Monday, January 2, 2017

Frostgrave Review EDITED

Recently I sank a lot of money in the Kickstarters for Monolith Games Conan and CMON Zombicide: Black Plague. The two games combined will give me an instant collection of fantasy figures (some 400 in fact) so one can imagine me, pondering the consequences of these decisions, getting slightly worried what to do with them all...



And then Osprey released Frostgrave; a 65-page ruleset for Fantasy skirmish wargaming and I knew the Stars Had Been Right. I read numerous good reviews and gaming reports about it and eventually ordered the booklet.

What’s this then? 
While appearances may be deceiving, this book’s are very pleasant. It is the standard Osprey format (a large A5) but hardcover and full color. It also follows the standard format for Osprey rulesets being 64 pages long and all-inclusive. Everything you’ll need to play is in the book or can be downloaded from the Osprey site or the numerous fan sites and Facebook pages that have sprung up. Lead Adventure Forum has adopted the game in an official Child Board and has a permanently updated errata stuck on top of it.



Frostgrave is a skirmish game with some interesting fluff. The game gets its name from the mythical frozen city of Felstad, former capital of a magical Empire and known as Frostgrave to the inhabitants of the area since it was frozen in permanent winter a thousand years ago. Becoming gradually warmer (although no one knows why) fortune seekers are drawn to its material an magical treasures that are supposedly up for grabs. As the city’s nickname should suggest, this is hardly the case. Frostgrave is far from uninhabited. Apart from competing bands of treasure seekers wild animals, undead, ghosts and other monsters roam the ruins and are out for your blood. Or your brains. Or your soul. This forms the background of the game.

Join the Frostgrave Treasure Hunters, travel all over Frostgrave and meet all kinds of strange shit! 

You will play a small band of treasure hunters. The center of this band is always a wizard. He will usually have an apprentice (a slightly less competent version of your wizard) with him alongside a number of mundane mercenaries. Apart from the monsters, you will usually need about 10 figures to play. Although there is an “official” miniatures line made by Northstar you can enlist all kinds of fantasy or historical figures in this game. Almost all my figures came out of my hoard of old lead and plastic and I only had to buy a handful, mostly some extra monsters.

Frostgrave enables you to enlist just about any kind of miniatures

Turns are based on alternative sequences, started with the winner of the Initiative roll. As befits the center of the band, the wizard takes action first in the turn. He may activate for two Actions (one of which must be a Move) along with any mercenaries near him. As soon as all wizards in the game (it supports multi-player games) have had their actions, it is the Apprentice’s turn along with “his” or “her” mercenaries. Then the remaining mercenaries take their turns before the Creatures take Action.

The Magic wielders in your band are the big guns. They have a wide array of magic at their disposal. 
The magic in Frostgrave is divided into 10 “schools” each supporting a different outlook. There are the familiar Elementalism and Necromancy but also the more exotic ones like Chronomancy (time magic) and Sigilism (rune magic). Each wizard has his own school, can master spells from most schools, but uses those of his own school easiest. This gives you the opportunity to learn spells to suit your playing style, be it offensive, defensive, illusive et cetera.

The Magic wielders form the firebase around which your band operates. Although the mercenaries wield powerful combat skills, these usually are non-magical and none of them will last long against a wizard. Mercenaries are for grabbing and carrying treasure first and for fighting second.
There are several classes of mercenaries to choose from, paid for from a point pool at the start of the game or your gold stash during the campaigns that the game also supports. Simple thugs, fast thieves, archers for ranged combat and hulking barbarians or armored knights for close combat. More opportunity to plunder your lead pile!

The system uses 20-sided dice (D20s) for all rolls. Fighting and magic and a few other actions require a D20 roll making at least a minimum score or overcoming opponent’s rolls and/or stats. This makes for a quick and bloody mechanism.

Frostgrave’ s terrain deserves special attention. As a lot of spells as well as bows and crossbows offer ranged effects, cover is crucial. You will need a lot of ruined buildings. Treasure is placed on the table by all players before the game starts and is the objective for the game.

A typical Frostgrave table: lots and lots of terrain. 

The book contains a large Bestiary which sums up lots of animals and monsters in the Random Encounter table, to be used each time treasure is found or when the scenario dictates so.

Feeling blue? In Frostgrave this is how you keep your cool.

The cherry on the icecream are 10 scenarios in the back of the book for anyone who looks for more than a pitched battle. The scenarios really reinforce the narrative and offer inspiration for writing your own or inventing background. There is one for example with a temple and six reanimated statues that attack your band. How nice would it be to play a prequel to that one explaining how the situation came to be?

So how does it play?
Frostgrave is a strongly narrative game. Especially when played in Campaign mode. The individual characters, even the rather generic mercenaries, add real flavor to the game and their development, misfortune and occasional deaths really matter in the course of the game.

The combined opposed die rolls make for a quick and bloody game. Your wizard may be a big gun, but an arrow kills him just as quickly. So tactics are paramount. Maneuver. Time well. Use cover and outflank and isolate your opponents before you kill them. Keep your wizards alive, because without them you not only lose firepower, but Initiative as well. 

The wide array of spells create enormous possibilities and depth in gaming style options. The game really shines in that respect. The monsters add flavour to the game, but do not dominate it. They're more like moving and extremely dangerous terrain. The most effective spells are also the hardest to cast (and the riskiest, due to the backfire effect) so you have to choose wisely before using them. Or enhancing them in exchange for your health. 2 Health points don't seem much in turn 2, but when you're down to 3 points in turn 5 and that werewolf is coming for you....

The game will easily accommodate 2-4 players. Just upsize the table a little for more than 4 players. And maybe add a turn or two. Playing time for a normal game is about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. 

More weird shit trying to eat my adventurers. 

What’s wrong with it?
Well, not much. This is a really good game. There are the usual typos and vaguaries tackled by the errata. The only really structural failures I was able to find only occur in campaigns, are twofold and are easily fixed.

"Let's get outta here! This place is dangerous!"

First, the game has no time limit. Since the last man standing on the table gets all the remaining treasure this tends to encourage people to kill all their opponents instead of going for the treasure. This is not so bad in stand-alone games but especially disastrous in campaigns and can quickly derail one completely. It is far too easy for one player to get the upper hand much too quickly and there is no balancing mechanism to favor underdogs. The simple solution is to limit the number of game turns. 

My take is to limit them to 5, then roll an increasing number from 4+ upwards at the start of each subsequent turn. When failed, the turn is NOT played, the game ends and all treasure remaining on the table is lost. This should encourage players to get their loot off the table a.s.a.p.

"A four-armed gorilla! Are you kidding?
What kind of a shitty game is this anyway?"
Second, killing opponents gets you Experience points. As does casting spells. It is easy to see how this is advantageous to wizards who cast killing spells: double points! Because of this, these wizards tend to advance much faster than their more humane brethren, will quickly outgun them and just as quickly derail the campaign. This problem is compounded by the fact that obtaining killing spells is easier for some schools than it is for others.

Not awarding EXP for killing to wizards is the easiest way to fix this. Let’s face it: it is all about the magic and the fact that it kills is vulgar anyway!

"Let's back away slowly... They get aggressive when you run."
"Do you smell something weird too?"

What’s in store?
We already have a fluff expansion (Tales from the Frozen City) containing Frostgrave fiction and an “official” Campaign (Hunt for the Golem). Osprey offers several online forms of support like a Quick Reference Sheet, an Errata list and Stat sheets.
In November the “Thaw of the Lich Lord” campaign expansion will be released. Dungeon expansion “Into the pits” has already been announced for next year so I am hopeful that this game will spawn add-ons for some years to come!


Celebrating the victory. Or our survival. Or just beer.




Conclusion
Frostgrave is a splendid little game. It takes me back to precious RPG experiences from long ago and seems to be just as immersing. The fact that it can be played with a few handfuls of figures combined with the book’s pleasant price lowers the threshold. Games are quick, bloody but captivating without becoming complex. The wide array of spells gives a lot of room for individual playing styles. The few structural faults are easily fixed (or left alone, if you do not find them disturbing).

It does require some investment in terrain, although this gives the opportunity for interesting projects with friends and/or club mates.

Recommended!


EDIT January 2nd 2017

Having played a number of games now I stand by my review of Frostgrave as a very enjoyable game. However, I must add a caveat. There's plenty of room for rules disputes in this game as the wording of the rules is not so much unclear, but neither does it always yield logical or expected results in every situation. This is in itself not a problem, as long as you accept that some interpretation is usually called for.

IMO the rules would be best employed as a recreational game where rules disputes should be decided by consensus and/or a diceroll.

This of course is not for everybody.

And the fact that it isn't is solidly proven by the fact that the explanatory rules thread on Lead Adventure  Forum is by now an staggering 93 (!) pages long.

The author has stated that Frostgrave is a game that should be played Read As Written (RAW) This literal approach unfortunately lends itself rather well to maximizing some rules effects for the more competitive players and encourages an endless quest for the maximum effect of any given rule and an equally endless min-maxing of your wizard's party. This tendecy is proven rather convincingly by those 93 pages of rules discussion.....

So some consensus beforehand might be recommendable before embarking on a Frostgrave quest to avoid either unsatisfying games or unpleasant opponents.

For those wanting to explore the best combinations, the rules thread can be found here



7 comments:

  1. Excellent review. I really enjoyed todays demo!

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  2. Superb review sir! I'm quite tempted but as usual for wargamers I already have too much on my plate. Thanks for posting :-)
    Matt

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  3. Thanks for the review....I am very tempted to get a copy (which will probably never get used).

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    1. I bought a copy fully expecting it not to get used but showed it around at my local games club and now we have a 8-10 player campaign on with people skipping other more established games.

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  4. I'm currently having a lot of fun playing this with my son!

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  5. Thanks for the kind review of my game.I'm glad you are having fun with it. My only comment, I don't believe I've ever said the game should be played 'Rules as Written', though I have used that phrase occasionally when asked to rule on a specific question. Generally, I have stated many times that I'm a huge fan of house rules and that players should change any rule that makes the game more fun for them.

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