Monday, December 19, 2016

Review: Frostgrave- Osprey Games

Frostgrave is another Osprey title, but unlike the Wargames series, this is a stand-alone hardcover with additional support books.  This is NOT part of their wargame range.  The level of support for Frostgrave is greater than any individual Osprey title in the wargame series.  The only Osprey titles close to this support level are Force-on-Force or Bolt Action.  Some would argue that even these do not count since they are produced by different companies and only printed by Osprey. 

Frostgrave is a Fantasy Skirmish game.  The core of the game is a Wizard’s warband who are exploring the ruins of a frozen, ancient city for magical artifacts and treasure.  The main genre hook is that you control a wizard and his band of followers.  It essence, this is a campaign game that is reminiscent of Games Workshops Mordheim.   

So, let’s dig in and see what we have behind the covers. 

Things I like
I am a big fan of campaign games.  Therefore, I am immediately happy to see that the bulk of this book is about the campaign itself.  The game mechanics are very simple.  Therefore, it could be argued that this is a game created specifically for campaign play as opposed to the campaign being an add-on feature.  Wizards gain experience, learn new spells, get better stats, and find treasures.  One nice feature is that you can manage your retinue of retainers, but also your base of operations!  That was a new twist to the campaign game for me. 

The Turn Sequence is an alternating activation with a twist.  First the Wizard and up to 3 henchmen nearby can activate.  Play then alternates to the opponent’s wizard.  When activated a model can move and perform a different action such as attack.  They therefore have 2 actions per turn.  Then, the Wizard’s apprentice activates with up to 3 nearby models, and then alternates to the opponent’s apprentice.  Next the remaining soldiers, and finally any creatures in the warband will be activated.  This is similar to Strange Aeons characters that have "command".  The difference is that each model will still get a chance to do something every turn.  This also allows players to act and react to each other’s moves.    

The game has an impressive number of wizard types and spells.  The different “types” of magic allows you to really customize your character wizard.  Each wizard starts with 8 spells and each type has different rules for how many of each school they can draw from.  Your wizard can gain a good deal of character from the beginning.  The game even has rules for summoners and enchanters which is a big plus.

Many of the scenarios in the game come with wandering monsters, traps, ransom events etc.  It gives the board itself a character of its own.  That means, the board is just as much your opponent as the other warband.  This gives it a very “fantasy” vibe, but may increase the “randomization” more than some players like.  There is a large bestiary and a lot of different magical treasures to be found.      

The more you beat a foe in combat, the more damage you inflict.  Each model has a set number of hit points, and once they are gone they are out of the game.  The campaign system is pretty basic for henchmen, they either die, miss a battle or are fine.  For the Wizard and Apprentices  they might get serious wounds that reduce their effectiveness rather than die 

Things I Do Not Like
For a game built around a campaign, the campaign leaves a bit to be desired.  For instances, it is pretty clear that some combinations of spells are just better than others.  Telekinesis and Leap are two examples of this critique.  In addition, the treasures are randomized and can easily lead to big swings in campaign power levels.  There does not seem to be a good way to power balance during the campaign such as Necromunda underdog rules.  A few early wins could put one player way ahead in the campaign.  Finally, the only model that really benefits or experiences the “campaign” is your wizard.  Everyone else is just fodder.       
The basic game mechanics are very simple and derived on a d20 basis plus your model’s stats modifier.  This can lead to big performance swings in your troops and even your wizard.    

I also have concerns about the Scenarios.  They are all based on grabbing treasures that are randomly placed on the board.  However, if you drive the other warband off, you can collect any remaining treasure.  Since it is hard to move treasure off the board the incentive is to always kill off all of your opponent’s warband and ignore the treasure.  That doesn’t sound like much of a scenario if it ultimately boils down to kill them all.

As far as I could tell, there were no morale rules in the game.  Models and warbands would fight until they were all removed from play or left the board.  That streamlines the game play, but again helps all scenarios essentially boil down to kill them all, which I do not find that fulfilling of an objective. 

Finally, the game is so streamlined that it has lost any “meat” to it.  There is no real tactics that I can find in the game.  There are a few tricks you can pull, but aside from the “special rules” in the scenarios, games will quickly get stale.  Essentially, the game is trying to create depth from the Chrome instead of out of the core mechanics.  Games that try this approach have a relatively low replay ability.

Meh and Other Uncertainties
The game does have a number of scenarios with wandering monsters and other little wrinkles to them.  However, the core of collecting treasure is the same in all of them. It is like playing Necromunda but only the LOOT scenario over, and over, and over again. 

The book has great art that really sets the mood and palette for the game.  The Northstar Figures are showcased very nicely too.  However, I felt that the book was padded out to make it a longer, thicker hardcover book.  The margins and spacing was huge so each page has a ton of white space. 

I also picked up Thaw of the Liche Lord.  This has several special scenarios for a campaign, new soldiers, new spells, and new treasures.  It essentially adds-on to the Frostgrave world but doesn’t shake it up.   You could play perfectly well without it, but it does add some more chrome. 

Final Thoughts
Before picking up and reading this book, I had heard a lot of positive buzz for this game.  Upon reviewing it closer, I was left disappointed.  Perhaps my expectations were too high?  The game does a great job handling the wizards and the magic, but the rest is a bit flat.  There is no depth to the mechanics and the games will get samey and stale.  You or your group will have to work to keep building fresh and interesting takes on the same “Loot” scenario again and again.  Plus, the core mechanics are so streamlined and simple that there is no real strategy or tactics; just parlor tricks. 

If you look at this as a campaign game, it does have a lot of nice elements.  However, ultimately they typically only impact your wizard.  Your soldiers all stay the same and your apprentice only gains as a reflection of your wizard’s skill.  Many of the interesting magical treasures serve more to unbalance the game than help it. 

Overall, Frostgrave was a solid effort at the Fantasy Skirmish genre, but I do not think we have found the clear and present champion of the genre yet.  At this point, I am unsure if I want to purchase any more Frostgrave related content.  Can someone share a compelling reason on why I should get Into the Breeding Pits?                 


  1. Some scenarios have different aspects than just collecting treasure. For example, the well mission grants extra xp to a wizard that makes it to the well and drinks. There are also tactics within the game. It can be as simple as determining which henchmen deploy with your wizard or apprentice to more complex tactics such as spell selection. The biggest part of the strategy in my opinion is how to use your spells to create interesting combos. For example, do you teleport across the board? Do you push an enemy or use push to help your henchman move farther before he activates? Do you poison the knight or the wizard so they only have one action? Do you place a wall to deny your opponent access to a treasure? Cast fog to block line of sight? Or cast crumble on a bridge that the opponent is crossing so they fall and take damage. The d20 makes games swingy and it can be difficult to have fun when all the rolls go your opponent's way. But win you turn it around and have that epic moment when a lowly warhound takes down that enemy knight with a natural 20 critical, your group could be talking about that moment for weeks.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. WELCOME!

    I think I am going to get the other two "Frostgrave" books as well. This game looks like it will be a fun game for my family to play together. This is the type of wargaming they enjoy.

    I have a feeling it will end up like "All Quiet on the Martian Front". It will be a game that I play often, even though I did not give it a glowing review.