of the highest Nazi officials on the board. As history progresses, Nazi Germany subdues more and more of Europe and more parts of the map are opened up for the conspirators to travel to. They can travel to Auschwitz or Treblinka to gather information about the atrocities being committed there, and they can try to bring documentation about the state of things to a neutral country.

Some of the plot cards.

When the conspirators feel that Hitler’s military support isn’t too high and that their level of suspicion is manageable, they can attempt a plot. Attempting a plot requires Hitler to be in a certain kind of location depending on the nature of the plot, and at least one conspirator has to be there as well. It also requires a certain level of motivation on behalf of the conspirator carrying out the attempt. A plot attempt is a monumental roll of dice and a very intense gaming event. The risk can be mitigated by the use of certain cards and the availability of certain items. You roll against Hitler’s military support and the conspirators level of suspicion simultaneously. If you succeed you win the game, if not the conspirator might be sent to prison. The conspirator loses any items used in attempting the plot, and that’s a big setback even if he manages to get away after the failed attempt.

Why I Like This Game

There’s a reason why my description of how the game plays turned out to be more narrative than technical; the game plays like that. The rules are simple and never get in the way of the story that’s being told. Black Orchestra is a richly thematic game. It’s deeply involving and conveys a strong sense of desperation and urgency. In fact, Black Orchestra has delivered the most immersive solitaire gaming experiences I’ve had to date.

Thematic Disconnect or Historical Insight?

I reviewed Hostage Negotiator a while ago, and used the term “thematic disconnect” to describe a sort of ethical dilemma that I found myself facing. I called it “a clash between the ethos behind the theme, and the game mechanisms.” In the case of Hostage Negotiator this problem occurs when some of the hostages are killed. Since saving half of the hostages is enough to win, but you can’t win if there are hostages left, it becomes easier to win if some are killed, since you don’t have to go through the trouble of saving all of them. Something similar can happen in Black Orchestra.

To be able to attempt a plot, the conspirators motivation has be at a certain level, usually the fourth level of five – committed. When everything is in place, Hitler is in a location where you can carry out the assassination, you have all the explosives or weapons or poison you need, but your commitment isn’t strong enough it can be a very frustrating experience. Drawing an event card that raises your motivation in this situation is a great relief, since you don’t have to take the risk of conspiring to possibly raise your motivation. Like I said, drawing one of those cards can be a relief. Until you realize that the card you drew that increased your motivation is called Lebensraum, and the reason your motivation was increased was rumors of mass killings in the East. Sobering, to say the least.

Sometimes a horrendous event could make it easier to win the game. This leads to moral anxiety. It could lead to what I call a thematic disconnect, since it could be seen as a situation where something makes sense on the level of game mechanisms but not on the thematic level. In this game this dilemma could also, possibly, give you a tidbit of insight into the minds of the conspirators that were waiting for the right moment to set their plan in motion, the moment when the population would realize that tyrannicide was justified. It probably depends on the mindset of the player. One thing is certain: this game is thematically strong and it deals with a heavy subject. It has the potential to bring about an emotional experience.

Some Things to Consider If You’re Interested in This Game

This game might not be for everyone. The theme is dark and it definitely comes to the fore through the mechanisms of the game. Also, the game often takes more than the advertised 60 to 90 minutes, and it can be a drawn-out, agonizing plunge into indecisiveness and uncertainty. To me that’s part of the experience, and I applaud the designer for managing to make the in-game decisions so challenging. Deciding when to finally try to strike, or if you should postpone your attempt just a turn, can be very hard.

The prospective buyer also has to be aware of the significant element of chance in this game. Some gamers have a problem with chance, and they can feel cheated of victory if a die-roll has them lose the game after careful planning. I have nothing at all against uncertainty and chance in a game like this, though. Consider that Hitler survived the 20 July plot because there was a table leg between the briefcase with the bomb and his chair.

Some Final Words

To any solitaire gamer who doesn’t shy away from a dark theme, who has an interest in history and appreciates a strong, immersive game with focus on narrative, I highly recommend Black Orchestra. It’s an elegantly designed game where the mechanisms do a great job in the background, helping to keep the historical theme in focus.

Playing this game has provided an incentive to read up on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who found a way of painfully reconciling his faith with the need to commit murder, and I’ve also been encouraged to brush up on 19th century history in general.

Black Orchestra is an impressive game. Despite the historical fixtures of the event decks it can play out very differently from game to game and I’m eager to return to it.

Additional Reading

If you’re interested in how the game plays cooperatively there is an abundance of reviews available on BGG. If you’re interested in the historical background you should check out the links below – that’s a good place to start.

Thanks for reading!

* The passage on the historical background draws on the following Wikipedia articles:


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