Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Frostgrave, Round One

Last Friday when the board game group got together (haven't been able to get them all to play one of the roleplaying games of choice yet, they're all over the map and I refuse to run Pathfinder, 3e, 4e, or 5e of D&D), we played Frostgrave. We didn't invest in the Osprey minis or any terrain because we had no idea if the game was good or not. Instead, we had a mishmash of Battle for Skull Pass, 7th Edition Warhammer Dwarfs, and Warmachine miniatures. It was a nightmare of styles. For terrain we used gourds, boxes, and other such trash, so the ruined city of Felstad wasn't in top form.

NEVERTHELESS, it was pretty fun.

The concept of Frostgrave is similar to Games Workshops' now-discontinued Mordheim. In fact, the two games could be siblings. The ruins of Frostgrave are littered with treasure. Each player creates a wizard to be their "character" and hires up a warband to hunt that treasure. There are excellent campaign rules for running games with multiple encounters, giving levels to your wizard, and recovering magical items of various potency.

This took the longest time. We only had one copy of the book, I was the only one who had read it before, and I sprang the game on everyone as they appeared at my house. Therefore, there was a lot of needless rules explaining, re-reading, and list-making. However, Frostgrave contemplates very small "armies" (warbands of no more than 10 models, 11 if certain optional rules are used) and therefore it didn't take too long at all to get three lists made. I, of course, made the list for myself and my wife ahead of time.

The most time-intensive element is making your wizard.
Not including painting, obviously
There are a number of classes based on the available schools of magic (Chronomancy, Elementalism, Enchanting, Illusion, Necromancy, Sigilism, Divination, Conjuration, Thaumaturgy, and Nature) with each getting access to the spells of most others. However, casting spells from outside of your home school is more difficult. Wizards get 3 spells from their home school, 3 from one of each of the "allied" schools, and 2 from any two neutral schools.

This makes the creation of the wizard critical to the functioning of the warband. I, for example, picked what is objectively one of the dinkiest wizard classes (Sigilist) in the vain hope that it might encourage Jocelyn and Frank to beat the shit out of me and enjoy learning the game. Instead, I got into a casting conflict with an experienced wargamer at the table and came out on the losing side of that exchange. Still, even with his carefully built warband of powerful knights, my one reserve combat spell (from outside of my school, even) nearly knocked him out of the game by killing a number of his very expensive units.

The game is fast for a wargame. Battle is a contested d20 roll with the winner dealing damage. Spells are critical. But the most interesting facet of gameplay is that there really aren't very high incentives to knock out other warbands save insofar as you want the treasure they're grabbing. What this amounts to is a disincentive to fight if you don't have to and a real incentive to push two enemy warbands into each other and grab all the loot.

These incentives are codified in the experience chart for wizards, which is tallied at the end of every battle. While knocking down enemy warband members grants some paltry xp, casting spells also grants a little experience. Killing an enemy wizard is worth a great deal, but each treasure is worth 50 experience at the end of the battle as well. This means that treasure, which allows you to upgrade your warband, may contain magic items and new spells, and is worth a sizeable chunk of xp, is the most valuable goal to pursue in the game.

Jocelyn, who never fought another person in any kind of combat, managed to secure 5 treasures to everyone else's 2-3. She gained as many levels as combat-hardened wizards and now has a huge stock of items and gold to boot.

The Campaign
The campaign factor is what makes everything interesting. I got the snot kicked out of me and had to withdraw early with no treasure. However, due to the fact that each warband can choose a "base" in the city after their first game, I managed to secure myself a treasury vault and make up for some of my awful gameplay. There are inns, libraries, and other such places to make your own as well.

The ongoing continuity between battles presents an interesting conundrum for the players, as my experience now shows that they will tend to ally to limit the expansion of the leading player and provide extra treasure for themselves in the battles to come.

There's no point-balance system; you hire your warband with the gold you won in the previous matches or stored from matches before. This is an intriguing mechanic, and one that mirrors the most interesting parts of Warhammer campaigns whereby victories in certain campaign battles may lead to additional (or restricted) point-buys in later ones.

The balance seems weighted very well. Melee is not overwhelming, and ranged attacks won't destroy a warband that doesn't have them if their wizard deploys correctly and makes good use of terrain. The spells, at least at level 0, aren't game-altering. They certainly shift the tables of victory, but they don't obliterate entire gobs of men.

Would play again. Very enjoyable. Considering getting Osprey miniatures for it and putting together some real terrain.

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