Retro Review - Escape From Colditz By Parker Brothers (1973)
Antony Brown is a games analyst and inventor who writes regularly on board games. His Retro Reviews take a nostalgic look at games of the past. This article looks at the classic Escape From Colditz from the 1970s.
"I can think of no sport that is the peer of escape," wrote Major Pat Reid, inventor of Escape From Colditz, "where freedom, life, and loved ones are the prizes of victory, and death the possible though by no means the inevitable price of failure."
Pat Reid was interned within the "fortress" of Colditz Castle for nearly two years. Based on his experiences, he wrote several books which formed the basis of a BBC TV drama series, starring David McCallum, Edward Hardwicke and Robert Wagner, a film starring John Mills, and this game published by Parker in 1973. But without the high stakes of freedom, life and loved ones, does escape make a great game?
The game is well produced. It's piece de resistance is the large, colourful board showing an authentic plan of Colditz Castle. The game also has an unusual play mechanism, which is reflected in the 31 separate rules that govern play. One player becomes the Security Officer, whose objective is to thwart all escape attempts. Up to five players take on the role of Escape Officers, whose objective is to become the first to achieve one or more escapes. The actual winning condition, the number of escapes, is agreed between the players. A better option is probably agreeing a time limit, say an hour, at the end of which the player with the most escapes is the winner; or, if none escape, the Security Officer wins.
The Security Officer uses black pawns while each Escape Officers uses a set of coloured pawns. Movement is controlled by the dice but players can divide up the throw between as many pawns as they like. To make an escape, a player must collect a civilian escape kit (food, disguise, documents and compass) and collect equipment that will facilitate the bid for freedom (keys, German passes, wire cutters, and rope). For example, a rope card is required to climb out of windows and over parapets. The height of these drops are indicated on the board. For example, a "60" by an outside wall means a 60ft rope card is required to get an escapee over the wall.
Using the necessary equipment for the chosen escape route, an escapee must then proceed to one of seven targets marked outside the perimeters of the castle and without getting shot or stopped by the guards and sent to solitary confinement.
The escape kit and equipment are obtained by moving pawns into specified rooms simultaneously or by obtaining relevant opportunity cards, which are collected when a player rolls a 3, 7 or 11. Opportunity cards also allow a player undertake useful actions, such as bribing a sentry, release from solitary confinement, to use tunnels or try an escape attempt using the staff car.
In the foreground is a picture of Pat Reid in his escape outfit.
The Security Officer must watch the players and use his guards to thwart the players getting the equipment they need. He is aided by security cards, also collected when he throws a 3, 7 or 11. These allow him to call an Appel (a roll call in which all players must return to the courtyard), search particular rooms, give shoot to kill orders and detect tunnels.
There are also five black Do Or Die cards, one is distributed face down to each Escape Officer at the start of the game. These allow a player to make one desperate escape bid without any equipment. The player has between 3 and 7 dice throws to get his escapee out of the main gate and to one of the targets - but a player will not know how many throws he needs until he has decided to use the card. Failure means the escapee is dead and the player is out of the game.
The packaging of the game is excellent - the 96 cards come in a replica Red Cross prisoner parcel box, a leave permit adorns the cover of 16-page illustrated booklet that provides information about Colditz (taken from the first few pages of Reid's book The Colditz Story), and the front cover of the rules is a copy of the leaflet distributed to all prisoners of war, proclaiming that escape from prison is no longer a sport! Clearly Reid took no notice.
The game has an allure about it, a sombre feel of authenticity, largely because Reid himself, along with three others, escaped from Colditz in October 1942. Reid thought the escape plan simplistic and doomed to failure but would rather attempt something than do nothing. Carrying suitcases, they slipped through the camp kitchens, scuttled over roof tops, into the German yard, into a cellar, and crawled through a tiny flue - it was so small they had to strip naked to manoeuvre through it.
It had taken a painstaking 12 hours of patience, nerve and physical hardship to make it outside of the castle walls but this was just the easy bit. They split into pairs for the hardest part: to travel hundreds of miles through enemy territory to Switzerland and freedom. Now Reid's insistence that they carried suitcases paid off. Only fugitives and railway officials travel empty-handed, he had told his escape partners, and the Germans know an escaped prisoner will travel light with bulging pockets. Also, by filling the suitcase with German food, boot polish and soap, as well as other useful items such as razors and pyjamas, the suitcase provided credibility to the case histories that they were foreign construction workers travelling to Rottweil, a town near the Swiss border. A picture of Reid in his escape outfit is shown above.
However, Reid made a cardinal mistake at Zwickau railway station. After some initial difficulty buying train tickets he turned triumphantly to his companion and said loudly in English: "I've got the tickets!" It could have cost them dearly but they still managed to get to Switzerland.
Even freedom came with a price. The first night outside Colditz Reid and his companion hid in a copse. "I mused for a long time over the queer twists that Fate gives our lives," he later wrote. "Inside the camp the probability of early failure in the escape was so great that we brushed aside any serious thought of a long parting from our friends. Here in the woods it was different. If I did my job properly from now on, it was probable that I would never go back to Colditz. I was rather shaken by the thought, realizing for the first time what these men meant to me. I prayed we all might survive the war and meet again."
But not all his friends would make it. Some would die in failed escape bids; a thought that gives a chilling poignancy to the Do Or Die cards.
Verdict: Excellent components and idosyncratic game play make this a superlative retro game.