Review: Stalag 1704 Dec 2014 0
Stalag 17 is a tense game about escaping from a German POW camp in WWII. It evokes a sense of very limited power and the psychological impact of unpredictable inspections which can cost you all the time and preparation sunk into maximizing a crucial opportunity. Oddly, it's a hand management game in which you start with only two cards in hand, and your ability to draw more cards is offset by the high cost of being caught with much in it. I ended up feeling like I was locked in a closet and my joy at the key in my hand was tempered by the occasional scrabbling sounds coming from the other side of the door.
Tabletop blockbuster Love Letter has amply demonstrated that it's possible to make hand management work even with a maximum hand size of one card, but it makes players highly dependent on options for improving that hand. Stalag's problem is that it feels like it learnt too well the lesson that catch-up mechanisms need to be weak in order to allow the advantage of skill to matter. That's true, but in a game with some randomness and a relatively low skill ceiling, advantages often come from luck. As a result, the fact that most of your options for improving a terrible hand come with substantial costs feels disempowering. Thematically, that's perfect--one expects escaping from a POW camp to be terribly difficult and involve a great deal of influence from factors beyond your control. It also means that Stalag is ideally suited for the sort of brief "filler" role in which a strong experience can compensate for limited depth.
Rather than playing a single prisoner, you lead a team of four; get the first three of your soldiers out, and they'll spring you. The game takes place in rounds, each of which has a set of requirements you can meet by collecting cards which provide disguises, food, and so on. On your turn, you can play a card and draw one, draw two, or discard (five cards of different types, three or more cards of the same type, or any single card). The advantage of discarding is that each card has a point value which increases the guards' level of suspicion of your team if they find it on you, which makes it harder to run past them next time. Worse, the more members of your team have escaped, the harder it gets to deflect the Germans' attention. Thematically, it's a little odd that the success of an escape attempt is perfectly predictable once launched (and thus, that they never fail unless a player has been unusually sloppy). The guards who run the demonically effective inspections appear to be the only Germans in the place not incessantly sniffing glue.
Layered atop the search for the right cards to fulfill tonight's plan is the fact that you can see how many cards others have played, but not which ones. In the movie on which the game is loosely based, tension comes from the prisoners' growing belief that one of their number is secretly in league with their captors, and, later, from the epistemological games which result from them misidentifying him. Here, that's sadly and not very intelligibly abstracted away, replaced by turning the game into a simple race against the other prisoner teams. However, this creates a stimulating dynamic where you never know when other players are playing useless cards in order to tempt you into desperately drawing faster to try and catch up, thereby filling your hand with contraband which will increase the guards' surveillance. "Stimulating" in this case means you can easily find yourself hating and fearing your fellow players, so it's best to go in with strong friendships.
Those friendships had best be with people with whom you can make appointments to game, because multiplayer is synchronous-only, and the player base is currently thin enough that such appointments are your only real hope of getting a game together. Past the tumbleweeds, though, there's a perfectly adequate way to play with distant friends. Indeed, the app is generally quite effective, with a few nice touches which add character to the experience (I'm particularly fond of the searchlight animation while the game attempts matchmaking).
Stalag 17 feels like the natural consequence of the stunning success of Dominion. Dominion took the deck-building aspect of Magic: the Gathering and streamlined it into its own game, thereby launching the deck-building genre and earning Scrooge McDuck levels of cash. It was only natural that someone would try to refine other aspects of Magic; this time, it was top-decking. This refers to the point reached in some games in which both players have played everything in their hands, and are left with tactical play using what's on the board and the hope that they'll draw something which could shift momentum in their favor. If you're looking for an experience which can fast-forward straight to the suspense of impatiently waiting for an opportunity with a side of bluff-related mind games and a WWII theme, Stalag 17 has baked your birthday cake.
Stalag 17 was played on an iPad Air for this review.