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Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
by Michael B. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 11/22/2018 16:31:58

Winterhorn is an incredible game that does for LARPs what Papers Please did for videogames, making the banality of evil in authoritarian regimes real.

You are an interagency working group in an unnamed country loosely based on East Germany (but even western democracies have secret police, the FBI ran COINTELPRO for decades, and in 2003 a British undercover agent had a child with an activist before disappearing.) Your target is Winterhorn, an activist group composed of seven core members with ideals, desires, and weaknesses laid out in the briefing material. Additionally, you have a role as a secret police agent, with a past and an agenda of your own.

Over three rounds of thirty minutes each, your secret police squad will select seven options from deck of twelve secret police tactics, ranging in violence from hands-off wiretapping to sending 'patriotic' thugs (off-duty cops) to assault members of Winterhorn. You can also be tricky, setting up front groups to siphon away recruits and using "bad jacketing" to destroy the cohesion of the group by planting rumors suggesting some members are informers for the secret police. At the end of the game, the seven tactics that you chose in the last round are used to create a final report drawn from paragraphs in the rules, which describes how well the group succeeded in its mission. Then you debrief and discuss the ethics of the secret police.

Winterhorn is a shining example of rules-light design. Key game information like character roleplaying notes, OOC roles, and the results of operations, are contained on playing cards. The system of choosing seven of twelve options forces the group to evaluate and select tactics, but it is possible to over-commit and blow the operation. It's a brilliant piece of game design which creates an emergent narrative without getting tied down in complex rules or props. Twelve alternate operation cards provide a smidgen of replayability, but Winterhorn is mostly a one-and-done experience. The graphic design is top-notch, with bureaucratic memos describing Winterhorn, and a samizdat zine describing the secret police. You can choose to print-and-play the cards or buy them (mine are in the mail, and I full expect them to be excellent). A brief essay on the history of subverting political enemies rounds out the materials.

With the caveats that this is a read-through review rather than a playtest review, though I can't imagine the rules breaking, and that I didn't comprehensively crosscheck the cards to see if nonsense outcomes could arise, I love this game. Education and LARPing are two flavors that should go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but making a good EduLARP is surprisingly hard. As a tabletop gamer and professor, I've been only moderately impressed with the games put out by the Reacting to the Past (RttP) consortium. RttP may beat the standard rigmarole of lectures and essays, but the game design is not particularly sophisticated, and my time in the RttP facebook group suggests that most professors have similar problems about students not reading background material, not getting involved, and the game system giving nonsensical answers about how the siege of Athens proceeds. My own efforts in this area were a near-total failure of design goals saved only by brilliant improvisation on the part of my co-instructors. So believe me when I say A) this stuff is hard and B) Jason Morningstar has cracked the code.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
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