Let's Kill Hitler!
It's not an exaggeration to say that a 13-minute miscalculation altered the course of world history. In November of 1939, only a few months into the second world war, a bomb went off in the Bürgerbräukeller restaurant in Munich, killing eight people and wounding more than sixty. What's notable about this attack is not who was killed in the blast, but who was not. The explosion was timed to go off about halfway through a speech delivered by Adolph Hitler, but unbeknownst to the bomb maker, Georg Elser, Hitler both shortened his speech and delivered it a half-hour earlier. The dictator was safely out of the building during the assassination attempt and was reportedly emboldened by the close call. Elser was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually executed in the last days of the war.
This was not Hitler's only near-miss. A broken fuse. A particularly thick table. An overly rambunctious crowd. Each of these things tipped the balance between life and death, impossibly small details with impossibly huge consequences: the fate of nations and the lives of millions. Black Orchestra is a game centered on the "what if?" questions these historical accounts generate, placing players in the role of real-life conspirators working together to assassinate Hitler. The goal of the game is simple: succeed in your assassination and win, fail and the world moves along as it did in reality, with all the atrocity and horror that entails.
Despite its serious theme, Black Orchestra isn't a chit-and-chart affair. Instead, both in style and substance, it splits the difference between mainstream cooperative games and traditional conflict simulations. The game harnesses some of the most appealing elements of card-based wargames-namely, a dynamic and lively deck of events, along with a built-in sense of high stakes that comes from tapping into a truly precarious historical moment. However, by using these in the context of familiar cooperative mechanics, the game lowers the bar for entry. You don't have to have a European history degree or be versed in the bullet point hell of a GMT manual. If you've played Pandemic, you can play Black Orchestra, too.
To win the game, you must succeed in a particular plot to eliminate Hitler (for example, perhaps you try to derail his train or poison his food). To do this, all you have to do is make a single successful dice roll at the right time. This is easier said than done, of course. Without the proper preparation, any attempt has little chance of succeeding. So, players spend their turns trying to even the odds, collecting items that will build their dice pool and powerful cards that can manipulate the board state to their advantage.
The game does a great job of creating the feeling of conspiracy. Unlike some of the other games Black Orchestra resembles and borrows from, this isn't a game where it feels like you're immediately rushing from place to place, putting out fire after fire. Rather, you feel strangely safe early on, collecting items and plots, trying to psych yourself up to do the unthinkable while staying under the radar (both motivation and suspicion are resources each player has to manage throughout the game). Of course, as you start getting special visits from Hitler's lieutenants, a sense of dread starts to creep in, and regular Gestapo raids keep you on your toes. There's a nearly perfect arc as things start getting more desperate and you have to ask yourself - is it time now? Is this the best opportunity we're going to get? Choosing when to pull the trigger and move forward with a plot is one of the most fraught and interesting decisions I've had to make in a game recently.
This is aided by the way the event cards control the ebb and flow of action. I dislike the way many cooperative games escalate, with efficiency and experience being the key tools used to deal with challenging mechanical puzzles. It generally makes the most sense to listen to the player with the most plays under their belt and follow their plan. Black Orchestra upends this mode via the unpredictability of the event deck. While the game will certainly reward folks who know the cards well, it's very difficult to predict exactly what will happen turn to turn. Instead, the players are forced to react to changing conditions. "Hitler's coming to Nuremberg? Well, I can use these forged travel documents to reroute him to Berlin. If you can get those explosives to me, I can try to set off this suitcase bomb next turn." This makes each turn less an exercise in dry optimization than a test of creativity, cooperation, and sheer guts.
The assassination attempts are the highlight of Black Orchestra. Normally I would scoff at the idea of a single roll of the dice determining the outcome of a game, but here it feels perfectly married to the theme. You can have a flawless plan and do everything right, but at the end of the day, there are things that are out of your control. So, you put your plot in motion and hope that you aren't derailed by some unforeseen detail: a broken fuse, a thick table, a minor schedule adjustment. If you fail, the consequences can be dire: maybe the would-be-assassin is rounded up by the SS and forced (via a special interrogation deck) to work against the other players. Everyone will have to take greater and greater risks as the clock continues to tick down. But if your roll succeeds? Well, I'm not sure I've had a greater moment of jubilation in any other cooperative game.
And then comes the deflation. In some ways, success is the worst thing that can happen in a cooperative game; the challenge and tension are abruptly over and all you can do is either pack up or set it up for another go. While this is true of almost every cooperative game I've played, this phenomenon seems to hit Black Orchestra particularly hard. Every time I lost I was eager to try it again, but once I finally succeeded I've felt no real impulse to go back. A member of my gaming group said it best: "I'm excited to show this game to other people, but I'm not necessarily excited to play it again."
There are a few other rough edges that detract from this otherwise polished game. Its compromise between historical accuracy and mechanical expediency is generally handled well, but there are a few times when things feel a little "gamey" and the illusion is punctured a bit. The mechanic whereby you can drop off objects to reduce suspicion feels just a bit too abstract to make much sense in the emerging narrative, and the explanation from the rulebook is unsatisfying. In addition, the "conspire" mechanic, which essentially lets you gamble your actions for the opportunity to have a more powerful turn, can feel swingy and unwieldy.
However, these are small marks against a game that is doing exciting things in a largely unexplored space. Black Orchestra is a strange but appealing chimera that mixes ideas from different sources into a wonderfully tense and unique experience. If this is what the future of historical games looks like, count me in. Hitler will never even see it coming.