After playing half a dozen games of Frostgrave and I think it is a game needs more recognition. Frostgrave is designed by Joseph A. McCullough, published by Osprey Gaming and miniatures are produced by Northstar Figures. Frostgrave is about a Wizard and his team of mercenaries plumbing the depths of a magical city to take treasure and lost artifacts. Frostgrave has a soft spot in my heart because it reminds me of 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons. First, Frostgrave uses d20s. Second, the gameplay is incredibly swingy so don’t expect a very competitive game. Third, the entire game is structured around levelling up your Wizard, so it seems to be a nice compromise with the desire to have a campaign but not have to keep track of each of your soldiers like in Mordheim/Necromunda.
The first thing we’ve got to acknowledge that this game has a Crit Mechanic and it does indeed kill people. In Frostgrave, two opposing soldiers roll their Fight or Shoot skills and then compare to determine the winner. Whatever the die result is subtracted by a model’s Armor score, which is usually 10, to determine the damage. With most models having 10 HP, it’s pretty easy to kill the opposition with one or two hits. The Crit Mechanic is whenever a player rolls 20, the amount of damage they do is doubled. So, if you have a Fight of +3, a Natural 20 results in 23. 23 minus the target’s Armour is 10, meaning that the 13 damage leftover is doubled to 26. Again, the standard HP is 10. Whoever you Critted? He dead.
Another funny feature is what I call the “Karmic Strike”. If both players result is exactly the same in Melee, they both hit each other. It is quite possible to get the elusive Double KO. I’ve yet to have the ultimate result: a Critical Karmic Strike.
You start by picking your type of Wizard and then, according to the rulebook, most importantly need to figure out your Wizard’s Name and Sex. The sex doesn’t come up ever again. You’re also playing with little war dolls about Wizards, so the answer to Sex if it were a question is an obvious No. There’s the standard Necromancer, Elementalist and Witch for schools but some other charming differences. Chronomancers for a time mage or Sigilist for writing. It seems the ten schools of magic are divided equally between long term advantage, supporting your soldiers, blasting everything to bits and collecting tons of critters.
Character creation is pretty easy. Pick a Wizard School, choose three of eight spells. Your Wizard School has three allied Schools, pick one spell from each. Then pick two from the five neutral and your Wizard can’t start with the one opposed School. Once you do that, you buy an Apprentice who has weaker stats than your Wizard but is still more impressive than soldiers. With the leftover gold, you buy a few soldiers and you’re ready to venture into Frostgrave.
The gameplay is simple: roll for a scenario that adds an extra incentive for your Wizard to get in the centre of the board and try to get as much Treasure as possible off of the board. Each piece of Treasure grants 50 XP and a random roll on what loot you brought home. Oh yeah, there’s just so many random rolls on Charts it brings a back a cherished memory of 2nd Edition D&D (Or a PSTD flashback, your experience of AD&D may vary). Once all the treasure is claimed, a force is wiped out or all players agree to end the game, everyone finds out the fate of each soldier that fell. Yeah, there’s perma-death to avoid while trying to level up your Wizard. It only takes 100 XP to level up, so a Wizard will be gaining 2-4 levels each game.
Frostgrave has a large unbalanced factor, so much so that the rules explicitly state “This is your own game with your friends, make whatever rules changes you want!”
Seeing the lack of standard bases with Frostgrave effectively gives carte blanche in my mind to proxy with whatever. Do I plan on buying Frostgrave models? No. Why? I play wargames for the games, not for the hobby aspects. So how do the mechanics shake out? Let’s start with what I dislike.
Whenever a Treasure is picked up, there’s a chance for a random monster to spawn. That’s cool but I feel like that monsters don’t spawn frequently enough. Currently, you need to roll a 16 or higher to spawn a random monster, then you roll to determine the difficulty of the monster, roll on a chart to determine which monster and then place the monster on a random board edge. I do have three quick solutions: Make the random roll a 15 or higher with 15 to 17 representing “Level One” monsters, 18-19 be “Level Two” monsters and 20 be a “Level 3” Monster. This eliminates a die roll in the process. The other solution for low spawn amounts is to play special scenarios that have monsters naturally occur, such as the Worm Hunt, Mausoleum or Living Museum scenarios. Lastly, monsters probably shouldn’t spawn in Deployment Zones as that causes a lot of hassle to a particular player. The second book, a campaign book, already has this with monsters only ever spawning on non-player sides.
I also find the models in Frostgrave to be very bland. There’s no character in them but I’ve found a sort of strength to that that the creator probably doesn’t: you can configure your force however you want. There’s no racial advantages with your forces, which is a good thing, so you can make your explorers as Dwarves, Lizardmen, Githyanki or any sort of combination you want! The lack of uniformity in bases has actually inspired my proxying to be as insane as possible. It’s been fun looking at the confusion at random people at my LGS trying to figure out what the hell I’m playing.
There are a few Spells that seem incredibly unbalanced. To cast a Spell, you need to roll under the number. If your Wizard or Apprentice succeed, you gain 10 XP. The difficulty of the Spell can be lowered down to 5 (so only 1-4 on d20 is a failure), which means that the best spells can be brought to a manageable number. The four largest offenders are: Leap, Reveal Secret, Elemental Blast and Bone Dart (so you should definitely consider having these).
Leap moves a model 10″ and means they cannot be activated this turn, furthermore it cannot be used to place one of your models into combat. What makes Leap so egregious? You target your model that is carrying the Treasure and use Leap to get them off of the board. Carrying Treasure is incredibly punitive and Leap removes the majority of those problems. It’s also a pretty good investment for your Wizard or Apprentice’s Turn: 10 XP for succeeding the spell, 50 XP for getting Treasure off of the board, you push the game closer to its conclusion and you get the loot of whatever that Treasure was.
Reveal Secret is neat because it is an Out of Game Spell. These are cast either before or after a game and influence it, these range from Raising Undead, Constructing Golems, Make Miracles, Penning Scrolls, Brewing Potions any many others. Out of Game Spells don’t give you XP for passing in their casting, but they also don’t damage a Wizard or Apprentice if you fail the die roll. What Reveal Secret does is places a Treasure right before your Deployment Zone. I like that you place Treasure down before deciding on Deployment Zones, which incentives balanced Treasure Deployment. Reveal Secret upsets this, giving away 50 XP and a Treasure early.
Elemental Blast/Bone Dart give the player 10 XP if you pass the spell. What makes them troublesome is they generate a +8 and +5, respectively, Shooting attack. Soldiers are capped at +5 Fight and +4 Shoot, which means this is incredibly potent attack. Furthermore, if a Wizard scores a kill they gain 40 XP for a Soldier, 80 XP for an Apprentice and 150 XP (!) for a Wizard. This means that an Elementalist or Necromancer has a large advantage if they decide to go on a killing spree, while the more support oriented mages will be unable to power-level.
Fractions in Movement is the last real problem I have in Frostgrave. Models have anywhere from 5-7 inches in Movement, with Monsters going as high as 8″. If a model uses its second action to move, it gets half of its Movement Stat. For example, a Move 5 model that Move+Moves would go 5″ and then 2.5″, so far so good. The problem arises in that two effects half Movement: rough terrain and carrying Treasure. Considering the description of the city is a frozen wasteland, rough terrain should be a thing; furthermore, Treasure is the objective. Move 7 models are fast, but it’s problematic when a Move 7 model carrying Treasure through rough terrain double moves at 1.75″ then .85″. A simple ’round up’ would be nice here after a certain point.
Onto things I like about Frostgrave: you’re always pushing towards concluding the game. I’ve played enough games where my opponent has won but they’re going through the motions to get more points, secure the victory even moreso or just general incompetent dicking around. Due to the randomness and ease of which things can die, you don’t want to be on the board as long as you want to. I’ve played multiple games where my opponent decided to evacuate their Wizard and/or Apprentice, letting their random soldiers fight because they didn’t want to take the risk of what could happen. This is flavourful of a Wizard funding an expedition.
I like that combat is incredibly swingy with the Face-to-Face. Any Infinity player will understand that dice will be dice. This adds a sense of danger to any and all combats, especially with the possibility of a Crit. I like that dramatic tension, as it makes the game feel like a game rather than a pre-executed televised match where I’m just watching what’s unfolding. This means victory is not held by bullheaded tactical rushes, but executed strategies. I guess you could say that is the first strategy game I like because minor tactics will often blow up in your face.
I like the amount of terrain required to play Frostgrave. The game explicitly states that there should be no more than 6″ between terrain pieces. The flat, empty boards I see in a lot of miniature games don’t interest me. It’s what initially attracted me to Infinity and Batman: boards you manoeuvred on, not just ran towards each other. I also like the rules that state that Frostgrave is a frozen ruin, so everything is climbable. There’s foot and hand holds that’ll bore a rock climber: which means that random soldiers can try to get elevation.
Another part that I like about Frostgrave is the ‘Spell Gradients’. There are 8 spells in the core book for each School of Magic. You’ve got your simple, easy Spells whose target number starts out at 8. These are the types of spells you’ll spam to gain levels with during play, as they only fail on a die roll of one to seven. If you’re close, you can pay HP to pass with one HP per point. It’s punitive enough that you begin to agonize over near misses. You’ve got the useful spells at 10 and 12, which are great but require some forethought and levelling before you’ll actually use. Then you have “the Ultimates” – these spells that start at 18 and are worth learning but you probably won’t be casting until way down the line. These aren’t something you Hail Mary unless you really need a Hail Mary; again, failing to cast a Spell does damage to you. These Ultimate Spells exemplify there Schools so well: take an extra turn with Chronomancy, Slay Living with Necromancy and Raise Dead with Thaumaturgy, for example.
Another point I like about Frostgrave is that there is no winner. There are just survivors, upgrading your Wizard and moving onto the next game. You could say that someone got four Treasures to your opponents two but I find that they’re focusing more on ‘What to upgrade?’ than ‘I lost’. Campaign systems in wargames are usually bad because they unbalance the core mechanic of the game but with Combat and Spellcasting already so uncertain, I find that the upgrading doesn’t warp the game. Your Wizard doesn’t gain more depth, their power comes from the breadth of abilities.
Lastly, Frostgrave is a wargame that is so casual you can actually have easily supported multiplayer matches. Multiplayer, as in, three or more players. Infinity falls apart with more than two players due to the ARO system. Warmachine and Warhammer games turn into giant apocalypse fiascos. The Batman Miniature Game requires a special format. Frostgrave can have a player for each board side with plenty of Treasure but also danger. Isn’t that the whole point of Wargames? The social aspect? No need to say “Sorry, I already got a game” unless you want to.
In Conclusion, Frostgrave is a fun, beer-and-pretzels wargame that doesn’t require a lot of memorization like many other games. Players who want to keep track of their individual soldiers life stories before they’re torn apart by zombies can. Those who just want to play a game can do so. It’s got the growth of a campaign game but you only have to keep track of your Wizard and loot instead of each individual soldier’s stats. Frostgrave plays like a casual game of D&D where you have a party, your opposition is your fellow players and the Game Master just loves spawning endless skeletons.
Give Frostgrave a try.