Escape from Colditz as Procedurally Paced Narrative

Escape from Colditz is a board game about the German castle that during World War II became a prisoner of war camp for prisoners who had already escaped at least once from some other camp. The idea of putting all the most clever and resourceful prisoners together in an old building riddled with hiding places and odd physical quirks was, arguably, not the brightest; those imprisoned found an astounding number of escape possibilities, and the whole story became the basis of a surprisingly strong British TV show. The board game doesn’t touch on the more complex issues here, but what it does accomplish is in its own way remarkable: a skillful pacing of events that creates a sense of growing narrative urgency.

There is one player who commands the German security forces; all other players (one or many) control nationalities of prisoner. The pawns move on a simplified map of the castle, with the prisoners trying to gather supplies (rope, wire cutters, forged passports) and the security forces trying to prevent them. At the beginning, the prisoners are mostly busy sneaking around on short missions to collect essential supplies from the inner rooms of the castle. As they do so, however, both sides are drawing cards that can be used for exciting events. The prisoners can draw opportunities to move quickly across the castle, pick up useful supplies for free, or gain access to one of the several tunnels; the security officers can draw cards permitting them to detect tunnels, shoot to kill, and otherwise thwart escapes.

The result of this mechanic is that narrative tension starts fairly low, but the stakes and the possibilities for surprise twists increase as time goes on. As a player, the trick is to position pieces so that they’ll be fully supplied and ready to run as soon as there’s a favorable dice roll. The longer you wait, though, the more likely that the German security player will have drawn cards allowing him to thwart you in colorful ways. Conversely, a second escape attempt right on the heels of a first means that the escaping player may have fewer resources, but the security officers may also be essentially tapped out.

As the game goes on, the stakes rise: more prisoners may be killed or locked in solitary confinement, meaning that each individual escape attempt that fails is a more serious blow to the prisoners’ overall chances.

Escape from Colditz was published in 1973 and is no longer commercially available, but it’s not too difficult to find used copies for sale through eBay or boardgamegeek.

7 thoughts on “Escape from Colditz as Procedurally Paced Narrative”

  1. I used to play this a fair bit with my family as a kid. The gameplay has a glaring flaw, though, in that the person playing the role of German security officer has a mind-numbingly tedious game, spending an hour or so essentially doing nothing, with the only high point being the opportunity to play a “Shoot to Kill” card on one of the other players (this can only happen near the end of the game, and it’s not even guaranteed then).

    My family’s favourite board game was “221B Baker Street”, which I actually think is much more interesting as a game, though it is not procedural at all. Each game (“case”) has a use-once-then-throw-away plot, with a backstory, clue cards, etc. It sounds limiting, but there were a lot of cases, and an expansion pack.

  2. I think the concept would work better as a cooperative game where the Germans are played ‘by the board’ (like Knizia’s Lord of the Rings and the new Star Trek game) but I’m unsure if such a game even existed back in the day.

    1. Hm. I know there were games where one side was played by the board — Wolfpack was one I played a reasonable amount (somehow it never occurred to me that it was weird for me to play the Germans) and I’ve heard of Ambush; and there were some pretty cool but obscure (I think?) cooperative games in Sid Sackson’s Beyond Competition; but I don’t know how much these are like what you’re thinking of. What are the new games you mention like?

  3. Very interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about board games like this (e.g. Betrayal At House On The Hill, Thunderstone Dragonspire, etc.) and how they model events / narrative. I think there’s a lot of potential there.

  4. 221 b baker street is a great boardgame. Once you’ve played several scenarios, people wind up knowing the locations that tend to give the most helpful clues.

  5. Not sure why on this evening I randomly decided to look up the blog of an IF author I like, but here I am, and here is an article about an obscure board game I enjoyed as a teen.

    Curiously, my clearest memory of this game stems not from playing it, but from transporting it — from London, where it was purchased, to Harare, Zimbabwe, where it was enjoyed…. through Frankfurt, where it was found in my luggage by an efficient West German customs officer. He was clearly flustered by the rather large swastika emblazoned on the front, so much so that that he hurriedly packed my socks back in and politely invited me to proceed.

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