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Designer Diary: Black Orchestra, or the Art of Patience

Philip duBarry
United States
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Black Orchestra has probably taken longer than any of my previous designs, yet I feel like all the hard work has finally paid off. I have been thrilled with the level of excitement from the pre-order campaign and then the official release at BGG.CON 2016. What could have been a toxic theme and a public-relations nightmare has been remarkably well-received. Dann May and Cody Jones have helped me realize my vision for the game with stunning, yet respectful, art and tense gameplay.

The basic idea for Black Orchestra grew out of my lifelong fascination with World War II and, specifically, the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler. Some of this has to do with a childhood association between the Nazis and the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. I hardly believed that such an authoritarian regime could have ever existed in real life. Since my childhood, I have visited a number of museums including the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Imperial War Museum in London. The atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis surpass one's ability to comprehend them. We will never be in doubt that evil exists in this world so long as we remember these tragic events.

In addition to watching epic films and documentaries, as well as playing games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Axis & Allies, I enjoy reading books on the subject. I found Albert Speer's autobiographical account of the war chilling, though it should be taken with a grain of salt. I have read about D-Day, the Nuremberg trials, and the Nazi hunters of more recent times. However, one book rises above all others. In August 2011, Eric Metaxis published his masterful biography of a lesser-known character in the drama of the war. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy recounts the life of the brilliant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the rise of Hitler. His commitment to preaching the Bible put him directly at odds with the Nazi propaganda machine. He later joined the Abwehr (Germany's military intelligence agency) to work against the Nazi regime from the inside, bolstering the conviction of the conspirators, and ultimately giving his life for the cause.

This book set my mind to the creation of a cooperative game surrounding the various plots to assassinate Hitler. By November 2011, I completed my first prototype. The game combined a few key elements. First, the conspirators had to be motivated to do things in the game. High motivation would allow players to perform their special ability and attempt plots against Hitler; low motivation would limit them to only two cards. Players would also need to manage their level of suspicion as the Gestapo would be relentlessly tracking them down. Extremely high suspicion would land you in jail should the Gestapo decide to conduct a raid.

Prototype game board from 2011

Another core element was the incorporation of a special event deck. I wanted the game to move somewhat sequentially through the events of World War II. You would see Paris fall and other military campaigns ebb and flow. You would also hear rumors about horrible atrocities. Finally, the Allies would begin to close in on the Third Reich. These events needed to be somewhat structured, but they also needed to vary from game to game. The solution was to divide the game's timeline into seven sections and shuffle each of these individually to form the final event deck.

One of the key effects of this deck was to modify Hitler's military support and level of security or exposure. This would lead into another important mechanism in the game: a dramatic dice roll finale. Common design wisdom holds that you should never let the end of a game be determined randomly. However, that's exactly how it happened historically. In this version of Black Orchestra, players would gather materials and modifiers, all seeking the perfect time and place for the assassination attempt. Then you took your chance and rolled a handful of dice — the classic stand-up dice roll on steroids! If you rolled higher than the combined value of Hitler's military support and security, you won. If you failed...the consequences would be swift and severe.

The resulting game captured much of the experience I desired. Playing this first version did feel tense and ominous. I noticed myself and other players having some of the same conversations that must have occupied the actual conspirators of history. Judging when to strike and figuring out the chances of success also helped to moderate the alpha player problem common to many co-op games. With so many variables and the final result always in doubt, there is no perfect solution for a more dominant player to force on everyone else. Of course, the game would need significant playtesting and myriad tweaks and adjustments along the way.

Black Orchestra was off to a promising start, but the road to publication would be long. In fact, I wondered whether any publisher would be brazen enough to embrace such a difficult theme. The subject matter and imagery of the game would close off whole sections of the market, most notably Germany. I could not expect such a game to be welcomed there. Indeed, many of the visual elements in the game violate a number of laws there, to say nothing of the gritty, militaristic feel — something studiously avoided by most European publishers. Even so, my intense interest in this corner of history impelled me to continue playtesting and development. I also felt a calling to recount these tragic events. We ought never forget the factors leading to Hitler's rise to power and the atrocities that resulted.

Prototype for a Conspirator board, and the final version

I spent the first half of 2012 testing and refining the game. One key addition during this time was the use of item tiles. Previously, items had to be collected from the deck of player cards. Now those items would reside at each location on the board. Players would need to collect them in order to fulfill plot requirements. Players would also need to roll a die to find the items, thus creating another use for the dice in the game.

In June 2012 I attended the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, as I had in years past. I brought a number of prototypes with me, including Black Orchestra, though I had little idea of who might be interested in seeing it. During the show I first met Dan Yarrington of the newly-formed Game Salute. He looked at just about every game I brought, suggesting improvements in the theme and presentation of many of them. He also wanted to see two in greater detail: "Bank Job" (now Skyway Robbery) and Black Orchestra. He was intrigued by the bold choice of theme.

What followed was an invitation to the longest dinner of my life. We headed out to the famous Schmidt's Sausage Haus, the perfect backdrop for discussing my Hitler game but not so good for my stomach ailment at the time. After getting lost, we then waited over two hours to get a table. The dinner itself lasted another two hours. We didn't get back to the convention center until 11:00 p.m. We then played my two prototypes, and I didn't get to bed until about 3:00 a.m. In the morning, I signed the game over to Dan under its new in-your-face name: "Hitler Must Die".

The conspirators working to undermine Hitler needed massive reserves of patience if they hoped to succeed. I also found the need for patience as I waited for my co-op game to enter active development and publication. Back in 2012, the picture looked rosy. Game Salute would be kickstarting my games in short order and be ready for more after that. Unfortunately, they ended up signing a very large number of games that season. Mine would have to wait in line. Additionally, Skyway Robbery required an extensive amount of artwork, delaying that project even further. While I had continued to test the game and make marginal improvements, it would not be until a Gen Con 2015 meeting with Dann May, Game Salute's art director, that development would truly begin in earnest.

Our work on the game fortuitously coincided with the appearance of an important new tool: Tabletopia. Other attempts had been made to emulate the board game experience on computers and other electronic devices, but Tabletopia seemed to be driven by a new vision. They succeeded in gaining the cooperation of many publishers, allowing them to offer real games instead of knock-off versions. Though still in beta, Tabletopia helped us playtest Black Orchestra with a fresh intensity. Dann May, Cody Jones (in charge of graphic design), and I spent many sessions hammering out the final product.

Tabletopia playtest in October 2015

Several major systems were added or overhauled during this process. One of the biggest was the change in how dice would work. Instead of using standard dice, we would produce custom dice featuring symbols. Hitler's military support and security level would be simplified and converted to symbols. Now the players would need to roll a target number of crosshair symbols but avoid rolling a certain number of eagle symbols. The experience of players in jail would also change. Now players needed to roll a die result based on their motivation in order to resist an interrogation. If they failed, they would draw an interrogation card. This card lists three painful options. The player must secretly choose one of these options and resolve it. This effect adds some interesting suspense to the game.

We also added the Conspire action to the list of those available. Once per turn, you may choose to conspire by rolling one die for each remaining action. Rolling numbers (1, 2, or 3) will result in bonus actions. Rolling an eagle will increase your suspicion level. Rolling a crosshair symbol will transfer the die to the Dissent track, eventually providing more motivation for the players or lowering Hitler's support.

Finally, we knew that some players might prefer a more difficult experience. This is why we added an advanced variant requiring players to hunt down some of Hitler's deputies as well as Hitler himself. Failure to do so could result in a tarnished victory as one of the deputies would simply take control of the Nazi regime himself.

The last touch was to change back to my initial title: Black Orchestra. We feel this name better fits with the mood and atmosphere of mystery and suspense we are trying to create. It also links the game more directly to its historical roots, something I value greatly. We have been careful to treat this serious theme with respect, trying to hit the right notes with its visual presentation and game play. Thanks to Dann and Cody for all their many contributions. I am quite happy with the end result and I've enjoyed seeing the game make its way into the hands of gamers all over the world. May this critical moment in history never be forgotten.

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