I think we can all agree that Hitler wasn’t the nicest of people. So it comes as no surprise that there are so many video games based in World War 2, whether that’s overthrowing the Nazis by killing as many of them as you can or sneaking around with the intention of taking out Hitler himself. But war itself has already found itself into board gaming as well; in fact not long ago we reviewed This War of Mine, which while not being set in the 1930s and 40s, still brought home the hopelessness and struggle of a war situation. In that game, however, your sole purpose was to survive at any cost. In Black Orchestra your goal is plain and simple: kill Hitler.
Black Orchestra takes pretty much of its cues from real historical events. Between the various conspirators that you can control, Hitler’s deputies and the events that take place throughout the game everything is soaked in factual accuracy, even down to the player cards having an outline of what that particular person tried to do to change the war. As such there’s very little watering down in terms of difficulty. Don’t expect to be able to just wander round for a few turns, spot Hitler queuing for a sandwich and stab him in the back. Instead you’ll be building up your character’s courage while trying to avoid suspicion, building up the perfect plot to assassinate the main man himself, and then when the time is right – and only when the time is right – strike, and hope for the best. Over the course of a game these opportunities might present themselves only once or twice, so what do you do? Try and get in early when you might not be quite as well equipped, or wait until you’re more ready but have to deal with more Nazi military support? There’s no right answer. More often than not, both options will be wrong.
This game is tough.
But why shouldn’t it be? I applauded This War of Mine for being so difficult, for portraying war as something unglamourous and forcing people to do things they normally wouldn’t dream of. Black Orchestra takes a very different angle, but the struggles are the same. Assassinating Hitler in the 1940s wasn’t a very easy task, you can tell that by the fact that so many people failed and died trying, so the fact that you’ll have to rely on careful planning and a decent slice of luck (there are dice rolls involved, if that offends you it’s time to turn around and go elsewhere) is just a decent representation of what you’re trying to achieve.
The game works through a series of 7 event decks that build you up through various points in time, opening up more and more of the board for you to get round while at the same time bringing up various issues to make your life that bit tougher. After each turn one of these cards is flipped, and whether that means Hitler or one of his generals moves elsewhere or there’s some other spanner thrown into the works there’s one thing to remember – if you need to turn an event card and can’t, it’s game over. This isn’t a game where you can hang around indefinitely and wait for the bad guys to come to you at just the right time. Aside from anything else doing that will just make it harder and harder to stay inconspicuous, and once your suspicion level gets too high you’ll be arrested and left at the mercy of other players to risk their own asses to get you out. If everyone’s inside, you’ve blown it. Game over.
What I liked about the game progressing though was how things changed as the war reached various key points. While the Nazis take hold the board opens up over time, reflecting their spread of power, but later on as the Allies start to fight back a bit more fiercely areas start to close off on the board. Similarly your main role might change depending on where in the game you are. Gathering resources is all very important for your assassination attempt, but there are times when Hitler’s military are a real force to be reckoned with, so just keeping your head down and keeping your suspicion level as low as possible (while not sacrificing your motivation) might be useful for a few turns until things start opening up again with a new phase of the war.
It’s these details you don’t fully appreciate until you’ve had a couple of games and seen just how powerful some of these things can be. Your chances of winning or pretty slim – simply getting into the situation to attempt an attack is hard enough – but it’s the journey that makes Black Orchestra such a satisfying game to play. One thing to keep in mind though: as I brushed upon earlier there’s a huge slice of luck involved in winning; even when you’ve got everything set up and ready for a pop at taking out Hitler you’re pinning your hopes on the roll of a few dice. Nail it and you’ve won. Blow it and you’re in jail. You can fail without getting caught which isn’t a terrible outcome, but you’ll have to start gathering all of your resources again which is a bit of a git.
Personally this random event sat quite well with me. Assassination attempt succeed or fail on a heartbeat decision or a chance outcome. If JFK has moved slightly the moment Oswald pulled the trigger we’d have a whole different world. If Gavrilo Princip hadn’t gone to a cafe at just the moment Franz Ferdinand’s driver had got his instructions wrong, World War 1 almost certainly wouldn’t have happened and nothing would be the same now. For the killers these events only worked because the world was perfectly aligned at that moment in time, a small chance of success amongst a sea of potential failures. In that respect, a dice roll at the time of attack seems absolutely the right way to determine an outcome. A lot of people won’t like it, will feel like after a couple of hours of careful planning and work to lose everything because a handful of dice didn’t bounce the right way isn’t a fair outcome.
But when all is said and done, you’re playing a game with plenty of history embedded into it, set in one of those worst few years mankind has ever had to endure. If you’re worried about being fair then the theme has passed you by. I found Black Orchestra captivating, and with only one success out of several tries I’ll be rolling my sleeves up and jumping back in without a shadow of a doubt.