Escape from Colditz: 75th Anniversary Edition Review

The board game market is awash with games using a World War II theme; take a moment to have a think and 4 or 5 will spring instantly to mind such as Axis & Allies, Memoir 44, or Combat Commander. One game that may not be at the forefront of your thoughts is what would now be classed as an outdated antique of a game that has had its day in the sun and should be satisfied with a quiet but satisfying dotage. I am talking about a game that was released in Britain in 1973 and at one point was selling more copies in Blightly than Monopoly. I am talking about a game that was created from actual ‘real life’ heroic events by people who carried out those acts of heroism and were fortunate enough to live to tell the tale (some were not so lucky). Today’s review is not simply of a standard, generic game with a wishy-washy WWII theme painted over it, but a game who’s very title resonates through the ages and is still a great source of intrigue and interest worldwide.

Today’s review takes you deep behind enemy lines, surrounded by German soldiers, to a medieval castle complete with towers, ramparts and even a moat. A castle that is said to be impregnable; you have no weapons, no tools, no supplies and no hope of rescue. You have already tried to escape from at least one German Prisoner of War camp, and being moved here is your reward. Will you ever see your family again? Will you be shot dead on the cobbled stone castle floor? Can the impossible be achieved? Can you…..Escape from Colditz?

Having heard of the original game but never having the chance to play it, I was delighted when I learned that I would be reviewing Osprey Games’ 2016 75th anniversary edition of Escape from Colditz. Being a history buff, I was able to think far more about the actual events than the game itself prior to receiving it, but I did know at least one thing about the game and it was something that I was very concerned about, that being that Colditz uses a ‘role & move’ mechanic which is a mechanism that is severely outdated and one now primarily used in children’s games. I would proceed with caution with this one, I think.

So, what does actually playing the game consist of? Colditz is a 2-6 player game, whereby 1-5 players will act as escape officers and try to get their prisoners of war (POWs) out of the castle by various ingenious methods such as tunnelling, using fake documents and even stealing the Commander’s car. One player will always take on the role as the security officer (Germans) who will use his men to arrest or kill the POWs, search rooms for contraband and generally try and stay one step ahead of the Escapees.

Each game is measured in rounds and can last anywhere up to seventy, although this can be adjusted depending on how competent the escape officers are. 2-3 hours is generally an average playtime, although the number of rounds will affect this greatly; in a 70 round game that goes to the wire, you are certainly looking at 3 hours plus. The publishers, Osprey Games, have recommended this for players 14 & over, but this is definitely excessive. With the smallest of guidance, children from 8-10 upwards will grasp Colditz when playing with an adult given the simplistic mechanics and easy to learn rules, which is certainly a major plus point.

We will discuss more about the gameplay later, but for now let’s looks at the components.

The first thing that will strike you about Escape from Colditz is the production value, which is absolutely off the chart. The saying ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ is certainly proved incorrect with this one, as it looks amazing and actually feels like an old game rather than a brand new one. There are so many parts of Colditz that Osprey could have cut back on but thankfully have left alone. As someone who has created his own board game, I know that to have boxes within boxes is expensive. I also know that plastic is very cheap, hence the reason it is found in almost every game that we own in some shape or form.  Osprey seems to have ignored both of these points since, as with the original, the game comes with a Red Cross Prisoner’s Parcel box to house the components, and the only piece of plastic that you will find in the game is actually the inlay of that Parcel box. Aesthetically, Colditz impresses me immensely, and I have only just opened the box.

Talking of the box, the artwork that is its front cover is just as moody and dramatic as the original without the presence of the offending Swastika that actually stopped printing of the old game for a short time.

The scene depicts two officers, one which is the unmistakable moustached Major Reid himself hiding in shrubbery as several German soldiers search for the escapees; the moon is full and Colditz Castle looms ominously in the background. No bright, in your face, easy to see on a shelf box here, then.

Inside the bottom half of the box is a hand drawn map of Colditz Castle complete with wall heights, fenced areas, guard posts and prisoner accommodation. Again, something that 99% of games would never have, artwork to decorate the inside of the box that is actually covered by a card inlay.  Osprey showing their class once again.

The box, which is very sturdily crafted from thick board, contains a cardboard inlay that is perfectly designed to house the parcel box and two sets of cards which are also wrapped in simple but fitting tuck boxes. Written on the inlay is information about the Red Cross prisoner parcels as well as a tribute for the work that they do. I could mention ‘touch of class’ again, but I won’t.

The board is massive and is as visually impressive as the rest of the game.  From a bird’s eye view it shows Colditz Castle, from the inner & outer courtyards complete with various rooms and hideaways to its watch towers, daunting walls and razor sharp barbed wire.

Search lights cover some of the outer areas which prevent POWs from ending their turns in those spaces. Across the board several of the spaces are either highlighted in black (guards may not end their turns on this space) or white (POWs must move to this space during an escape attempt) as well as many others such as when a key or ID pass is required to be used. This makes it extremely easy to play and really helps with the flow of the gameplay; it also allows younger players to participate. On the extremities of the board is a round counter which obviously tracks the game but also allows for the difficulty to be adjusted.

The rule book is very simply done and is clear and concise throughout. Given that there aren’t that many rules, players will fly through it in five or ten minutes.  Complete with a diagram of the board and FAQs, it’s a very easy read. Osprey has even included the original rules for an alternative experience. Hint: Stick to the new ones, they’re slicker, easier and just plain better.

At this point I won’t talk about all the different types of cards included, as I see no need; however, the cards in general are of very good quality and fit well with the tone and feel that Colditz projects. The art is certainly not ‘in your face’, but instead it is conservative, simple and to the point. All text is clear, and it is easy to read and understand.

As I have mentioned above, the majority of the playing components come in an authentic looking Red Cross Prisoners Parcel which I think I am right in saying arrived every month or so and contained chocolate, corned beef and several other items that would supplement the prisoners’ meagre prison diets. The importance of these parcels to the POWs seems to have been immense, which is why I assume Reid and Degas included them in their original game to which Osprey have honoured.

Inside the box are wooden pawns for the five different nations which are the British, American, French, Polish and Dutch as well as black pawns which represent the German soldiers or security officers as they are referred to in this game. With these there are escape tokens for each nation and a round counter; all components are nicely sectioned off via the inlay, and there is even a space for the two dice.

Also, there are a few little treats inside the box that I won’t spoil for you, but they further add to the dramatic effect that Escape from Colditz has on its players.

Playing the game is relatively straightforward with all the escape officers starting in the safe Apel area of the inner courtyard. Each Officer takes their turn independently and has a set number of pawns available to move if they choose.  Players gain movement points by rolling two D6 and totalling the result which can be used entirely on one pawn or split between many.

Via the inner courtyard escape officers can access various rooms which will allow them to make escape equipment. For example, the dentist and showers allow for the making of keys, whilst in the sick bay and kitchen players can fashion wire cutters. The other two pieces of equipment that can be made are rope and an ID pass. All of these pieces of escape equipment can be obtained by placing either two pawns in the same room or having one pawn in both corresponding rooms.

Escape officers can stack as much equipment as they like and will indeed need a fairly substantial amount depending on which method of escape they attempt.  They can also trade equipment with other escape officers, although players must do this with caution as Colditz is not a cooperative game where everyone is against the security officer. The first to escape with two pawns is the winner.

The other item that escape officers must consider building is a personal escape kit, which is required to successfully escape, and consists of a disguise, compass, documents and food. These are gained in the same way as other escape equipment by having pawns in matching rooms, but players may only hold one personal escape kit at any one time.

A quick example of an escape could be that the British escape officer has a pawn in the canteen area. After rolling a decent dice total (rolling doubles allows players to roll again up to three rolls), he decides to make a run for it. First, he must use one rope card to climb over the first 30 ft. wall. Dodging the search lights, he then uses another rope card for a second wall. Once over, the POW has two options, the first is to use some wire cutters to cut through the barbed wire, or if he has a key and an ID pass, he can walk through two checkpoints and flee to safety via one of seven escape spaces on the outskirts of the board.  The danger, however, is not what is in front of him; it’s the guards that can use the same pieces of equipment left behind to pursue the POW. From this point on it’s a pure ‘race mechanic’ with the possibility of a handy card being played as well.

So, what about gameplay from the security officer’s point of view? On his turn they will receive the same two dice and gain/use movement in the same way. The security officer will look to arrest any POW that has escape equipment on them or any POW that has strayed outside of the inner courtyard. Once a POW is arrested, they are sent straight to solitary (requiring a double roll to be released), and the security officer reports to the commander’s office (waiting to be re-deployed). In this way it forces players to move around the board rather than camp to protect certain exits etc., so again, this gives the game a nice fresh look every round or two.

Both the escape officers and the security officer have their own deck or cards (opportunity & security) which assist them along the way. By rolling five or less, a player may draw from the deck, holding a maximum of 3 cards at any one time. These cards might allow a POW to hide escape equipment, bribe a guard for equipment or have a prisoner released from solitary.

The security officer has a pretty cool card called ‘shoot to kill’ that allows him to gun down an escaping POW (should the dice be favourable). For the escape officers it’s a pretty brutal feeling when you think you are home & dry before a smiling security officer produces that card. No one said this was going to be easy, did they?!

Designer: Brian Degas, Major Pat Reid

Publisher: Osprey Games

Artist: Peter Dennis

Release Date: October 2016

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