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ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ When I was asked to review the new Anniversary edition of this classic game, originally published by Parker Brothers,...





When I was asked to review the new Anniversary edition of this classic game, originally published by Parker Brothers, I was delighted.  My first thoughts were to go back to the original artwork to see how things might have changed and, if you compare the picture below with the following one of the original box art, you'll see a curious mixture of past and present.



Gone is the swastika to be replaced by the Prussian eagle - definitely a sign of changing times, attitudes and concerns about sensibilities.  Though Colditz Castle itself has become a much larger and more emphatic backdrop to the scene, I confess to preferring the smaller, but somehow more dominating image of the castle perched on its crag, white in the moonlight.  Yet the moon itself actually features in the new picture.  What are those POWs doing trying to escape on a night of a full moon?  Equally I prefer the focus of the older image on the two would-be escapers dominating the lower foreground in a much more dynamic pose.  Whereas, the anniversary edition's escapees are distinctly less impressive, especially with the startled expression of the left-hand figure and the overshadowing German guard. 

[It's worth noting that even early designs differed considerably.  For example, one UK Gibson's edition removed the swastika and any human figures, while retaining the castle on the hill and focusing on displaying the game contents.]

The attribution to the devisers of the game and particularly the reproduction of the signature of the key figure, P. R. Reid, are still there, but, not surprisingly, the mention of the T.V. series [which I watched assiduously at the time]  has been omitted.   Also left off the box is the reference to his two "memoir" books about his time and experiences in Colditz.  These are still worth your attention.

As a 75th Anniversary edition, the new production of the game by Osprey Games provides an excellent upgrade of what was a fairly ground breaking product for its time.  The typical larger, shallower box, easily prone to damage, has given way to a much more sturdy package.  Opening it, you're immediately struck even by the folded reverse side of the playing board, with its semi-embossed, golden title.

Opening the board out is a similar delight.  In essence very similar to the original board, the change from thick black lines to outline the walls and buildings of the castle to the 3D effect of the new depiction is one of the many small, but subtle changes.

Beneath the board, the rest of the contents are securely held in the substantial inserts, but the main packaging of the components has understandably been retained - a simulacrum of the Red Cross parcel that POWs received simply should not and has not been changed.

However, instead of mainly containing the 96 cards used in the game, inside are now the familiar, simple wooden pieces that represent the various nationalities of POWs and the German guards, along with a small sheet of Escape Attempt markers.

Two new small cardboard packages again featuring the Prussian eagle now contain the cards.   In essence these remain the same, including 16 Security cards, 47 Opportunity cards, 27 Escape Equipment cards, 5 Escape Kit cards and finally the 5 Do or Die cards [though those feature only if you choose to play with the original rules for the game.]

The Rule Booklet has been augmented by including alongside it a History Booklet as well.  The essential simplicity of the game can be judged both by the fact that the new Rule book encompasses both the original rules [4 pages] and the slightly extended new rules [11 pages] and in total these are still far fewer than the 30 pages of the history   

This historical material is largely drawn from Michael McNally's Colditz Oflag IV-C in Osprey's Fortress series.  As such, it is resplendent with coloured drawings and two very effective black and white period photos that substantially add to the atmosphere of the game. 

This picture especially of the inner courtyard captures the claustrophobic feeling of the towering walls, as well as the comparatively greater freedom the inmates of Colditz experienced at times.

This atmosphere is further augmented by the sketch that adorns the bottom of the game box.

As you should by now have realised, this anniversary edition is an all-embracing package, which celebrates and extends both the original game and the background that led to its original production.

As briefly commented on, you can be wholly nostalgic and simply play using the very same rules that I experienced for the first time back in the late 70s, a few years after its first publication. In reality, playing with the updated rules is virtually identical.  As the introduction spells out, the intentions have not been to use "decades of game development" to create a modern remake which would have led to "something entirely new."  Instead, I would describe what we have been given as a more thoroughly explained set of the original rules.  The ambiguities, uncertainties and inevitable arguments that accompanied playing the game have been ironed out.

There are only a few real differences.  The first is a form of game aid and that is the sets of Escape markers.  These help identify points in a POW pawn's escape route and simplify the task of remembering these points that are important for game play.  Then, the Do or Die cards are not used, unless you decide [as the option is given] to reintroduce them into the game!!  

The next small modification is that a set number of rounds [i.e. turns] is suggested for play.  Like the original, which suggested a set period of time to play the game, this can be adjusted at the players agreement.  In fact, one main element of Escape From Colditz from the very beginning has been its adaptability.  Perhaps because of its simplicity, the game has attracted many home-brewed variations and "house-rules."

What seems to me the strangest tweak is that each player is given a complete Escape Kit card to begin the game.  The logic of this seems slightly odd, as the major part of the game used to be spent in gathering the requisite four items [food, documents, disguise and a compass] to create an Escape Kit, as well as items such as wire cutters, rope, keys and passes to use on your route out of the castle.  Now a significant part of that task is done for you, though once again all is discretionary and you can dispense with this change as you wish.  

At top left, you can see the Personal Escape Kit card and the other cards show the range of other items you may need on the route to freedom.

It is also balanced by the fact that in the original game, once a player had created the Escape Kit, it remained with them and could be used by each subsequent POW attempting to escape.  Now you have to give it up after a successful POW escapes.  So, in a way it's just swings and roundabouts.  In the past, it took longer for your first POW to manage an escape and then quicker to get your next one out.  Now, it's quicker to get the first one out and slower to get the subsequent one out. 

A closer look at the interior of Colditz castle

Once again, the fluidity of this game's rules and intentions, both in its original and this most recent edition, can be seen in the winning conditions.  Originally, the winner was the player who first made two successful escapes and failing this being achieved in the time agreed by the players the winner was the player taking the role of the German Security Officer.  Today, it's still almost identical, we are told that the game ends either after 50 turns [not forgetting that, by player agreement, you can end the game after 40 rounds or any other number of turns chosen!] or after the first player makes two successful escapes.

This willingness to allow the players to negotiate their way to an agreed victory condition was a feature that often led to heated "discussions" at the start of a game and is something I've not experienced with any other game.  A corollary to this was the role of the Security Officer who was essentially expected to lose - the original rules even stated "it is virtually impossible to prevent a number of successful escapes."  So, for many players, it was often a sore point as to who would be willing to take on this  rather unforgiving task of trying your hardest to prevent any of the other players winning, knowing that you were unlikely to succeed and if you did would probably draw several players' wrath at having spent an afternoon or evening failing to win. 

Remember that the advent of cooperative games was still to come and this is a game of simple mechanics.  It seems fairly clear that the original designers had in mind that recreating the experience of being a POW of Colditz was the real appeal.  However, this aspect was very much down to the personalities of those you played the game with.  The "best" sessions I experienced of Escape from Colditz involved a humorous group who more or less invented unbeknown to themselves the T.V. series 'Allo, 'Allo - cartoon German accents and still upper lip British types abounded, with one person in particular keen to play the German Security Officer and bargain down the playing time and exploit every nuance of these simple rules in his favour.

To be honest, the basic nature of the game is rolling two dice, moving your pieces around to collect all the necessary cards to attempt an escape, sometimes cooperating with the other Escape Officers, sometimes not, all the while being repeatedly frustrated by the German Security Officer player's actions and card play.  At times it could be tedious, at times a hoot and, when those attempts to escape went down, some genuine tension and excitement was always generated, with all the POW players rooting for you, especially if it was one of those rarely successful, last gasp plays of a Do or Die card and the desperate die-rolling.

The inspiration behind Escape From Colditz

This new anniversary edition recreates all that with the addition of every physical item being just that bit better and that bit more colourful, without destroying the feel and flavour of the first production.  The guys at Osprey Games set out in their introduction all that they hoped to achieve for what they rightly call "this iconic game" and I've no hesitation in giving them full marks and congratulations.  You certainly did it!

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