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Posted on Feb 19, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

IMMERSIVE AND FUN  INTRODUCTORY  WAR  GAME! – DVG’s CASTLE ITTER  Board Game Review

IMMERSIVE AND FUN INTRODUCTORY WAR GAME! – DVG’s CASTLE ITTER Board Game Review

Rick Martin

Castle Itter – The Strangest Battle of World War II Board Game Review.  Publisher: DVG  Designer:  David Thompson  Price $59.99

Passed Inspection:   Strong solo narrative, fast playing, easy to learn but hard to master, solo or multiplayer

Failed Basic:    needs a little more explanation in the rules, have to buy a second product for $20 to get a history of the battle and designer’s notes, what are the colored cubes for?

As the subtitle to the game suggest, this is definitely the strangest battle of World War 2 and one that I knew nothing about until researching this for my review of this game.

Per the Battle of Castle Itter entry in Wikipedia:

The Battle for Castle Itter was fought in the Austrian North Tyrol village of Itter on 5 May 1945, in the last days of the European Theater of World War II.

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Troops of the 23rd Tank Battalion of the 12th Armored Division of the US XXI Corps led by Captain John C. “Jack” Lee, Jr., a number of Wehrmacht soldiers led by Major Josef “Sepp” Gangl, SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, and recently freed French prisoners of war defended Castle Itter against an attacking force from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division until relief from the American 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division of XXI Corps arrived.

The French prisoners included former prime ministers, generals and a tennis star. It is the only known time during the war in which Americans and Germans fought side-by-side. Popular accounts of the battle have called it the strangest battle of World War II.

Itter Castle (German: Schloss Itter) is a small castle situated on a hill near the village of Itter in Austria. After the 1938 Anschluss, the German government officially leased the castle in late 1940 from its owner, Franz Grüner.

The castle was seized from Grüner by SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl under the orders of Heinrich Himmler on 7 February 1943. The transformation of the castle into a prison camp was completed by 25 April 1943, and the facility was placed under the administration of the Dachau concentration camp.

The prison was established to contain high-profile French prisoners valuable to the Reich. Notable prisoners included tennis player Jean Borotra,former prime ministers Édouard Daladierand Paul Reynaud, former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin, Charles de Gaulle’s elder sister Marie-Agnès Cailliau,right-wing leader and closet French resistance member François de La Rocque, and trade union leader Léon Jouhaux.Besides the VIP prisoners, the castle held a number of Eastern European prisoners detached from Dachau, who were used for maintenance and other menial work.

French tennis star Jean Borotra in 1932. Borotra escaped three times, the last after volunteering to summon help in the midst of the battle.

On 3 May 1945, Zvonimir Čučković, an imprisoned Yugoslav communist resistance member from Croatia who worked as a handyman at the prison, left the castle on the pretense of performing an errand for the prison’s commander Sebastian Wimmer [de]. Čučković carried with him a letter in English seeking Allied assistance he was to give to the first American he encountered.

The town of Wörgl lay 8 kilometres (5 miles) down the mountains but was still occupied by German troops. Čučković instead pressed on up the Inn River valley towards Innsbruck 64 km (40 mi) distant. Later that evening, he reached the outskirts of the city and encountered an advance party of the 409th Infantry Regiment of the American 103rd Infantry Division of the US VI Corps and informed them of the castle’s prisoners.They were unable to authorize a rescue on their own but promised Čučković an answer from their headquarters unit by morning of 4 May.

At dawn, a heavily armored rescue was mounted but was stopped by heavy shelling just past Jenbach around halfway to Itter, then recalled by superiors for encroaching into territory of the U.S. 36th Division to the east. Only two jeeps of auxiliary personnel continued.

Upon Čučković’s failure to return, and the death at the prison of the former commander of Dachau Eduard Weiter under suspicious circumstances on 2 May, Wimmer feared for his own life and abandoned his post. The SS-Totenkopfverbände guards departed the castle soon after, with the prisoners taking control of the castle and arming themselves with the weaponry that remained.

Failing to learn of the result of Čučković’s effort, prison leaders accepted the offer of its Czech cook, Andreas Krobot, to bicycle to Wörgl mid-day on 4 May in hopes of reaching help there. Armed with a similar note, he succeeded in contacting Austrian resistance in that town, which had recently been abandoned by Wehrmacht forces but reoccupied by roaming Waffen-SS troops. He was taken to Major Josef Gangl, commander of the remains of a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers who had defied an order to retreat and instead thrown in with the local resistance, being made its head.

Gangl sought to maintain his unit’s position in the town to protect local residents from SS reprisals. Nazi loyalists would shoot at any window displaying either a white or Austrian flag, and would summarily execute males as possible deserters. Gangl’s hopes were pinned on the Americans reaching Wörgl promptly and surrendering to them. Instead, he would now have to approach them under a white flag to ask for their help.

Around the same time, a reconnaissance unit of four Sherman tanks of the 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division of the US XXI Corps, under the command of Captain Lee, had reached Kufstein, Austria, 13 km (8 mi) to the north. There, in the town square, it idled while waiting for the 12th to be relieved by the 36th Infantry Division. Asked to provide relief by Gangl, Lee did not hesitate, volunteering to lead the rescue mission and immediately earning permission from his HQ.

After a personal reconnaissance of the Castle with Gangl in the major’s Kübelwagen, Lee left two of his tanks behind but requisitioned five more and supporting infantry from the recently arrived 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th. En route, Lee was forced to send the reinforcements back when a bridge proved too tenuous for the entire column to cross once, let alone twice. Leaving one of his tanks behind to guard it, he set back off accompanied only by 14 American soldiers, Gangl, and a driver, and a truck carrying ten former German artillerymen. 6 km (4 mi) from the castle, they defeated a party of SS troops that had been attempting to set up a roadblock.

In the meantime, the French prisoners had requested an SS officer, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, whom they had befriended in Itter during his convalescence from wounds, to take charge of their defense. Upon Lee’s arrival at the castle, prisoners greeted the rescuing force warmly but were disappointed at its small size. Lee placed the men under his command in defensive positions around the castle and positioned his tank, Besotten Jenny, at the main entrance.

Lee had ordered the French prisoners to hide, but they remained outside and fought alongside the American and Wehrmacht soldiers. Throughout the night, the defenders were harried by a reconnaissance force sent to assess their strength and probe the fortress for weaknesses. On the morning of 5 May, a force of 100–150Waffen-SS launched their attack. Before the main assault began, Gangl was able to phone Alois Mayr, the Austrian resistance leader in Wörgl, and request reinforcements. Only two more German soldiers under his command and a teenage Austrian resistance member, Hans Waltl, could be spared, and they quickly drove to the castle. The Sherman tank provided machine-gun fire support until it was destroyed by German fire from an 88 mm gun; it was occupied at the time only by a radioman seeking to repair the tank’s faulty radio, who escaped without injury.

Meanwhile, by early afternoon, word had finally reached the 142nd of the desperation of the defenders’ plight, and a relief force was dispatched. Aware he had been unable to give the 142nd complete information on the enemy and its disposition before communications had been severed, Lee accepted tennis star Borotra’s offer to vault the castle wall and run the gauntlet of SS strong points and ambushes to deliver it. He succeeded, requested a uniform, then joined the force as it made haste to reach the prison before its defenders fired their last rounds of ammunition.

The relief force arrived around 16:00, and the SS were promptly defeated. Some 100 SS prisoners were reportedly taken. The French prisoners were evacuated towards France that evening, reaching Paris on 10 May.

For his service defending the castle, Lee received the Distinguished Service Cross. Gangl died during the battle from a sniper rifle bullet while trying to move former French prime minister Reynaud out of harm’s wayand was honored as an Austrian national hero and a street in Wörgl was named after him. He was the sole defender to die during the battle, although four others were wounded. Popular accounts of the battle have dubbed it the strangest battle of World War II.The battle was fought five days after Adolf Hitler had committed suicideand only two days before the signing of Germany’s unconditional surrender. It was also the only battle where Americans and Germans fought alongside one another during the war.

      ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_for_Castle_Itter )

This history sets up the scenario presented in DVG’s new Castle Itter game.  Castle Itter can be played solo, co-operative or head to head and is loads of fun.  It is an extension of the game engine which was used in Pavlov’s House – DVG’s Battle of Stalingrad game.  Both are David Thompson designs.

The cover artwork by Matt White (who also reviews for Armchair General) is wonderfully evocative.

The components of Castle Itter include:

95 cards (SS and Tactics)

4 sheets of double sided counters

5  six sided dice

3 reference sheets

33 “ x 17 “ mounted map board

28 page rule book

77 wooden blocks

The components are first rate.  The rule booklet has tons of examples, extra large print and is very user friendly.  The game rules are easy to learn.  In addition to the basic game, there are rules for making the solo game engine deadlier for those who want a greater challenge (adding in the Tactics Cards which are not used in the beginners’ game really amps up the enemy’s deadliness).

It appears that the wooden blocks are used in place of some of the status counters but the rule booklet doesn’t even include the blocks and a request for information on the blocks went unanswered by DVG.

The beautiful mounted map board shows the castle and the area surrounding it clearly delineated with area names such as the cellar or gate and marked with a point to point movement system.  In addition, each area has a specified number of damage points before they are destroyed.  Also shows an abstracted interior of the lone Sherman tank marked with positions for the crew.  The tank is in a good tactical position as it blocks the gate house and is also somewhat protected by the gatehouse structure.

Each unit is one person or a team of people as in the SS machine gun and mortar teams.  Each of the player’s units is rated for attack value, suppression value, special actions and attributes as well as the person’s name and a picture of them.  This brings home the sense that this was a real battle with real people and it makes the game a much more intimate experience than you find in most war games.

There are different types of  SS units in the game.  These SS units include scouts, riflemen, sturm troops, machine gun teams and mortar teams.  Each team is rated for its combat effectiveness with disruption and defense values.  In addition, specific SS heavy weapons can come in to play with the SS cards. These units include 75mm and 88mm cannons as well as 20mm anti-aircraft units.  Each of these units is rated for their attack value and effects as well as a number for how late in the scenario these units can arrive.

The game sets up fast.  The SS cards are sorted in to piles from 1 to 4 which represents the time of the day that the units or battle strategies “arrive”.  As the game progresses, the SS gets more desperate to take the castle but that allows them more time to set up cannons and other heavy weapons to bombard the defenders with.  The SS cards handle all this very effectively and make you feel as if you are reacting to another play not just a game controlled “bot”.  Of course, in the multi-player variant you are fighting another player instead of just the “bot”.

The turn sequence is as follows:

Defenders get five actions.  An action can include moving a unit, attacking, using special abilities, trying to escape from the castle to get reinforcements, rallying the troops, etc.  After each unit performs an action it is flipped over to its exhausted side.

Then the SS get their actions. The player draws three cards and applies the affects one at a time.  The SS units may move, attack, call in heavy firepower, etc.  When additional SS units deploy, they move the non-machine gun/mortar units one point forward towards the castle.  If a SS unit enters the castle, the game is over and the defenders have failed.

The sequence then repeats itself.

The key for the defenders is the wise use of suppression fire to keep SS units from deploying and the wise use of lethal firepower to kill SS units before they get too close to the castle.  In addition, try not to get the French high value prisoners killed.  Use them as you need to but clear a path as soon as possible for Borotra to try and escape in order to reach the 142nd Infantry Regiment which is a few miles away.

Combat is simple but very nerve wracking.  First determine if the attacker has line of site.  This is a great system that avoids tons of measuring.  Match the color of the location that the attacker is standing on to the color that the target is standing on, if the colors match, they have line of site!  Beautifully simple and elegant!  Then roll the number of dice shown for the attacker’s firepower.  If any one die equals or exceeds the target’s defense value, the target is hit.  If an SS is hit, remove it from play.  If a castle defender is hit, put a suppression counter on him.  If he is hit again while suppressed, he dies.  Leaders with commander abilities can unexhaust units or remove suppressions.  Keep your officers alive as long as possible because you need them to keep your defenders alive and well.

The game last until either the SS enter the castle or the 142nd arrives.

To make the game more difficult, you can add in Tactics Cards which make the SS even more effective.

The game is great fun for beginners all the way up to combat tested Grognards who want a tension filled game that can be played in one or two hours.  I loved every minute of playing it and plan to get it to the table at least several more times this month!

The game has a very few faults – there are no designer’s notes or a historical look at the actual battle.  To get that you have to buy an additional book for $20.  It seems to me that a short book with that information should have been included with the game itself.  In addition, Borotra’s “Escape” ability should have been better explained in the rules.  You actually have to pull out the card for the 142nd Infantry Regiment to see what effect “Escape” has on the game; this could have been remedied with one more sentence in the rule book.

As previously stated, the colored cubes are not addressed at all in the rules. I would assume that they just substitute for the flat status counters which are included.

Castle Itter is a simple game to learn but a difficult game to master.  I highly recommend getting this to your game table as soon as possible, soldier!  It’s a blast!

Armchair General Rating:  95% (1% is bad, 100% is perfect)

Solitaire Rating: 5 (1 is not suitable, 5 is excellent solo play)

About the Author

A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer. He designed the games Tiger Leader, The Tiger Leader Expansion and Sherman Leader for DVG.  In addition, Rick can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!

a beautiful box
components
overview of the board with set up notes
20mm flak attack
88mm flak gun bombards the castle
Gangl gets sniped
Sherman takes a major hit
panzerfaust team kills the Sherman
defenders are exhausted but Borotra readies his run for help
the 142nd saves the day

1 Comment

  1. Rick, thanks so much for the great review. I really appreciate the kind words. A couple points of clarification:

    The cubes were a Kickstarter stretch goal. They provide an option for players to switch them out for the counters used in the game. We found that some players preferred them in Pavlov’s House, so we wanted to provide them as an option for Castle Itter. They aren’t a core component, so we didn’t include them in the components list in the rulebook. I probably should have mentioned them, though. That’s my fault!

    The companion book was a Kickstarter stretch goal too. Every backer received it for free. DVG printed a small number of extra copies, which they sell on their website. The low print run is why the price is pretty high. However, I always make my companion books free to download. So anyone that is interested in the design notes and historical background for the game can grab the companion book for free here: http://digitalcapricorn.com/site/games/castle-itter/

    Thanks again!

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