Review: Frostgrave

FrostgraveSwerving a bit off the beaten path of military and sci-fi war games, Osprey press has recently released Frostgrave. Set in a cursed city of ruins and perpetual ice and snow, players create a small warband headed by a fledgling wizard in search of powerful artifacts and treasure. It’s a small skirmish game of up to 10 figures per side and may have the occasional few neutral monsters thrown into the mix (that will attack anyone in sight). The game is designed around 28mm models on a small 3’ x 3’ table. It’s certainly not far in theme and concept from Games Workshop’s defunct game, Mordheim.

Each member of a player’s warband has a stat profile expressing armor, movement, fighting and shooting skills, their defense to ward off spells, and health pools. Turn order is a segmented IGOUGO. Players roll off for initiative and the winning player activates their wizard along with up to 3 followers within 3″. Afterwards, their opponent does the same. Then if a side has an apprentice, they can activate (with the same restrictions for followers) and alternately the opposing player activates their apprentice. Lastly, the sequence is repeated for any soldier followers that did not activate in the previous phases. A special end of turn phase occurs for any independent creatures on the table.

When a model activates, they can take up to two actions. If they take two actions, one of them must be a movement action. So no double attacks, but it allows for a little flexibility like a model shooting and then returning into cover. All rolls in the game are based on a d20. For melee attacks, players roll and add their fighting skill. Whoever rolls the highest wins the round and can then inflict damage. For shooting, it follows similar process but a player compares their shooting skill vs the target’s fighting skill with modifiers for cover benefiting the target. The difference is in shooting, the player simply misses with no repercussions unlike in hand to hand combat.

For scoring wounds, the same roll to hit is then compared to a target’s armor value. Most units will have an armor of 10-14. Players subtract a target’s armor from the attack roll and each positive number indicates points of damage the target suffers. Health point totals are also typically from 8-14 points. You’ll quickly find with some lucky die rolls followers in your warband will be dropping like flies.

Movement is a simple system based on inches with any terrain requiring double the rate. There are simple rules for scaling walls, jumping and falling damage. There are few weapon options with most being either small defensive weapons, run-of-the-mill weapons, or great weapons that do more damage. As missile weapons go, you can have bows or slower firing (but higher damage) crossbows. There are no individual armor options. In truth most of these slight variations in gear get wrapped up in the profile of specific followers. So you can have that high health, quick moving, heavy hitting, berserker barbarian. Or instead opt for a slower, hard-hitting but high armored heavy knight to add to your warband.

Of course what’s central about Frostgrave is your wizard. They start off with a selection of spells from a particular school of magic and a few other related schools. Each school of magic has 8 spells within them. Your apprentice has the same spells to access, they just aren’t as effective at casting the spells.

Each spell has a target number for casting ranging from 8 up to 14 for the more powerful spells. Roll equal or higher than the target number and the spell is successfully cast. If you fail, you’ll take 1-2 points health damage. Essentially this helps curb the amount of casting as botched spells slowly drain the health of your wizard and apprentice.

Tacked onto this are the different schools of spells and casting difficulty. Even casting spells aligned with your school incurs a +2 penalty to the target casting number. Neutral spells have a penalty of +4 and this penalty is greater for opposed spells. So even the easiest spell cast still has roughly a 50/50 chance of fizzling and damaging the caster. To get around this somewhat, the wizard can self inflict damage to boost the die roll ensuring a spell is successfully cast. So if you absolutely have to get a spell off, you’ve got that (dangerous) option.

What seems central to Frostgrave is encompassing a larger campaign. After each battle the wizard of a warband will earn experience and treasure. Treasure can be spent to alter the composition of the warband, while XP is used to improve the wizard’s abilities and expand their knowledge spells. They can even reduce the casting penalty for a spell, lowering the chance of any backlash for failure. Some treasure can be magical imparting bonuses to your wizard or soldiers if equipped. And if taken out of the game, each soldier has a chance to recover while wizards and apprentices might gain permanent injuries.

There are 10 scenarios listed in the book but basically all of them are smash and grab encounters. They suggest a general board layout and some unusual terrain feature, or add the appearance of a neutral monster type, but that’s about it. The campaign goals themselves are pretty sparse. This is a game about gaining as much fame, booty, and power as possible. That’s about it for the campaign game.

The Good – Frostgrave is a pretty enjoyable fantasy skirmish game. The mechanics themselves are simple to grasp and don’t get bogged down in a lot of simulation detail. There are enough situational modifiers and gradations of soldier followers to give each warband some flavor. But at the same time not so much there is an extensive list needing a multi-page quick reference sheet for play. Add to this the 10 different schools of magic with 8 spells each, and you’ve got a lot of list building toys to play with. It seems to capture enough chaotic action with a low figure count to make for a fun fantasy-themed skirmish game.

The book is hardbound and an easy set of rules to read through. Plenty of color artwork and photographs are liberally spread among the pages which effectively spark that excitement of sword melee and spell-slinging battles.

The Bad – It’s odd that for all the streamlined modifiers and gear, you seem to get bogged down in a lot of bookkeeping. What especially stands out is the way damage is inflicted. You compare a high attack roll to an armor value and take the difference off a model’s health total. Yes, you’ve got hit points. This is a hair’s breadth away from being something you’d see in a RPG rule book. I appreciate how casting spells are related to health totals. Unfortunately this seems to carry over to rank and file units. Yes, the game can be exceptionally lethal. But it can also end up with models having a lot of minor fleshwounds. Expect to have a warband roster sheet at the table with a pencil handy to keep track of health totals.

Sadly this also does not stay with just hit points… err.. health totals, but also with wizard XP. Experience is liberally gained during a fight which is cool. But you have situations where XP is gained for each successful spell and personal kills are made. Not to mention for each bit of treasure collected. Yes it’s fun to earn oodles of XP but the excessive bookkeeping can become a chore.

The longer campaign rules are nice but you begin to notice how hollow they are along with the scenarios. It’s truly similar to a kick-in-the-door-kill-the-monster-get-the-loot kind of game. The campaign is about gaining the most stuff and becoming the most powerful wizard. There really isn’t anything else besides that. There is an optional rule where a player can attempt to cast an instant campaign win spell. It requires the accumulation of several spells and even more advancement effort into casting the spell (which is essentially impossible until spending several experience points in reducing the casting penalty).

It’s a shame as so many out of combat spells and parts of the game revolve around campaign play. Clearly that is what the game is designed around. It’s just that an overall campaign (and the scenarios that support it) never provides anything more aside from the winning player having the warband with the most gold and XP.

Lastly, the game world is set in a labyrinth set of ruins covered in snow and ice. You might be able to get away from the arctic theme, but the game is designed around having tables with lots of high cover and isn’t that flexible in terrain layouts.

The Verdict – I was hopeful for Frostgrave and it got some things right. I like the relatively streamlined task resolution and the game doesn’t seem to get bogged down in movement, spell, and combat mechanisms. The idea of rolling off d20s against each other is quick and engaging. There is a little back and forth play as you’ve got some alternate unit activation and as enemies have limited reactionary movement, you can also take the initiative some forcing a melee combat out of turn. The tinkering of warbands and spells for your wizard is fun along with deciding how to spread out magic items and potions. That thrill of expanding your warband, spells, and allocating treasure after a successful battle is a fun concept.

What mars this a tad is the excessive bookkeeping for damage and XP gain. You are going to need a few sheets of paper handy to track everything. I’m certainly immediately thinking of tweaking the rules some for warband soldiers and using damage tokens instead. The same might be said for keeping track of XP gained during the game too. I’m considering some simple scenario rules where earned victory points translate into XP gains.

This bleeds over some to the overall game. If you aren’t running a campaign, you seem to be seriously hobbling the system. There are a plethora of spells that have the most function in campaign play. The overall goal of the campaign system is limited too. The impressive list of scenarios is really just a list of terrain effects and complications to sprinkle in the regular objective of getting loot and wiping out the enemy.

So I find Frostgrave a mixed bag. There are a lot of little things here to enjoy. The lists of different magic items, independent creatures, and various spell schools are great. Immediately off hand I’d consider this a better choice over Mordheim. Task resolution and play is a bit more streamlined, yet also more dynamic than Mordheim. The XP system is also geared primarily to improving your wizard, so you aren’t having to tweak every member in your warband. At the same time, you can figure out what combination of soldier followers would work best and there are a few spells that supplement your warband’s fighting abilities.

I guess I wish the idea of a quick skirmish game was embraced a bit more, especially with the bookkeeping of health totals. Frostgrave has those trappings but it’s still a bit further away from something like Songs of Blades and Heroes for ease of play. There’s a lot of potential here, but as a whole it seems to falter a little.

Granted, as a rule system for a fantasy skirmish game Frostgrave is successful. There is fun here. It’s just not as innovative or elegant as something like SAGA. Though, I can’t really fault it for that. Frostgrave has that feel of a fluid and magical Mordheim with much of the clunky bits of that older game shed off. It’s sleeker and far dynamic. While Frostgrave trips some, there are more solid parts making it definitely hold up as an enjoyable fantasy skirmish game.