Black Orchestra review


05 October 2018
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black-orchestra-85437.jpg Black Orchestra
How do you think we should be killing Mr. Hitler?

Now we know how Tom Cruise must have felt when his agent first called him to offer the lead role in 2008 thriller Valkyrie: “You want me to play… a Nazi?” For that is the first thought that must cross anyone’s mind when asked to play American designer Philip duBarry’s Black Orchestra. Like Cruise in the movie based on the exact same historical events, this ‘30s/‘40s-set co-op casts its participants as senior members of the Third Reich – including Cruise’s character, Wehrmacht Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. 

It’s a prickly prospect, especially when presented by components which don’t exactly flinch from their subject matter, being decorated with swastikas and other Nazi regalia. Still, the offending iconography is largely incorporated as sensitively as possible and this is, after all, history. Well, mostly. The game’s original title, Hitler Must Die, tells you all you need to know about its big, counter-factual twist. 

Whether you’re playing Stauffenberg or one of the eight other real-life conspirators (all men) who formed the titular cabal, your aim here is to hatch a plot to kill the Führer: by derailing his train, perhaps, or sniping him, or poison-gassing him.

The primary mechanism is action management, with a baseline of only three actions per turn (though risking a ‘conspire’ dice roll could grant you more) and a long but intuitive menu of options. You must move your pawns around Germany – and later, as the game works through its seven event-deck phases, Nazi-occupied Europe – uncovering and picking up items at locations, drawing from the conspirator deck in search of plots (which require certain configurations of items to increase your potential plot dice pool) and handy bonus-ability cards for your dossier. 

All the while, you must increase your character’s motivation, as you can’t attempt an assassination until you’re ‘committed’ or ‘reckless’, and your special ability is only unlocked once you’re ‘motivated’. Plus, you must keep both your suspicion level and Hitler’s military support as low as possible. Because, when the time comes to pull off a plot, the latter sets the target for a crucial dice roll – the higher the tougher – while suspicion increases the chance of failure through discovery.

It all snaps together smoothly, offering an intense, well-paced and engrossing co-op experience in which every player must constantly keep their eye on the ultimate objective, judging the best time to go for it and roll those dice. There are no short-term mini-obstacles to surpass here; it’s all about offing that hated dictator. 

The historical context is, for the most part, incorporated well, with event cards (drawn at the end of each player’s turn) depicting real historical incidents. However, there are some awkward moments. One card’s photograph of real persecuted Jewish families can’t but feel inappropriate, while it’s discomfiting that each gradual revelation of Hitler’s horrific Final Solution rewards the players with motivation – a good thing in game terms – even if it makes mechanical sense. Finally, an invitation to post a pic of a victory card boasting “We killed Hitler!” on social media feels a tad tin-eared, trivialising what is otherwise largely a smart experience. One that provides an interesting, thrilling – and timely – immersion in one of history’s darkest periods.

DAN JOLIN

 

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WE SAY

A superbly calibrated and thematically evocative co-op treat which suffers only from the occasional tonal blip.

Buy your copy now.

Designer: Philip duBarry

Artist: Dann May, Cody Jones, Lucas Soriano

Time: 60-90 minutes

Players: 1-5

Age: 14+

Price: £60

 

This review originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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