Review: Escape from Colditz

Just a few of the pieces included in Escape from Colditz.

Length 180 Minutes

Release Date 1973 (Original) 2016 (Osprey Games Reprint)
Designers: Bob Brechin, Brian Degas, Major P.R. Reid M.B.E., M.C.
Artists: Antonio Catalán, Peter Dennis
Publisher: Osprey Games
Category: Adventure, World War II
Players: 2-6
Price: $35.81 Amazon
Colditz Castle was a German prisoner of war camp for Allied officers who had successfully escaped from other German camps. Located in Colditz, Germany, the Nazi party began use of the castle in 1933, and began using it specifically for Allied prisoners in 1939, near the onset of World War II. Colditz was a brilliant castle from the renaissance period, posted high and surrounded by a precipice, meaning escape was extremely difficult and likely fatal. This was a place where 20 armed guards could be released on a moment’s notice. The castle was designed and repurposed to beat down the morale and wit of those within the walls.

Modern day Colditz Castle in 2011.
(By Lowgoz at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58429587)

Colditz hosted many nationalities of prisoners, including British, Polish, French, and Dutch officers. Major P.R. Reid was a British prisoner in the camp who has since written two books on Colditz and the war. Because the prisoners in Colditz were ‘professional escapees’ of other Nazi camps, Reid describes a strange air of mutual respect between the prisoners and the German security officers. Those escape officers who led each of their groups of soldiers to vacate the prison would never escape themselves, instead assisting with devising the plot for their brethren to find safety away from Colditz. Reid writes, “The desire to escape was paramount among the men of Colditz.”
On October 14, 1942, Reid made his escape with a group of other British officers. To escape, they cut the window bars of the kitchen, ran unseen through spotlights, crawled naked through an air shaft, and escaped through a dry moat. Splitting into pairs, Reid and three other officers crossed the Swiss border between October 18-20.
Reid’s books inspired screenwriter and producer Brian Degas to produce a television series on Castle Colditz. Later, Escape from Colditz was born, designed and tested by Degas. One of Degas’ first games of Escape from Colditz was actually played by Reid and a few of his fellow Colditz officers. The original game was published in 1973 by Parker Brothers and Gibsons Games.
Osprey Games has now reprinted Escape from Colditz. This edition of the game is truly as closely similar to the original as possible, with minor updates to maintain modernity, but follows original mechanisms to keep Escape from Colditz true to the original edition. Players will find rules for this updated version, but can use rules included in the original game as well.
Osprey Games is an imprint of Osprey Publishing, originally established in 1969. Osprey Publishing is a longtime book publisher, including many prints of war games and tactical historical military titles. Osprey Games first printed board game was The King is Dead, and has also published titles such as Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, Frostgrave, Odin’s Ravens, and the upcoming reprint of London by Martin Wallace.

Content Guide

Escape from Colditz is an entirely interesting concept morally. Two teams play the game, so a smattering of players will control escape officers, while their opponent will solely control the German officers. Considering the raw brutality of the Nazi regime, some might feel uncomfortable with the theme behind the gameplay. One will not find offensive artwork, however, and the game relies more on the thrill of the escape instead of the violence associated with World War II.

Review

My interest in Escape From Colditz was piqued on hearing about it from multiple other media creators. One reviewer said, “Playing this game brought back all of my old memories of rolling dice and collecting equipment to escape from my jerk friend who played as the Germans.” The idea of a brilliant company like Osprey, taking an old game like Colditz, and renewing it for modern play was compelling.

Just a few of the pieces included in Escape from Colditz.

I’ve since played both roles on table: one, the slow pace of planning and execution of escape as the Allied officers; and two, the dastardly progression of positioning German officers at key locations to stop the POWs. I’ve experienced the heights of busting free from the confines of Colditz, and the lows of only escaping one prisoner, only to have the other gunned down maliciously by a cunning German player with the perfect card in hand.
Escape from Colditz is a 2-6 player game of escape and intrigue. One player controls a slew of German security officers, whose objective is to run the game out of rounds, disabling the other players from escaping. The other players command an individual small squad of escape officers, who can win on their own by escaping two of their pawns in a single turn.
Each round begins with the player to the left of the German player. On a player’s turn, they will roll two dice and distribute moves between their officers as they see fit. Upon rolling doubles, that player will roll again (and potentially a third time), adding their totals for a gigantic move across the board. If a player rolls five or under, they will be able to draw an opportunity card (or security card if playing as the Germans).
For the Allied officers, these cards represent the once-in-a-lifetime chances to sprint through the tunnel they’ve finished digging, or the chance to avoid a search conducted by the Germans. The German player can use their cards to appell (roll call), shoot prisoners on the run, search rooms, and other things that complicate escape.

These are the opportunity cards the escape officers will need for success.

Arresting players can be done through cards, but typically, the German player must move one of their pawns onto the space of an escape officer. This bumps the Allied pawn into solitary confinement, which is hardly ever solitarily occupied. The German pawn is then sent to the administration building to fill out paperwork. Only at the end of the German player’s turn will that pawn go to the barracks. From the barracks, the security officer player can disperse his pawns onto any of the guard post spaces on the board. This can happen vice versa, where the security officer can rescind their troops, only to dispense them again on their next turn. Thematically, assembling your small army of pawns recreates the agility the German officers had around Colditz. Quickly mobilizing for attempted escapes.
With so many Germans, and so few Allied troops, the escape officers must pay close attention to where their opponent focuses their forces. But not all roads lead to failure in Colditz Castle.
The escape officers must visit the many rooms of the inner courtyard, gathering various supply cards like ropes and keys. Ultimately, these officers must gather the parts to an escape equipment kit. This requires a disguise, a passport, food, and a map. Only once that player has assembled these pieces (by standing in each room that supplies them, or playing opportunity cards that create them) can they escape from the castle.

Many prisoners in solitude.

Escape from Colditz feels weirdly more thematic than one should expect from a game decades old. Even more, typically, keeping in stride with outdated mechanics, like roll-and-move, are never of benefit to a game. Osprey has taken pride in keeping Escape from Colditz as familiar and similar to the original as possible. This is both good and bad, and I never thought I’d say it, but I don’t hate rolling to move in Escape from Colditz.
You have to keep in mind, unlike others, I had never touched or heard of this game until a few months ago. Of course, I grew up rolling dice in Monopoly, so I’m quite familiar with the dice mechanics of doubles and things like that.
These things said, Colditz creates a mysticism around each game. You’ll sit down and spend half the game collecting all the equipment you need. You’ll roll three sets of doubles in a row, as if the first roll enchanted the dice, letting you bust out big movements and breach solitary to release your officers. You’ll bum rush a German officer to get one of your Allied friends into the chapel. You’ll probably get blocked off into a safe room by two security officers, waiting for them to adjust position so you can get your man back.

Presentation is king in this box.

Eventually, you’ll reach a point in the game where you steal glances at your friends in the room. Quietly, you’ll eye specific areas of the board together. You’ll probably trade face down cards with the Dutch. Allied officers position themselves around the board, everyone waiting for one specific moment: two or three doubles in a row.
Thematically, did the Allied officers wait for a German guard to turn their back? Were they waiting to dig the last few feet of a tunnel?
No one knows, but once a player rolls big, all hell breaks loose. All at once, if they were prepared, players begin exploding from the castle walls, dropping rope, running from spotlight to spotlight, cutting wire, and more. The German player was only able to respond to some of the Allied officers, but too many made a tear for the exit. Maybe this wasn’t your scenario. Maybe in a different game, only one player burst free into the outer courtyard. Maybe they cut through the wire, making it only a few steps away from freedom. Maybe the German player played “shoot to kill,” rolled 12, and blasted away the officer, killing the pawn for the rest of the game.
I’ll never forget the incredible roll my friend Andrew pulled off. In one turn, he escaped onto the rooftop and made a mad dash for the my patrol car. He was able to get two pawns into the car, play the car card, rolled extremely high, and escaped from Colditz. It was all over in a single turn.

My recreation of Andrew’s daring escape. I was too injected with adrenaline to take a photo at the time.

These moments are monumental. They create stories you won’t soon forget. The buildup over 50 rounds is intense, and provides a catalyst for the climatic and inevitable escape attempts. The first half of the game is always slow and plodding, but the second half develops wonderful tactical play.
This simulates the luck of escape in the real world of Colditz. Reid and others have described the pacing and timeliness of attempting your escape from the castle. You have no choice but to act on the moments provided you. Sure, there must be months of planning to pull off an escape, but waiting for the opportune moment is pivotal to success.
This is also to the detriment of the game. It will take quite awhile to line up your escape. Because the board isn’t variable, you can likely develop the same strategy for each game, or just try to escape from a different part of the castle. All of this can lead to monotonous preparation where you return to the same rooms, get the same gear, and hope for good opportunity cards. This makes for long games, and it’s defeating when you only have ten rounds left, and you need to gather more cards before you have a shot to escape. I’m talking at least 2.5 hour games, maybe two hours if people play quickly.
I hope to try a drafting variant at some point in the future, where you begin at round 35 and each draft two escape cards and two opportunity cards. You lose the setup of the game by doing this, so I’m unsure of the consequences for the experience. It would at least cut down on game time, but I’m already cautious to house rule.

The historical bits included in the game.

Furthermore, rolling to move can be a heartbreaker. I’ve seen players roll a worthless 6 or 7 many times in a row. It’s not enough to move from the safety circle to one of the rooms (safety), and it’s not few enough to draw an opportunity card. This is a legitimate criticism, both of the game and the mechanic. Opportunity cards help to soften the blow of yet another mediocre roll, but the wait for a big roll to guarantee a higher success rate can be frustrating.
I appreciate the attention to maintaining this old game, however. If you don’t see it in the mechanisms, you’ll see it in the components. You’ll be playing with tiny cardboard chits, symbolizing your escape equipment at work. The old school pawns and movement grid have a decades-old feel to them. The card illustrations fall off into a white gradient, reminding us of a past life of design and artistry. The board itself and rulebook pay homage to the original game.
One of the neatest inclusions with Osprey’s edition of Escape from Colditz are the included historical documents. One will find a history book, as well as prints of postcards and news articles. You’ll find fascinating commentary from Major Reid on life in Colditz, and the way guards interacted with their prisoners. If you dig out the insert, you’ll find a scribbled-together map of the castle. The game simply drips with historical pride.
Osprey has paid respects to the POWs and has certainly exceeded expectations. This is another wonderfully assembled title from Osprey Games, with many ounces of care poured into every aspect of the game.
A review copy of Escape from Colditz was provided by Osprey Games for a review of the game.

The Bottom Line

Escape from Colditz is another solid production from Osprey Games. The game shows its age, but still creates tense storytelling moments.

 

7.5