“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.”
_____—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945, Letters and Papers from Prison
Black Orchestra is one of those rare games that revels in the hopelessness of its situation. Wallows in it, more like. As one of the conspirators bent on overthrowing Adolf Hitler — whether you’re a civilian businessman or politician, Abwehr or Wehrmacht officer — your chances are, as was the case in the real-life Schwarze Kapelle, nearly hopeless. It’s less an exercise in excitement and explosions, and more a game of waiting, of chewing your fingernails until they’re raw, of walking the line between playing it cool under pressure and taking foolhardy risks the instant an opening presents itself.
By way of example, let me tell you about three plots to assassinate Hitler.
The Poison Gas Plot
Even in the early years of Hitler’s rule — and I mean the early years, the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, before true war had begun — it was already apparent that the guy had to go. Between Kristallnacht, the vicious party rallies, and a new host of anti-Semitic laws, it was enough that Dietrich Bonhoeffer set about the business of plotting the Führer’s retirement.
In Black Orchestra, much of the early game is about groping around the edges of the situation. Hitler and his topmost deputies are on tour, much of the action is restricted to Germany because the Nazis haven’t yet expanded their reach, and the conspirators don’t have any idea what opportunities will present themselves. So they travel around, exploring their options in Berlin and beyond. Maybe a cache of weapons wouldn’t be missed in Hannover, or Herr Himmler misplaced a signed blank document at the Ministry of Propaganda. Whatever you can get your hands on.
In Bonhoeffer’s case, he managed to find a whole bunch of poison cylinders. Berlin was lousy with the stuff. As a loyal Abwehr agent, Bonhoeffer picked them up, one after the other, and stashed them in his cellar. For safety purposes, you see. And it wasn’t long before an appropriate plot presented itself, drawn from the deck thanks to the persistence of Bonhoeffer’s fellow conspirator, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. As long as Hitler would find himself in a confined space, it would be easy enough to fill the place with toxic air and let nature run its course.
Of course, there were two hurdles yet to be hopped. First of all, none of the conspirators had the nerve to actually turn the spigot. At the outset of the game, your characters are considered “timid.” They’d like to see someone get rid of Hitler, but they haven’t been convinced the task falls to them. Early on, when Hitler is relatively stationary, the difficulty often revolves around finding anyone ballsy enough to pull the trigger on a plot. This time, fortunately, the passage of extra anti-Semitic laws were enough to galvanize Bonhoeffer into action.
The second problem was getting Hitler into an isolated and enclosed space. This problem solved itself when another assassin was caught, sending Hitler into hiding in the Chancellery. The invasion of Czechoslovakia almost saw him relocating to Vienna, but Fabian von Schlabrendorff, our contact within the Wehrmacht, was able to delay his travel plans. The trap was ready to be sprung.
On that fateful night, Bonhoeffer hauled his cylinders of poison to the Chancellery, rolled some dice, and was caught and imprisoned for his troubles.
The Kidnapping Plot
Right away, this could be seen as one of Black Orchestra’s most glaring weaknesses. All the planning in the world isn’t worth a Weimar banknote if those dice don’t come up aces. And there are multiple ways for a roll to go wrong. For one thing, Hitler’s military support is your target number. As the Nazi regime expands or falls under threat, Hitler’s security increases. A gas cylinder must be attached to a hose in order to distribute its freedom-loving aerosol, after all, and if the Chancellery is crawling with loyal thugs there’s a good chance somebody’s going to notice a portly theologian huffing ten of the things up the stairs to the ventilation room.
The other issue is suspicion. The more your characters accomplish — including conspiring to weaken Hitler’s military support — the more they’re likely to fall under surveillance. When rolling to accomplish a plot, you’re not only trying to bust through Hitler’s security, but also to avoid drawing too much attention. Roll too many failures, and it won’t matter if you’ve rolled a hundred successes; you were caught in the act. Brace for interrogation.
Which is precisely what happened. In prison, Bonhoeffer held out like a champ. For the first year. After that, he spilled his guts, betraying his fellow conspirators before finally being released. The way this is handled is distressingly clever: you roll a die, sure, though in this case failure means drawing an interrogation card and choosing one of its awful options without any discussion. Inevitably, everyone around the table will groan about your choice, especially when it means surrendering some hard-scrounged explosives.
Fortunately, von Schlabrendorff had come up with a new plot while Bonhoeffer was growing thin in prison. This time, they would kidnap Hitler. The required pieces were all in place: Hitler’s presence in a nearby city (Vienna), copious amounts of weapons (check), and a signature from a high-ranking official to get our man close enough to make the attempt (Prost, Herr Göring!).
On that fateful night, von Schlabrendorff drove his weapon-laden truck through the checkpoint, rolled some dice, and never even saw Hitler. Though at least he got away before the Gestapo showed up.
The Plane Bomb Plot
Our ring of conspirators was suitably discouraged, though Mayor Carl Goerdeler had a plan for that. By smuggling a concealed camera into Auschwitz, he slid himself forever under the Gestapo’s microscope, but also managed to remind our conspirators of the righteousness of our cause. Hitler had to die. There wasn’t a single one of our number who wouldn’t have shot him in the middle of a rally, if only the opportunity would present itself.
If only. As usual, the opportunity did not present itself.
In more ways than one, Black Orchestra is a game about a person’s lack of agency when presented with the march of nations, ideologies, and history itself. If anything, your characters are more often slaves to the factors that surround them than actors in their own right. Hitler and his officials move around the map, darting out of reach of your plots. Your suspicion levels rise and fall, Gestapo raids imprison you, and the dice never seem to roll your way. You work to halt Hitler’s military apparatus, only for some historical event to send it grinding back into motion. Even your motivation fluctuates, your fervor cooling as the disappointments mount. You might as well be a leaf dragged along with the current, circling the storm-drain.
And while it can be galling in the extreme to watch plot after plot fail, or languishing in a Gestapo prison for five turns, or just feeling helpless and worthless when nothing comes of all your efforts, one arrives at the conclusion that this is precisely what Black Orchestra was meant to be. Like Freedom: The Underground Railroad, this is intended as an educational experience rather than a pleasant one. Actually killing Hitler is the exception, the one-in-five-games candied cherry atop the dog-swirl of all the failed attempts that came before it. Tellingly, the manual mentions a sort of “score” depending on how early you managed to topple Hitler’s regime. Instead of being counted in points, the tally is how many lives, in millions, you managed to save from the careless grasp of a madman who would rather burn the world to stubbled cinders than lose hold of it.
For our final plot, our goal was to blow up Hitler’s plane when he tried to move from one city to another. We had everything in position, from explosives on his fuel tank to a map of his activities. All he had to do was move one more time, as he had moved a dozen times in the two hours we’d been playing.
It never happened. Turns passed with Hitler remaining contently stationary, as though he knew exactly what we were planning. Instead, while Germany’s expansion began to stall and then contract, while millions of lives were lost on two fronts, while the country hemorrhaged internally, the Gestapo uncovered our little ring and had every last one of us executed.
Black Orchestra is like that. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.