Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Guest Review: Frostgrave, Round Two

So, after playing Frostgrave the one time in person, yesterday I managed to play again with Jason and Frank in the afternoon, making a totally new wizard (a summoner). I love this class.

That begin said when, at 9pm, the IRC folks wanted to play on maptool, I was going to use a summoner list... until I discovered that two of them were already playing summoners. So, I created an elementalist and played a very slow (but rewarding) game on maptool. One of the players, Tux, wrote this review to supplement the first.

Frostgrave, a Review in Two Acts, By Tux

Following the consideration of this review you will agree that Frostgrave is the best fantasy skirmish game. The combination of high impact combat, alternate activations and advancing your wizard offers an unparalleled experience in playing with toy soldiers which enriches your life, makes you happier and balances your cheque book. Ok, maybe not the last part, but everything preceding the cheque book stands.

What Is Frostgrave?

Frostgrave is two things, frostgrave is a ruleset to maneuver miniature toys modelled in the likeness of fantasy creatures and secondly, Frostgrave is a setting.

The setting, Frostgrave, presents  a frozen city of ancient magic having only recently begun to thaw out it has attracted treasure hunters, thieves, and aspiring mages to delve into the lost city, for better or worse. As far as interesting hooks go this is a standard fantasy trope, explore the ancient place which has treasure, ancient magic and no true ruler or owner (at least as far as this first book presents, more on that later), this looting of “abandoned” cities of course stemming from a romantic view of British Colonialism (and no surprise that this book comes from Osprey, a UK based company), however it is quaint to pretend that an invasion couldn’t directly harm someone, especially in this age of inter-connected world dominance where it is unlikely that you personally will ever discover something new, or forgotten (I do note the irony that just this year several new dinosaurs were discovered).

Frostgrave, the ruleset, is a book produced by Osprey written by Joseph A. McCullough. The rules detail creating a Wizard and his (or her, however male pronouns are used for convenience) warband to do battle with opposing warbands, how to activate and maneuver your figures, resolve spells and of course, resolve combat and looting. I had no troubles with reading comprehension, however I’ve forgotten how to play more board games and war games than most people ever play in their life. In honesty if you’re coming into this without a background in miniature wargaming you will probably find the rules a bit obtuse and awkward, perhaps requiring a few reads to understand things and their intentions (most notably activation, group activation and multi-figure combat). All in all I don’t believe they could have done a better job laying out the rules and the book’s production is great. Dmitry Burmak is the illustrator and his work really illuminates the pages and sets an excellent tone for Frostgrave, both the setting and the book.

What are Toy Soldiers?

Toy soldiers are miniature representations of soldiers, they come in all shapes and sizes from roman centurions and carthage chariots, to napoleon’s grenadiers or even modern american ground infantry. Previously (a very long time ago) they were made of lead, then pewter, these days they’re often white metal, resin or hard plastic. The most common scale is 28mm where a human (standing about 6 feet) is 28mm tall, and in this particular case we are concerned with the “Fantasy” range of toy soldier. Fantasy essentially means Tolkien, we’ll be looking at romanticized Medieval era technology, so knights, crossbows, bows, and thanks to a fantasy tilt, demons, golems, yetis, zombies, and skeleton warriors. Not truly historical toy soldiers, but still toys meant to be collected, painted, and loved.

Frostgrave The Book and More on Toy Soldiers

I mentioned that Frostgrave was two things, a settings and a set of rules, however it is also a book, a physical object which you can hold in your hand (or as a virtual book, you can hold it in your kindle, smartphone or laptop). As far as gaming books go the price is fantastic, $30 Cad for a hardback, 136 pages tome of fantasy. It’s wonderful and I got mine of Amazon off $22 mostly because I don’t currently have a local store to pop down to and remark, “Hey Mike, allow me to give you money to pay your bills and feed your children in exchange for Frostgrave by Osprey publishing.” So instead my money went to evil amazon and their evil ceo.

The Illustrations (previously mentioned that they’re done by Dmitry Burmak) are great if a bit bland, if you like wizards and fantasy you’ve no doubt seen similar images, mages with great spell effects locked in an “epic” struggle to determine who will reign supreme. While these images are fantastically done, and look stunning, they’re nothing new if you’ve opened a book about playing with toy soldiers in a fantasy setting. Often times there isn’t even an illustration, but instead a photograph of a carefully arranged diorama of North Star Military Figure’s Frostgrave line. North Star has a long running partnership with osprey and this Frostgrave line is some of the best. For twenty pounds (remember, Britain loves toy soldiers more than anyone else) you can get a box of twenty guys, believe me when I say this is the best price for the level of quality the sculpts have, these aren’t your childhood’s plastic green army men, these are exquisite renditions of men only an inch or so high. Sadly I’m already drowning in a pile of hundreds of unpainted toy soldiers so I won’t be purchasing any of North Star’s work in the immediate future. Without my pile of unpainted guys I would definitely order some from across the pond because I really like these and I’ve been rambling. In summary, physical book, illustrations, photos of well-painted miniatures (which come unpainted so you have to paint them yourself) and rambling.

The Turn (Where the Review Discusses Actually Playing the Game)

Ok, so Frostgrave does something brilliant in how it structures the turn. Traditionally, games play out with one side activating all their pieces before the other goes. I do not mind this, however in some cases it can lead to long periods of time where you do nothing but watch your guys get attacked and they cannot do anything immediately to remedy the situation. They have to wait until it’s your turn to dish out their fury, their retribution. However, Frostgrave does something brilliant, which ties your Wizard’s leadership of the warband into tangible gameplay altering mechanisms, which are extremely tactical and as I mentioned, I dare to call it brilliant.

The turn is divided into phases, and during a phase each player takes turn resolving their entire phase, the phases are Wizard, Apprentice, Soldier and Creature. During the Wizard phase you can activate your wizard and up to three Soldiers within 3 inches. Go back, read that again. You activate 4 of your 10 guys, then the other player (or players) activate 4 of their 10 guys. The caveat naturally follows that a figure can only be activated once per turn, however go back and read what I said about the wizard phase and what you do in it. Now, your wizard, who actively leads and guides his group of treasure hunters and underlings, actively guides them and leads them on the table, allowing them to move first, to claim defensive positions, to charge archers before they have a chance to react, to climb to safety, to skirt pits and ensure they can’t be pushed down to their doom. It’s fantastic and it’s a great take on alternative activation (like chess or checkers, where players take turns moving one piece at a time), it avoids the long drawn out engagements of each playing moving their whole army before the other side acts, but most importantly, it’s not free. That command range of 3 inches, is easier said than done, you will have to split up, you won’t get to activate all your soldiers quickly, some of them will have to wait and possibly get shot before they do anything. It takes a lot of planning and careful tactical decisions to truly do well in frostgrave, and even then the dice could forsake you, leaving your plucky treasure gathering fodder beneath the unforgiving heel of an enemy.

The apprentice phase, is as per the wizard phase, however your apprentice activates and up to three soldiers within three inches activate, so all the brilliance I mentioned above can be mentioned again here. Instead of rehashing it here, I invite you to return to the previous paragraph and read it again, it’s ok, I’ll be here waiting, I’ll just put on some coffee, take your time.

Now that you’re back, the soldier phase has been called the residual phase by my good friend Josh, any soldier who hasn’t been activated may be activated.

The creature phase which wraps up the turn rarely comes up, it’s the end of the turn where monsters (anything not player controller) act as per a simple algorithm discussed in the book. Monsters try and fight things, or they wander aimlessly. It’s simple and it works very well, it keeps the game bouncing along while adding in an element I adore in fantasy games. Monsters, non-player controlled obstacles (inevitably someone feels bad about turning another player’s character into a pincushion with their archers) which are still threatening and enjoyable to defeat.

Moving Your Toy Soldiers

It might seem odd to you that I’m discussing the movement, but in these games with glorified miniature Barbie dolls, tape measures are (often) used to determine how far something can move and precision and the exact whereabouts of creatures is very important. Frostgrave does an excellent job laying down simple rules to govern important movement functions, climbing, running, jumping, moving through rough terrain, moving while carrying treasure. All of these are excellently done and easy to remember. Climbing, rough terrain and encumbered with treasure is half movement. Jumping is a straight line equal in distance to how far you ran before jumping with a maximum of four inches, jumping from standing still is one inch. Ironclad, simple, effective, very tactical.

The only thing I could ask for more regarding these rules is how does jumping interact with your movement allowance? If you jump at the end of your move you could move an extra 4 inches, does your guy stumble if you try to do this? What if you count the 4 inches in his total move? There’s a lot here that I’m picking at, but these kind of corner case scenarios are important to a wargamer, and I have some excellent ideas on house rules to expand this jumping section. Not that it needs expansion, the rules are fantastic as is, I’m just worried about Todd who jumps all his guys to get extra distance when he moves his prancing, leaping, warband of thieves about the ruins.

Battle With Your Toy Soldiers (Dice Rolls in Frostgrave)

In these games of dungeons and dragons and swords and sorcery battle can be a dreary thing, with tables and charts and thingamajigs to determine who stabs the hobbit where and how much blood has he lost, frostgrave does another elegant solution, where hitting and damage is resolved with one die roll, cutting combat time down to the absolute minimum (of course deterministic combat could reduce this, but I’m personally not a fan of deterministic combat, I like the thrill of lady luck fucking me, leaving my best soldier dead at the hands of a two foot tall imp).

Furthermore since combat is an opposed roll it’s very thrilling as both players dice off against one another, seeing who lady luck wishes to fuck over the most, who she hates with the entirety of her cold dead bitch-heart (that’s a correctly hyphenated word “bitch-heart” the demonic heart within the chest of a bitch). Did I mention that I love dice? I’ve got over 100 of the cock-sucking egg-shaped rigged-to-fail pieces of garbage that always roll fucking ones.

That said, while I love dice, I love rolling them less because it makes the game faster, rolling dice is fun, and exhilarating, anything can happen, but since combat is ONE ROLL it’s very fast, very explosive, and the dice that Frostgrave uses are twenty sided, they’re numbered 1 to 20 and each side has a 5% chance of coming up. You’re as likely to succeed brilliantly as you are to utterly fail. It’s extremely swingy, very brutal. It feels like Conan trying to kill Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yeah they’re the same person and they’re going to smash each other’s face in, maybe.

You can stack everything in your favor, wall off his reinforcements, pile in your soldiers, but when the dice get thrown I’ve seen them go any way and every way. Frostgrave presents the results to you immediately and with minimal simple arithmetic your face will drain as you watch a warhound tear the throat out of your apprentice. It’s a blood soaked battered melee and I can’t get enough of it. Even if lady luck is a two-bit truckstop diving whore soaked in the seed of a thousand sutors. I still love her and couldn’t leave here even if I wanted to.

Casting Spells

As above, with combat, casting a spell is one d20 roll, and then the spell happens, typically you’re trying to roll above 8-12 but more difficult spells, or types of spells your wizard struggle with will be harder to cast. As above the nature of the twenty sided die is pure unbridled excitement, casting a spell is never guaranteed, and multiple times I’ve been scorned with my soldiers left in the open at the mercy of enemy arrows as my shit-bag-wizard cocks up the wall spell meant to mask their approach. It’s just as swingy as combat and just as exciting. I wouldn’t change it for the world.


As I mentioned before, I love it, a kind of neutral party which is immediately hostile to everyone. Players will form alliances, they will move to engage different targets and ignore certain people, however the monsters might always be there, they could show up based on scenario rules, or optional random encounter rules. I love them, my only complaint is there isn’t enough wandering monsters, I want to be drowned in them such that deciding to cripple an opposing soldier might leave me helpless as an extra monster rushes down my warband, overrunning me because I betrayed a temporarily ally against the mutual threat of zombie-demon-ghost-bears, or whatever, technically there aren’t any zombie-demon-ghost-bears, but you can definitely make zombie-demon-bears with the spells in the base game.

The Campaign

One of the most alluring features of any game, be it video, board, card or war, is a persistent character who you improve. Some of the most popular games center around improving your character and evolving them into exactly what you want (or in the case of injuries, exactly what you don’t want).

Frostgrave plays brilliantly on the table, but how it handles itself off the table is what makes it the best Skirmish game for Fantasy battles.

Your wizard will level up by casting spells and personally solving problems (like enemy soldiers, or monsters, or enemy soldiers). You also get experience from any member of your warband capturing treasure, but the rewards for getting your hands dirty and pretend-murdering the toy soldiers of other players poses a much greater risk and a much greater reward.

With your spoils you also setup a base which you can furnish with some gameplay boosting items, powerful effects at steep prices, definitely worth it and definitely well balanced. While players pull ahead they may spend a bunch of gold to get a measly +1 to a die roll (5% improvement) so they won’t outpace lesser wizards truly.

Treasure recovered takes the form in many ways, mostly gold (to buy items and soldiers) however potions, scrolls, magic swords, spell books, all of these crop up and feel appropriately strong in comparison to one another, nothing is obviously better than everything else, however the magical weapons with damage modifiers are notably weaker than their fight bonus cousins. You could house rule this quite simply but it doesn’t seem like much of a problem to me.

Injury in the Campaign

When a Soldier, or Apprentice, or Wizard, is “killed” on the tabletop, they’re not truly dead, and more often than not they manage to crawl, drag, or be carried to safety and make full recoveries, however just as you improve, those less fortunate may degrade.

Injury is checked with a, GASP, SHOCK, AMAZEMENT, d20 roll, with soldiers dying on 1-4, missing one game on a 5-8 and on a 9+ they make a full recover.

Wizards and apprentices die on a 1-2 and again on the 9+ they make a full recovery, with multiple different hindrances between 3 and 8, including two tables for dismemberment and crippling injuries.

There’s a good amount of depth and penalties which are all different and suitably flavoured. Losing toes makes you move slower for example, losing an eye makes you rubbish at ranged attacks and parallel parking (ok so there’s no parallel parking in frostgrave) and while unpleasant, it’s very rare for a wizard to be downed and require a roll on the table, even then the table is mostly harmless. Again, with careful playing and defensive planning you’ll never roll on these tables, but they’re perfect at what they do. A sword of damocles hanging over your warband, silently reminding you of the threat of each combat, and of course, since each combat is one die roll, anything can happen.

Closing Thoughts

I love it, it’s got more meat than the Songs series over at Ganesh Games, I still love the Songs games, and I’ll run them for quick battles, I’ll still run songs campaigns, I feel that Songs does simple bash-dudes-in-the-face-and-push-them-around while Frostgrave does high lethality fantasy combat. It reminds me a lot of Knights & Knaves over at HisEntCo where combat will be brutal and exacting, and you need to carefully pick your battles as your soldiers strength is whittled down.

The coolest upside I’ve found for frostgrave is how well it handles multiplayer games, due to the structure of the turn and activations it’s fairly fast moving (assuming no one player is overly slow) and players are well engaged. I know Josh’s dream is to play huge six player games on huge terrain filled tables, but that will have to wait for a little bit. The mini cottage needs another coat and the stone tower needs to be textured. A grove of small trees needs to have their leaves put on and I need to make some larger trees, spackle a guard wall, paint a guard's shelter. Truly the life of a terrain builder is never boring.

I hope I’ve convinced you to at the very least check Frostgrave out, it’s very fresh and very distinctly skirmish based. In a world of Wargaming where companies try and sell you as many toys as possible it’s rare for a game to tell you that you can only use ten figures (sometimes eleven, twelve, thirteen and I think with extreme prejudice 14 is the hard-cap-max after base building and manipulating your warband sheet).

It’s earned a spot on the book shelf, but it won’t spend much time there, I’ll be taking this one out frequently in a couple different campaigns, and probably writing scenarios for warbands to battle it out.

Cheers, happy painting, happy gaming, and tell lady luck she can go fuck herself.


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