Designed by: Bob Brechin, Brian Degas, Major P.R. Reid M.B.E., M.C.
Published by: Osprey Games
Time to Play: 180 Minutes
Despite having reviewed a fair number of board games now on this site, I’ve not once reviewed a game where you roll dice to move. It wasn’t something I had thought about until I played Escape from Colditz. Even though my childhood was filled with games like Monopoly where you had to roll dice to move, that particular mechanic has been mostly fazed out of the modern board game industry. Turns out a lot of people don’t like having something as simple as moving dictated by fickle dice.
Escape from Colditz is a product of a different time, though. It does indeed have dice which will be tossed across the table every single turn, and as such a large portion of its gameplay comes down to getting really bloody lucky, or being screwed over by hooded specter of Chance. It’s a throwback to a different era, but it still manages to stand firm.
Here’s the idea; 1-5 players will take on the role of Escape Officers who must get two of their colored POW pawns out of Colditz castle, escaping into the wilderness and hopefully to safety. They must do this in fifty rounds, and attempting to stop them is a Security Officer who takes control of the numerous black German playing pieces, the guards of the castle who must arrest POWs and generally just try to make sure they don’t manage to break out in spectacular fashion.
What intrigues me the most about Escape from Colditz is the blend of competitive and co-operative gameplay. On the one hand, it’s every man and woman for themselves as only one person can technically win, but on the other hand as an Escape Officer it feels like you and your comrades against the German guards. In most instances, I found that as the game drew to a close if it was clear that only one or two Escape Officers had a chance of winning everybody else would ditch their own attempts to escape in favor or helping those players. Escape items can be traded at will so the last few rounds would see people desperately tossing cards across the table, and sacrificing their pieces to clear a path for whomever had the best chance of making it out. Everybody wants to win, but nobody wants to see the Security Officer come out on top. In fact you could even play it as a co-operative game from the start, although I imagine whoever is playing as the German’s would not be very appreciative of that choice.
The board itself is split into three primary areas; the inner courtyard, the outer courtyard and outside the castle itself. This is important because the location of a playing piece determines what can be done. For example, in the inner courtyard a German guard can only arrest a POW if that POW’s Escape Officer happens to be holding escape equipment, such as a rope. Meanwhile outside of the castle itself a POW can always be arrested since they aren’t supposed to be there.
Let’s start with the inner courtyard, since that’s where you begin. In the center is an appel area, which is completely safe; any POW here can’t be bothered for some unknown reason. On the edge of the courtyard is a series of rooms that are the source of the many pieces of equipment you’ll need to make your escape, each one bearing a symbol like rope, wire cutters or papers. To get one of these items you need to have two POWs in one of the rooms, or one in each of the two rooms with the symbol. With that done you simply announce that you’re making the item, take the appropriate card and then put both POWs back into the appel.
Once you’ve got your mitts on some gear you’ve got to be careful, though, because at that point guards can arrest you within the inner courtyard. An arrest is made by a guard simply moving into the same space as a POW, at which point the POW is sent to solitary. There’s only two ways for a player to get their pieces out of solitary; either through the use of an Opportunity card, or by rolling doubles, at which point a single point of movement can be used to release a POW.
If you’re captured outside of the main courtyard not only do you have to lose a random piece of equipment but you’ll also be sent to the outer solitary building. This is troublesome because when you roll a double and release one of your pieces all of your remaining movement points have to be spent to move that piece back into the inner courtyard, or else it becomes eligible for being arrested yet again. Of course, if no guard happens to be nearby and you still have some equipment left it could be the perfect opportunity for an escape attempt.
But there is an upside to being arrested: any German guard that arrests a player’s piece is sent to the commander’s office afterward. At the end of the Security Officer’s turn a guard is then moved from the office over to the barracks where they can then be redeployed at the cost of one movement point to any guard post. This essentially takes one guard out of the game for an entire turn, which is exactly why it’s also possible to get deliberately arrested by ramming one of your pieces into a guard, basically starting a fight in order to remove one of the Security Officer’s pieces. A smart player can use this to clear the way for an escape, hopefully giving them the time needed to pull off something spectacular.
Speaking of which let’s talk about actually making an escape. Spaces with a number on them indicate that a rope is needed, either one for space marked 30 or two for those marked 60. Inspection points can be walked through provided you have some papers, while locked doors can be sorted out with a key, obviously. There’s also fences where wire cutters will make a handy-dandy exit, presumably in a humorous human shape. Whatever way you choose to go you’ll have to spend the appropriate piece of equipment to do it, so if you clamber out a window that’s your rope gone. Likewise, if you venture through a door you can’t just take the key with you for some reason, so best be sure the plan is going to work out or else you’ll be wasting time and resources.
Whenever you move through a window or use wire-cutters and escape token will be placed there which allows any of your pawns to use those escapes without needing to spend the corresponding equipment type. Other players can’t make use of these, though, for reasons that will never be explained. You’ve got to be careful, however, because guards can also follow you through windows and holes in the fence, and can opt to remove the token as they do so, cutting off the escape route. Another reason to be careful is that escape markers allow guards to enter the rooms around the edge of the inner courtyard, which are normally off limits to them. Obviously, doors and inspection points don’t need escape markers, but guards are free to pass through them.
Once you make it outside of the castle itself there’s also search lights to avoid, shown on the board as orangey yellow spaces. Should any POW end the turn in one of these spaces they are immediately sent to solitary, so avoiding them is obviously a case of hoping you’ll roll well.
Speaking of rolling grabbing those dice and chucking them across the table grants the possibility of picking up an Opportunity card for the Escape Officers or a Security Card for whoever is controlling the guards. Roll a movement of five or lower and you can draw a card. These cards add a little extra layer to the game, introducing stuff like tunnels, quickly traveling to rooms or even letting guards shoot a POW outside of the castle, removing that piece entirely from the game. Each player can only hold three cards at any time, though, which creates plenty of moments where you have to carefully choose what to use and what to discard.
Yup, everything comes back to rolling those dice. The random movement can create some dramatic scenarios, but it can also leave you feeling incredibly angry. Several times I executed wonderful escape plans, timed to perfection so that the Security Officer was busy dealing with other players, and yet despite having a seemingly clear run with the nearest guard some distance away a simple change of fortune lost me the game. It’s frustrating to come so close to winning because you played well, and then lose because of a bad roll or two. And yet…on the other hand, the unpredictability it creates can be a boon. As infuriating as it can be for the player who gets taken down, watching the Security Officer suddenly rolling doubles and sprinting madly across the board to tackle a POW about to escape is kind of cool. The dice also create a few pacing issues in two players games because it can get to a point where the Escape Officer is just waiting to roll a high enough number to get across the yard without being arrested or to do something else. With more players this becomes less of a situation since somebody should almost always be getting a chance to advance their plans, but it’s still not perfect.
And do you know what else is cool? The interaction between players. For starters the only truly hidden information is what Security and Opportunity cards are being held, so the Security Officer is always aware of what equipment players are picking up. It becomes a game of bluffing and patiently waiting. If you just grab a couple of ropes and head for the nearest window it’s rather obvious what your plans are and the Security Officer will react accordingly. It’s better to start gathering extra equipment before also ramming a few POWs into guards in order to clear the better. And then there’s the fact that timing your own escape while another player tries to execute their plan will provide the distraction you need, although the Security Officer does have a lot of guards at his or her disposal so they can split forces. It creates a fun atmosphere where everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the first move. There can be long periods of relative peace in Escape from Colditz followed by an explosion of action triggered by one person deciding to launch their plan.
To wrap up this review I have to stop and chat about the packaging because it’s clear Osprey wanted to make this game feel a little bit special. It starts with the lid itself which is thick and actually quite weighty. Inside you’ll find not only the rules but a history book as well that provides some background on the real Colditz castle. Underneath the board sits a brown box that’s one in the style of a red Cross parcel. You also get a couple of other cool historical items, including a postcard that was written by one of the prisoners. It’s a beautiful presentation that feels like it was done to pay some respect to the very real people and events this game is based upon. It’s also nice to see the game’s original rules included as well, in case you fancy trying those out.
So let’s bring this sloppy review together, shall we? I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Escape from Colditz. With its little colored pawns and dice it feels like a jump back in time, but the way its gameplay mechanics come together create some really fun scenarios. The player interaction is what really makes it enjoyable, though. There’s a great sense of camaraderie and yet mistrust amongst the Escape Officers, and as the Security Officer attempting to keep everyone under control is really fun. I can’t say it’s brilliant or one of my favorite games and therefore I don’t feel it quite earns a full recommendation sticker. I don’t think it’s one of those games I would tell you that you need to play or go out and buy. But it is damn good, and if the theme appeals to you then go for it. Just make sure you’ve got about 3-4 people to play it.