The Fun Review: Escape from Colditz + New Acquisitions in August 2016

It was with some sadness that today I learned that Richard Sharp had died in 2003. Whilst I worked in the Games Centre shop in London, I met Richard. It was obvious then that he was very intelligent and bursting with ideas. 7 or 8 years later he wrote one o0f the finest books ever written about the hobby of gaming. His book was called The Game of Diplomacy and I devoured every word very quickly. After all, a little help strategically is always welcome. In particular, I was especially interested in Postal Diplomacy.  I only played by post, never at the table so-to-speak. He wrote about that aspect of the hobby with humour and, I detected, a love for that way of playing.

In 1976 he was invited by the editor of Games & Puzzles magazine to write a series of articles where a game would be played on Bedbug Island, a remote lunatic asylum. These were (and are) very witty and funny but also a critical look at the game as a review. I think he wrote 6 of these articles and in memory of Richard I am reproducing his second visit to Bedbug Island here.  The game in question is ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ, first published by Parker and then by Gibson’s Games for many years. It was designed by Major Pat Reid, an actual inmate in the camp. For me, it was a terrible game. You can see why when you read Richard’s article. However, it always sold well and it was very popular in Germany although it was never published in there. Now to the maestro’s words……

Tales from Bedbug Island 2:

ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ

Life was very peaceful during those early days on Bedbug Island. In the first month only two more newcomers joined the original four prisoners. First came Bert Spike, a malignant albino dwarf from South London: while reading for his honours degree in Applied Cryptomorphology at Penge University, Bert had supplemented his meagre £3,000 per annum grant with consistent and heavy winnings at poker. This had eventually led to his downfall when he relieved a senior officer of the Gambling Squad of two years’ salary in a single hand of High-Low Baseball (the policeman had insufficiently mastered the rules, failing to realise that Bert’s hand — four visible 9s and three hole-cards — guaran­teed him a royal flush in spades).

The other new arrival was of special interest as the first from an eastern European country: Daleusz Zcyzcycynski, or Dalek as he preferred to be known, had been caught teaching his children the rules of Zcnapp, an exceptionally tedious Communist version of Snap, in which all cards are, of course, precisely equal; this, said the State, distracted the infants from their labours in the asbestos mines.

The six of us were sitting morosely round the remains of our evening gruel one day in April when von Hinten suddenly leapt to his feet.

"Tomorrow," he told us, "is a very important day for us Ger­mans." (Dalek spat accurately into his Ribena.) "The Fuhrer will celebrate his 87th birthday — as usual he and Senora Hitler will be attending a dinner and dance at the Montevideo Darby and Joan club. Since I shall be unable to attend, I claim the right to choose the main game for tomorrow afternoon’s therapy session. Perhaps a tournament:” Panzerblitz or Afrika Korps would be suitable, I think . .."

"No," said Bert.

"How about Stalingrad?" suggested Dalek. "Or Winter War?" Von Hinten laughed contemptuously. "It is well known that those games, like the historical events they portray, always end in draws. I propose . . ."

After an hour’s debate, we agreed on Escape from Colditz. ‘Colditz’, said von Hinten, ‘was very slack on security. At Oflag XVI, where I was Commandant after being inva­lided home from the Russian front, there were no escapes; all prisoners were shot in the leg on arrival, and the dose repeated every three weeks.’ (‘Sssh’ hissed Swindelman nervously. ‘The Governor might hear you.') ‘I have studied the rules of Escape from Colditz, which do not appear to allow this elementary precaution, but I assure you I have a fool-proof plan.’ He smirked. ‘For you, the war is over.'

We devoted the rest of the evening and the following morn­ing to study of the rules: as usual I had to read them aloud to Bert and explain the finer points to Ferrucci. When I arrived in the Common Room after lunch, a remarkable sight met my eyes.

Von Hinten was seated at the writing table, on which stood a large notice in shaky Gothic script; Kom- mandant —Salute and Wait! He had dressed for the part in his old uni­form; the silver S-runes on his collar sparkled with loving polish. His eyes were invisible beneath the peaked cap, but I could see traces of tears trickling down his duelling scars. The table was littered with wrapping from Red Cross parcels and the debris revealed that he had just lunched off Swiss chocolate, tinned ham and condensed milk. He was now smoking a Lucky Strike and humming the Deutschlandslied under his breath.

The starring role having clearly been cast already, the rest of us began to bicker over the other parts. Dalek would natur­ally be the Polish contingent (‘All cavalry, of course,’ he told us.) Ferrucci claimed the Italians, but it was pointed out that this was historically impossible, and he reluctantly agreed to revert to American citizenship. (‘I thought we was nootral,’ he grumbled.) I took the French part, out of a natural sympathy for that civilised and practical race, while Bert and Swindelman argued ferociously over which of them should be Dutch, an impasse that was resolved when someone mentioned Dutch gin — Bert’s favourite lubricant — and Bert then remembered having a Dutch uncle. And so the game began.

It had struck me during my study of the game that, although considerable care had been taken over presentation and design, the rules themselves were lamentably vague. Even the rigid disciplinarian von Hinten had sneered at some of them, especially the unrealistic one stating that German sen­tries could not walk through or over prisoners. The more serious defects were ambiguity and in some cases actual self-contradiction. For example, ‘Any equipment obtained is not held by an individual POW’ but a sentry may arrest a POW ‘providing the POW holds an equipment card.’ On this and many other points we had violent arguments as the game progressed, or (more often) failed to progress.

The early stages went as I had foreseen. The first aim of the prison­ers is to collect a Civilian Escape Kit Card, without which escape is impos­sible; barring some striking luck with dice and cards, this requires the considerable feat of getting all one's four POWs into four different rooms simultaneously. Since there were only eight rooms between the 20 POWs traffic jams built rapidly. Total lack of co-operation was evident between the different nationalities — whoever got to a room first would leave his man just inside the door so that no one else could get in. Von Hinten added to the chaos by placing his men in long lines across the board, so that while not strictly 'blocking the entrance to rooms’ (banned by the rules) he created enormous detours and added to the general con­gestion. Eventually we reached a position where each of us could move backwards and forwards aimlessly — a dead draw unless drastic steps were taken.

Alliances now began to form: true to my new nationality I had made an early grab for Canteen and Parcel Office, thus monopolising the camp food supply (the Kitchen surprisingly offered wire-cutters but no food). Ferrucci’s undoubted skill with the dice (he ran the camp crap-game) had secured him no less than three rooms, and with my food he was able to claim his escape kit. His men being then removed to the Appel squares in accordance with our interpretation of yet another dubious rule, the jam eased a little. The idea caught on, and event­ually we all had our escape kits, consisting of Disguise, Food, Papers and Compass.

‘Very realistic’, said von Hinten approvingly. ‘I’ve often heard about that stock of false noses in the Laundry, and the W.C. was stacked with prismatic compasses.’

Now came a more difficult and even more confused phase. Apart from a few improbable loop-holes, such as comman­deering the German staff car, a complete escape is almost impossible without either rope or wire-cutters; and anyone found in possession of these is liable to arrest.

Von Hinten now put his master-plan into effect. The new spirit of co-operation meant that we acquired equipment quite rapidly; but as soon as any prisoner tried to cross an open space he was swooped on by the German, who with a roar of ‘Cooler!’ bore the hapless POW off to the Solitary block outside the main courtyard; the confiscation of the offending equipment meant the POW could no longer be arrested inside the yard, but outside it was always open sea­son; each time one of us succeeded in throwing the neces­sary double to escape from solitary he was simply re-arrested and put back in. Despite our superior numbers it soon became clear that it would be a long and very tedious busi­ness to acquire sufficient resources for an escape.

It was Dalek’s fertile brain that came up with the obvious answer: We should appoint a Big X escape supremo who would hold all the equipment cards and dole them out as needed. Ferrucci, whose stream of double sixes was continuing unabated, was elected for the job; each time any of us obtained a suitable card we handed it over to him. Soon he was surrounded by a pile of Rope, Wire-Cutters, Keys and Passes, while his own men wandered round and round the protected Appel area or made brief deceptive sorties to safe points in far-flung corners of the board.

Von Hinten was clearly perturbed by the new development, and arguments about the rules became more frequent and more acrimonious. First the Commandant claimed that any­one trying to re-enter the castle from the outer areas needed a rope; when we reluctantly accepted this absurd rule he changed his mind, maintaining that only an Indian can walk up to a 30-foot wall with a 30-foot rope then climb up the rope and pull it in after him. We retaliated by getting several pris­oners onto the terrace thirty feet below the Sick Bay windows where they were immune from arrest since there was no pro­vision for the German player to obtain rope and follow them down. These disputes and many others like them were invari­ably resolved in favour of the prisoners by a 5-1 majority vote.

As afternoon wore on into evening, other disadvantages became apparent: under the admittedly poor artificial light­ing provided by Bedbug Island's generator, the black Ger­mans, dark-blue Americans and brown French became increasingly hard to distinguish, especially for von Hinten, who obstinately refused to remove his peaked cap and nostalgia-blurred monocle. The height of absurdity was reached when the Commandant triumphantly swooped on a man Ferrucci had just moved, with his customary bellow of ‘Cooler!’, only to find he had arrested one of his own guards. The light reflecting off the glossy board surface we had all admired earlier made for difficulties too, and von Hinten scored one success when an American prisoner was arrested by a sentry he had failed to see in the glare. ‘Searchlights’, said von Hinten proudly. ‘Elementary.’

Many of us — Swindelman in particular — were becoming fed up with the whole thing; the former M.P. and bent stock­broker, frustrated by the lack of scope for cheating, kept drift­ing off into a restless doze from which he regularly awoke himself with distraught cries of ‘Vote Labour for a prosperous Britain' or ‘Buy all the Consolidated Sardines you can get.’ A few reckless escape bids were at last made: one Dutchman was shot dead by a fortunate German dice-roll, and two spam-laden Frenchmen were arrested in the Chapel Tunnel, much to my disgust. Von Hinten had recognised the situation in the courtyard to be hopeless, and concentrated his men outside the tunnel exits and in the Commandantur, now the most vulnerable points.

Eventually four of us were pre­pared to concede the game to him out of sheer boredom, but the cunning Ferrucci with his yards of rope, reams of passes, vast bunches of keys and fearsome array of wire- cutters would not hear of it. As I had vaguely foreseen might happen, he began to refuse to give up equipment to other would-be escapers; we discovered with chagrin that there was no provision for prisoners to execute each other for flagrant disloyalty of this sort. Von Hinten, alive to the new situation, began to cover Ferrucci’s four men and ignore all the others almost completely, so that we were able for the first time to collect and use equipment on our own behalf. For the first time the German defences began to become stretched: one Pole made a home run in the staff car, to sarcastic shouts of 'Gee up!’, and an Englishman found a chance to play a Do-or-Die card and made it to safety through the main gate with desperate German bullets whining harm­lessly around him.

At last, about 11 p.m., we were able to agree a win for Dalek, who had succeeded in getting all his three surviving men back to his stables. Von Hinten retired to change out of his uniform, mut­tering darkly about the simultaneous blindfold Kampfpanzer tournament he would force us to play on the Fuhrer’s next birthday, while I sat down for a few rubbers of bridge with Bert, Swindelman and Dalek — a profitable exercise for Swindelman and myself, who played tradi­tional Acol against our opponents’ strange hybrid (half Precision Club, half Polish Forcing Pass); an added bonus being that Bert always doubled any makeable contract bid against him. I was content to let my partner play the hands — against this wild defence he would have had little trouble even if handicapping himself by playing honestly, as he rarely did.

Meanwhile I brooded on the afternoon’s entertainment. It had all been rather disappointing, a very typical modern game with its extensive variety of involved rules, attractively produced set and ingenious attempts at realism. But it also had many typical disadvantages, the overwhelming one being its loose, sloppy shape. There had been long periods when players milled around aimlessly like some lunatic game of Halma in which we had all forgotten our destinations. The lack of a specific victory criterion added to the general formlessness of the entire game. No good for serious games derelicts like ourselves, I concluded; though I imagined it would satisfy the undemanding audience of the mediocre TV series that had presumably stimulated this belated rip-off of World War II.

A barrage of oaths in Polish and Cockney roused me to the fact that Swindelman had just landed his One Spade con­tract, doubled by Bert and trustingly redoubled by me, to clinch the final rubber. Bedbug Island rules allowed each player to settle up in any currency he chose, Swindelman calculating the exchange rates as quoted in the Financial Times of 17 June 1953, which he had found in the Island latrines. Dalek was with difficulty separated from a huge stack of zlotys; but it was Bert who had the last word.

‘While you was mucking about reading them rules last night’, he said, ‘I had a quick game of 5-card stud with the Kraut. Here you are: at 10p a hundred, I make that . . . er. . . seventeen billion Reichsmarks, give or take a pfennig or two.’

Now to the new games at Chez Osten...

Fabula

Libellud

2010

Car Tuning

Ravensburger

2010

Hai-Alarm!!!

Drei Magier

2008

Gold Medal Playing Cards

Chas. Goodall

1935

Marrakesch

Das Spiel

1990

Zahlemann und Söhne

Ravensburger

1996

Adler Luftverteidigungsspiel

Hugo Gräfe

1941

La Strada

Kosmos

2004

Lost Legacy

One Draw

2013

Hanabi

Abacus

2012

Nur nicht Rot werden

Unknown

1955

All British Playing Cards

John Waddington

1935

Fiese 15

Schmidt

2011

Five Tribes: The Thieves of Naqala

Days of Wonder

2016

Frivoli Taten

Bielefelder

1960

 

Yakari Memory

Ravensburger

2011

Gold Medal Playing Cards

Chas. Goodall

1935

Das Schwarze Auge: Daek Force

Schmidt

1986

Snakes & Ladders Board only

Ges. Geschotzt

1940

 

Älterer, erfahrener Kater sucht ...

Unknown

1955

Ozean Riesen

Ravensburger

2003

Loony Quest

Libellud

2015

Playing Cards Double-Pack

Lamb's Navy Rum

2000

Schweinebammel

Drei Magier

2008

Rivernoat Showdown

Whitman

1976

Snakes & Ladders Board only

Ravensburger

1960

So oder So

Schmid

1958

 

Bruxelles 1893

Pearl Games

2013

Saukram

Heye

1993

Mega Trucks

Ravensburger

2006

Spyrius

Ystari

2013

Sequence

Parker

1997

Don Quixote

Pegasus

2010

 

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