Frostgrave Review: Entering The Frozen City

August 10, 2015 by brennon

I recently got my hands on the Frostgrave rulebook, a joint effort between Northstar and Osprey Publishing by Joseph A. McCullough. I was immediately drawn in by the thought of a campaign/scenario driven game where warbands gather outside a ruined city to plunder it for its treasures…

Cover Art

Background

The game of Frostgrave has you playing as Wizards and their Apprentices gathering a motley crew of mercenaries and cutthroats together to go raid the ancient city of Felstad, once a jewel in the crown of a mighty empire.

Chronomancer

When the city was destroyed by a magical cataclysm it was turned into an icy wasteland. Now it has been uncovered and the locals call it Frostgrave. All of the secrets of this ancient empire remain within its vast sprawling ruins. Treasures, monsters and more lie in wait for you.

While it’s not a lot to go on in terms of world building it does set the scene for all manner of adventures. Already there is a story available for you to buy which delves into the background a bit more called Tales Of The Frozen City and a campaign is planned for later this year, Thaw of the Lich Lord.

Making A Warband

We’ll kick things with a look at how you gather your warband. The first step is to make yourself a Wizard. There are ten schools of magic to choose from including regulars like Elementalists, Witches, Necromancers and Summoners but then others you might not expect like Soothsayers and Chronomancers. You have a lot to work your way through right from the beginning.

The Wizard

Once you’ve chosen your main school of magic you then choose spells for your Wizard to learn. Three of these come from your own school, three come from aligned schools, and the final two come from a neutral school. I will explain the mechanics of the game later but it is important to know at creation that any spell not of your own school is harder to cast.

Elementalist

You should bear this in mind because the way magic works can have an adverse effect on your Wizard if you fail to cast the spell by a significant degree. Spells themselves can be from two spheres. The first are spells that can be cast in game and the second are out of game.

In game is easy enough to understand but out of game spells are used between your play sessions to brew potions, summon zombies or demons or maybe even do a bit of in-depth research. What I like about this that it puts an emphasis on building a Wizard who has something to do in his/her off time. It builds character and provides a running narrative for the game even when it isn’t being played.

The next step is to choose who you want to accompany your Wizard into Frostgrave. The first big choice is whether or not you have an Apprentice in tow.

The Apprentice

An apprentice is a loyal retainer of the Wizard, a stalwart ally and hungry to learn from their master. They cost a whopping 200 gold pieces at the beginning of a campaign and know all the spells of their master. However the difference is they are just worse at casting the spells due to the suspicious nature of Wizards closely guarding their secrets.

Enchanter

This does mean that they can cause more problems than you might have planned for but they do offer tactical options and also can step in if your Wizard ever bites the dust. While it might seem like a huge chunk of your starting gold supply (you begin with 500 gold) they are very helpful in-game. I will explain more of their uses later when we go through a game turn.

The Soldiers

Soldiers, mercenaries, cutthroats, valiant knights – all of these kinds of people are drawn to Wizards entering the ruined city with the promise of coin and glory. Your next step in making a warband is that you must fill your ranks with people to protect you in the icy embrace of Frostgrave.

Necromancer

Unlike many other games you will only ever have ten models (including your Wizard and Apprentice) on your side in a game. This strict limit not only helps keep the game running quickly but also means that you have to put real thought into who you take with you into a fight.

Life is also cheap in the world of Frostgrave. Your henchmen will never, ever gain experience throughout the campaign – that is the reserve of the Wizard alone. You should also expect your men to die, a lot, but don’t worry – there are plenty of opportunities to pay for new soldiers.

Your choices range from the lowly Warhound and Thug at ten gold and twenty gold a piece  to more impressive warriors like the Barbarian, Ranger and Apothecary at 100 gold each. There is no restrictions on what you take either other than your warband limit. If you want to take a warband completely made up of crossbowmen then go for it.

Zombie Attack

The difference here is that your encouraged not to do that. Games are quick treasure grabbing affairs so you want soldiers who can cover your advance AND pick up treasure to run off with it too.

Since the statistics are fixed throughout campaigns of Frostgrave you shouldn’t think that your Knight is going to be a ‘take on all comers’ kind of hero. If he gets mobbed my a bunch of plucky thugs then he won’t be around for long.

The Game & Mechanics

The game of Frostgrave is based around the use of D20 dice rolls. This might seem odd at first, especially for a tabletop miniatures game, but the potential risk and reward values bought on my so many variables makes for a very fun experience.

The Basics

Mechanically the game is very simple. If you want to fight in close combat then you and your opponent roll a D20 and add your FIGHT stat to the roll. Whoever is highest wins the combat. The value of the highest dice (plus modifiers) is compared against the opponents ARMOUR and the difference is taken from their HEALTH. If there are multiple people aiding you in a fight you add +2 for each person. The reason that Knight wouldn’t be able to win that easily!

Undead Attack

To give you an idea, a standard ARMOUR value is around ten and health fluctuates from around the ten mark up to fourteen for some of the stronger characters. So, a good hit of sixteen against someone with armour ten would do six points of damage and cause a lot of pain.

Shooting is similar with one model rolling SHOOT while the target rolls FIGHT. Intervening terrain and such gives pluses to the defender allowing them to duck out of the way.

Magic is a bit different in that you have a target number to hit with your D20. A simple spell might only need an eight to cast while something devastating might have a harder target number of fourteen or sixteen. A Wizard (or Apprentice) will roll a dice and try to hit that target number.

Necromancer Warband

If they match or exceed the target number you’ll then carry on with the effects of the spell. This could be a damaging fireball, a wall crumbling illusion, or maybe to raise a demon from a different plane of existence.

If you fail to cast the spell then the magical energies lash back against you. You will take damage dependent on how badly you failed to cast the spell with a bracket of one to four being no damage and ten to nineteen being a nasty two. This is why I mentioned earlier that when choosing spells at the beginning it is important to bear this mechanic in mind! If all your spells are hard to cast you might end up killing yourself!

You can alter dice rolls after casting if you really need to. At the expense of their own health and essence a Wizard can boost a dice roll. One health point equals one more modifier in your favour and so on. This can be useful for important clutch spell casting or maybe to save yourself from dying to a terrible miscast.

Game Turns

A game turn is broken down into four steps. First off you roll for initiative with the highest value going first. They then get to activate their Wizard and anyone within three inches of him/her. The opposing player then does the same. Following that you have the Apprentice Phase with the same three inch rule, your opponent does the same. You can already see how Apprentices might be a damp squib but can really help tactically.

Frostgrave Soldiers

Lastly you have the Soldier Phase where the rest of your warband activates followed by your opponents. In a turn a model has two actions. One of these must be to move (although you could choose to just stand still). The second could be to fire a missile weapon, pick up treasure, fight in close combat if you are engaged by someone or cast a spell.

Importantly, and something I missed in my first games, you must complete all of the movement with your soldiers and Wizard/Apprentice during a group activation before doing their second actions. This means you CAN gang up on enemies more effectively for that +2 bonus etc.

A group activation is key to playing Frosgrave as it can give you a distinct advantage over an opponent and also help you protect your Wizard. Learning how best to utilise this in your games is the key to strategy in Frostgrave.

Scenarios

Games of Frostgrave are governed by a list of scenarios in the Rulebook. You simply roll on the table to see what your Wizards have stumbled upon. Most games will have a set amount of treasure you’re trying to get off the board or some special focus for your warbands to fight over.

Enchanter Warband

Games end when one side has been wiped out or when all the treasure has been removed from the board. There is no turn limit. I have some things to say on this however – some tweaks for my own group, which you might find helpful.

The Campaign

The real meat of Frostgrave is in the campaign system. After every game your Wizard will gain experience for all manner of different things. This experience can then be speny to upgrade your Wizard, learning new spells or making known ones easier to cast. You can also advance their own stat line to make them better fighters etc.

Demon & Summoners

Treasure is also then calculated by rolls on a selection of charts. You could find big caches of gold, magical items, spell grimoires (how you learn new spells) and more.

Lastly but not least you also get to think about building yourself a base of operations. Inns, Treasuries, Breweries and more are available to hole up in and you can then upgrade them too for out of game bonuses.

Final Thoughts & Home Rules

This game is a strong (and I mean really strong) skirmish/warband campaign game. The basic rules are simple enough for anyone to understand and the Wizards and their spells offer the complexity. You should never find that one Wizard is totally outpacing the rest of the ones in your group and there is also an end point worked into the rules (optional) where your striving to achieve Transcendence. I’ll let you find out about that for yourselves.

Sigilist

The book itself is also gorgeous. The artwork is superb and really serves to give you an insight into the world providing you with exciting possibilities for the tabletop. The Layout is top notch and the book is very easy to absorb. It gets a big thumbs up from me.

However, there are some things that I have already changed about the game for my group…

  • Wizard experience is very much in favour of those who are offensive. Not only do they get experience for casting spells but also for kills. While this sounds great it means someone who made a very backseat Wizard, and cast the same amount of spells, just gets frozen out. To remedy this JUST give experience for casting spells and not for kills (unless its the other Wizard/Apprentice you took out)
  • There is no limit on game turns which means games can drag on. We have enforced a Turn Five limit on games with a roll of a 4+ adding another turn. Think of it as your Wizards getting a break in the blizzards ravaging the city to look around before they have to escape – quickly trying to make a grab for treasure before it’s too late.
  • Warband wipeout rules are silly. When a warband is wiped out the opponent gets all the rest of the treasure on the board. We have moved past that rule I would like to think. Instead only award treasure for what YOUR men are carrying and/or have taken off the board. The rest was ‘too risky’ to get a hold of.
  • Out of game ‘trading’. As it stands there is nothing stopping your Wizard dumping all of his treasures on the market and buying what they want. To give the game a bit more of a role-play feel we said that only your Wizard and Apprentice get to go ‘shopping’ and when they do the shopkeeps/traders are limited in their selection (maybe three or four items) to show the rarity of these magical items. It also puts more joy into the ‘what will Bob have today!’ at the end of a game.

The ideas above were heavily influenced  and originally written by Ian of  Bad Karma who has written two pieces on the issues mentioned above – and include much more detail if you want to read more. To be clear discussions I had with my group appear to be linked with these previous article which, at the time, I was not aware of.

Please consider their blog as a good resource for chatter on Frostgrave – they have tactical articles and more.

While that might sound like a big list of complaints it isn’t. These house rules work for my group but yours might be happy with the game as it is. It’s a credit to the game really that it still works well with these tweaks. As it stands, out of the ‘book’ so to speak,  Frostgrave is a very good game that has a lot of potential to revitalise the campaign style game.

Witch

I can’t wait to get stuck into a proper campaign with my local store later this year and at home with friends. Keep an eye out for the campaign book later on this year too.

You can grab the Wizard Sheet & Spell Cards from Osprey (Spell Cards are VERY handy). Also don’t forget North Star have miniatures for both Wizards & Soldiers too – I’m already painting up my own warband!

Frostgrave Artwork by Dmitry Burmak

Have you played Frostgrave?

"If you fail to cast the spell then the magical energies lash back against you. You will take damage dependent on how badly you failed to cast the spell..."

"As it stands, out of the 'book' so to speak, Frostgrave is a very good game that has a lot of potential to revitalise the campaign style game..."