Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Wednesday 1 April 2015

1973: Escape from Colditz

Last year’s review of Kingmaker proved to be surprisingly popular such that it got me thinking—what games of its era are worth revisiting? Only one game came to mind, a game from my childhood that like Kingmaker I played, but never owned. That game is Escape from Colditz, first published in 1973  by Gibsons Games.

Designed for two six players, Escape from Colditz is set at the height of World War Two. The Germans have selected Schloss Colditz as Oflag IV-C, a prisoner-of-war camp for ‘incorrigible’ Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps. To those incarcerated in Schloss Colditz, making escape attempts was not only their patriotic duty, but to an extent, also seen as a sport, as was making the lives and duties of the garrison as awkward as possible. The majority of the players in Escape from Colditz are Escape Officer who control  Prisoners of War (POWs) of certain nationalities—American (blue), British (red), Dutch (orange), French (brown), and Polish (green)—whilst one player controls the sentries of German security (black). The aim of the Allies is to get as many POWs out of Colditz and back to Allied territory—to make a ‘home run’ as the prisoners called it—as they can, whilst the German player must stop them.

To effect an escape, each Allied player must acquire equipment. First an ‘escape kit’, consisting of a compass, a disguise kit, food, and forged documents, and then second escape equipment, such as forged passes and keys to get past outer doors in the castle, rope to climb down out of the castle and then over the outer walls, and lastly wire cutters to get through the fences. To acquire equipment an Allied player must get two of his officers to particular rooms in the castle. For example, to acquire rope an Allied player must get two of his officers to either the chapel or store and then back to the Appel area in the centre of the castle courtyard. Similarly, to get a disguise kit, an Allied player must get two of his officers to either the Theatre or the Laundry and back to the Appel area.

In response the German player will be moving his sentries around the rooms and grounds of the castle, from the barracks to the sentry posts (and often back again) in order to monitor POW activities and to block potential escape routes. Once an Allied player has acquired equipment, his officers are subject to closer scrutiny and potential arrest and incarceration in the cells. If an officer is arrested in the grounds of the castle, the German player can confiscate equipment from his player as well as send the officer to the cells. 

To move around the map, both the Allied and the German players roll two six-sided dice and simply move. Rolls of doubles allow re-rolls and if a player rolls a three, seven, or eleven, he can draw card—the Allies draw Opportunity cards, whilst the German draws Security cards. The Opportunity cards do a variety of things. For example, Bribe a Sentry gets an Allied player more equipment, Hideaway enables him to hide equipment before the German player can confiscate it, Diversion allows him to send a German sentry back to the barracks, Tunnel (Chapel) gives him access to the tunnel leading out of the Chapel, and Staff Car presents him with the chance to steal the car waiting in the castle grounds and drive it to freedom. Various other Opportunity cards enable a player to move to various locations, get out of the cells, and so on. The German Security cards include Appel (Roll Call), used to summon all POWs back to the courtyard and search and arrest any that do not return, Tunnel Detected that enables the German to find a tunnel, and of course, the dreaded Shoot to Kill card that enables the German player to kill a POW who is outside of the castle walls! No player can hold more than three cards, but the Allies can freely exchange their Opportunity cards.

The play of the game typically proceeds with the Allied players collecting enough equipment, the German player marking the POWs as best that he can, until he is ready to make an escape. There are multiple escape routes, typically involving a POW climbing out of a window and then over the walls or cutting his way through the wire. Alternatives include taking a tunnel—there are three in the game and the player needs to have the appropriate Opportunity card, the aforementioned Staff Car Opportunity card, or a Do or Die card. The latter represents a last ditch bid for freedom, the player being given a random number of rolls—varying from one Do or Die card to another, each Allied player receiving a random one at game’s start—with which to get a POW to Allied territory. This is typically done at the end of the game to get one more POW home and it costs no Escape Equipment to use a Do or Die card. Should the attempt via the Do or Die card fail, then the escaping  POW is killed in the attempt and the player is out of the game.

Tactically, the German player needs to monitor the Allied players for signs of an escape attempt and move his sentries accordingly. The Allied players should get their escape equipment as ready as quickly as possible and during this opening stage of the game, playing Escape from Colditz can be quite tense as a game of ‘cat and mouse’ ensues between the Germans and the Allied POWs. Here the POWs can run interference, ‘voluntarily’ turning themselves in to send a nosy German sentry back to the barracks whilst he takes the offending POW to the cells. Once enough escape equipment has been assembled, the Allies should ideally stage their escape attempts en masse and at separate points round the castle . So for example, whilst the Americans and the British make their out of the tunnel from the chapel, the Polish should be climbing out of Officers’ Quarters and up over the wall, and so on. Ideally, this should overwhelm the German player who will never quite have enough decent rolls with which to capture the escaping Allied officers. Still, the escape attempts should be not only tense, but also exhilarating affairs as one POW after another attempts to make a home run. 

On the other hand, a failed escape attempt, is not only disappointing, but it can also feel rather deflating. After all, the player has been busy assembling escape equipment and having used it in the attempt, now has to start going round the castle collecting it again if he wants to make more attempts. Plus of course, his failed escapees are now in solitary (and have to roll doubles to get back out).

The need for the Allied Escape Officers to coordinate their escape attempts and the fact that they can swap or give each other Opportunity cards means is that Escape from Colditz is a co-operative, or rather, a semi-cooperative game because the Allies need to work together to affect successful escape attempts. That said, there can only be one winner, either the German player because he has stopped all escape attempts or one of the Allied players because he has got the most POWs home. Even so, Escape from Colditz does not come with set objectives. Typically all of the players agree on a time limit and the number of successful escape attempts needed for an Allied player to win. Two hours is the suggested time limit and two escapees the recommended number. An Allied player wins if he manages this in the time limit, the German player wins if he prevents anyone from doing so. 

Physically, Escape from Colditz is a very nicely put together game. The trade dress and the graphic design is excellent, with extra flavour text on the Opportunity and Security cards adding historical details, the card holder for the game’s card being made to look like a Red Cross parcel, the front of the rules sheet being the same as the sheet issued to POWs  advising them not to make escape attempts. All of these extra details add verisimilitude to the game’s theme, but none add as much as the map board. This is a large affair, providing a stunning depiction of Schloss Colditz and its environs in wonderful detail. 

Thematically, there can be no argument that Escape from Colditz is a triumph. The addition of the cover sheet to the rules advising that escaping is not a sport and the Red Cross parcel packaging for cards adds nothing to game play, but everything to the feel of the game. As does the beautifully functional map of Schloss Colditz. Yet the game is unbalanced in terms of the number of players—too few Allied players and the Germans have an easy time keeping an eye on everyone and foiling escape attempts; too many players and it is a lot easier for the Allies to make escape attempts. Equally, the game is also mechanically flawed. The ‘roll dice and move’ mechanic feels dated, but arguably it does feel suited to the game. Worse though are the ambiguous rules, which all too often leave situations open to interpretation, such that house rules are needed. Admittedly, Escape from Colditz is a forty year old design, and whilst it definitely shows, the game is not unplayable, not unenjoyable, and worth replaying once in a while. Its age though makes it a very interesting game.

 No game comes with the cultural weight of Escape from Colditz. It is ‘boys’ own adventure’ that evokes the using of a stick as gun to fire at the German enemy when you were children, of the comic book Commando War Stories in Pictures, of Saturday afternoon war movies like The Great Escape, The Cruel Sea, In Which We serve, and of course, The Colditz Story,* of the proverbial ‘British stiff upper lip’ and sticking it to the Hun, of “For you, the war is over”, and so on. This is hardly surprisingly given when the game was published—the early 1970s—a decade when the war was still strong in our collective memories. This cultural weight is enforced by the authenticity of the details in the game—the notice informing the POWs that escaping was not a sport, the replica Red Cross parcel used to hold the cards, and so on—but perhaps most obviously by the fact that the game’s co-designer, Major Patrick R. Reid M.B.E., M.C., had been been a prisoner at Colditz and had indeed escaped in 1942.

*Most of which have the actor John Mills in common…

It tied into our toys too. The game’s primary publisher, Parker Brothers, was owned by the American multinational, General Mills, as was Palitoy, the British toy company best known for Action Man, essentially the British equivalent of G.I. Joe. Numerous uniforms and outfits were manufactured for Action Man, including an Escape from Colditz Boxed Set, the contents a German Sentry outfit, Escape Officer outfit, escape equipment, forged documents, maps, card sentry box!

Of course, unlike other games that put the one or more players against the Germans, Escape from Colditz makes it personal. Those other games are typically war games like Squad Leader that play out at the impersonal squad-to-squad, tank-to-tank, battalion-to-battalion, or army-to-army level. Escape from Colditz places you at the head of an Escape Committee up against one player alone—whomever is playing the German security of the castle. And you hate him for it, just like you hate the Germans. Which was fine in the 1970s. Forty years on and it is no longer politically correct to hate the Germans—almost as if we have gone on a cultural diet. After all, the Second World War ended seventy years ago, the Germans are are an economic, rather than a military powerhouse, and arguably, the Germans lead the European Union. Nevertheless, that does not stop us from poking fun at the Germans, often relying on stereotypes and jokes that are a hangover from the war.

Playing the game almost forty years on is thus a different experience, more jokey, but still laced with many of the same clichés that the war engenders. It is also different experience because game design has moved on and we have been exposed to wider and better game design so that the flaws in Escape from Colditz are more apparent. The best that can be said here is Escape from Colditz offers more thematic than mechanical depth, but is still a very enjoyable game despite its flaws.

So in 2015, one wonders why the game is not in print? After all, any number of games have been reprinted and and updated from the 1980s, so why not this classic from the 1970s? It is no surprise that that an updated version was published in Spanish by Devir Games in 2006, since the sequel to the original, Después de Colditz, was published in Spanish in 1986. Yet there is no English language version currently in print. There can be no doubt that the game is ripe for an update—even if my long hoped version in which the Germans are controlled by the board and the Allies play in true co-operative fashion, is unlikely to happen, but with Fantasy Flight Games publishing a Spanish RPG, perhaps the time is right?

[Thanks to J-P Treen and his wife and his family for hosting my recent game.]

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