Escape from Colditz (the 1973 board game)   Leave a comment

For my regular readers wondering “where are the old adventure games?” and perhaps pining after ghastly parsers and erratic typos, rest assured they will return soon; I just happened to hit a game in my sequence that took an abnormal amount of background-building to write about it.

For this was Colditz and these prisoners were the bad types, undesirables in the eyes of German High Command. Many of them had already established reputations as disturbers of the peace with their frequent attempts to get out of captivity. That was why they were sent to us.

— from Reinhold Eggers, Colditz; the German side of the story

In addition to “escape-proof” design sensibilities, Colditz Castle was for Prisoner of War officers. By the Geneva Convention, general enlisted men as POWs could be used for labor, while officers could not.

From Pat Reid’s book — we’ll get to him in a moment.

It had multiple Appells (roll calls) a day where all prisoners went to the courtyard for a head count.

If you squint at the floor plan, you’ll see the aforementioned courtyard, but also a canteen, sick ward, chapel, and theatre. Yes, the prisoners put on plays. Some grew their hair longer to play female parts.

Amidst all this, the prisoners of war and German guards were playing a game, of sorts. Both sides considered it the duty of Allied officers to attempt escape, and it was the duty of the guards to stop them. Punishment for being caught escaping was a month in solitary, not death. By all accounts, Reinhold Eggers, the security officer in charge of Colditz, treated all escape attempts with good humor, although he made sure to take pictures and pass them on to other POW camps when something new was attempted.

When Pat Reid (Royal Army Service Corps) arrived, he had already made one escape attempt from Oflag VII-C (Laufen castle in Bavaria) involving a 24-foot tunnel. At his arrival at Colditz, he attempted a second escape attempt with 12 prisoners, this time going through a sewer pipe, but the guard he bribed had warned his comrades and they were waiting.

As was the traditional punishment, he spent a month in solitary confinement; after leaving he accepted the position of Escape Officer and helped with other escape plans before finally making an escape himself in October 1942. He went in a pit, through a cellar, and out a flue, using the Singen route to make it all the way to Switzerland.

Pat Reid is perhaps the most famous escapee because he wrote about his exploits in his memoirs, which later got turned into a 1955 movie…

From IMDB.

…and then a 1971-1973 BBC series.

From Nostalgia Central.

A writer for the series (Brian Degas) teamed up with Bob Brechin and Pat Reid himself to make a board game, Escape from Colditz.

Picture by Gary James, Attribution Share Alike.

The map for the board follows roughly the real floor plan. The setup is asymmetrical: one guard player, four Allied players, each playing an Escape Officer trying to help their men escape. Movement is done via dice, and the objective of the Allied players is to collect an Escape Kit of Compass, Food, Disguise, and Papers (each represented by a card) before making a final break for freedom. The objective of the guard is to stop that from happening (in the original version, within a certain real amount of time; on a more recent reprinting, within a certain number of turns).

From an old eBay auction.

While the game was quite popular on release, roll-and-move (think, ex: Clue) was the norm. Modern players (including, to be fair, myself) don’t have as much tolerance for highly random mechanics, but I still think Escape from Colditz is a narratological marvel. Gameplay and theme are not only tightly wound but the involvement of an actual Escape Officer meant heightened verisimilitude. I sometimes wonder: if tabletop RPGs hadn’t spawned from standard wargames, but they were still invented, where would they come from? It seems like a small jump from narrative board games — in Escape from Colditz the players are characters in an asymmetrical setup, just like Dungeons and Dragons — to dropping the board and having story scenes start to trump mechanics.

According to the CASA database, Colditz spawned 9 different adventure games. Escape from Colditz (1981) is the first, sharing a title with the board game, and is indeed based on it. I’ll get more into the relationship between the two (and how good the game itself is) next time.

Posted April 27, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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