Frosthaven – Reviewing The Behemoth Of Board Gaming

January 27, 2024 by brennon

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Back in May of last year, Cephalofair were kind enough to send us a copy of their follow-up to Gloomhaven. Frosthaven (understandably) took the board gaming and crowdfunding world by storm with a mammoth $12,969,608 raised on Kickstarter allowing them to make a bigger and better experience in an astonishingly huge box.


You may now be thinking "Why has it taken you until 2024 to do a review of Frosthaven?" Well, I did ponder this myself and considered that I might do my review of the game after taking on the first few quests. Once we got into the box it then dawned on me that it was going to take a while before I would have played enough of the game to give an accurate take on my feelings about the game and suggest if you should be picking it up. So, nine months down the line, I finally think I'm in a position to tell you my thoughts on the game.

The Premise

Much like Gloomhaven, Frosthaven puts you in the snow-covered boots of a band of mercenaries. However, instead of exploring the streets and surrounding lands of Gloomhaven, you're sent into the frozen wilderness where not only are you tasked with completing quests for coin and renown but also taking on a much bigger challenge.

frosthaven cover

Without much gilding of the lily, Frosthaven takes you right out of your first encounters and into one of the core elements of the new game. Rather than just using the town that you find yourself in as a hub for quests and a place to tinker with your gear, Frosthaven asks that you take a much more active role in the development of this outpost on the edge of the wilds. The town becomes almost another character in your party, upgrading and changing with you and with a cast of NPCs that you'll soon latch onto a lot more than you did in Gloomhaven.

Not only that, but as the campaign progresses and more and more quests are completed, the wilderness will start to fight back and you'll have to start making choices when it comes to defending the town against Algox raids and all sorts of other strange occurrences. This means that, as you dive into Frosthaven, you're immediately struck by how much more there is to do when you sit down to play the game.

frosthaven building

Yes, the core of the Frosthaven experience is still heading out to different quests and completing the various storylines but you will spend much more time than you previously did back at base, crafting potions, building weapons and armour, dealing with raids, building new defences and structures. This is all on top of the event cards that you get each time you return which throw typically Childres-like moments at you where you'll be playing with the moral quandries put before you. A word of caution, never underestimate strangers that you meet!

frosthaven sheet

This all felt a little overwhelming at first but once you start to sort through the various sheets of sticker paper, the large map and all of the card decks that you end up needing, it feels like it's just as fun as the actual dungeon delving that you do in Frosthaven.

Talking of the dungeon delving and adventuring, Frosthaven has also expanded in that regard. The campaign is now spread across seasons on a calendar where you'll get different road events and access to various quests depending on their position in the calendar and the time of year. In addition to that, the quests are now sorted out via a series of branching campaign boards which show where your next quest is going to take you and whether or not it's tied to the main storyline or something of a side venture.

frosthaven quest sheet

Whilst this all seems like a lot on top of what was already a HUGE game in Gloomhaven (and you wouldn't be wrong), it's all done without it feeling cumbersome. The quality of life improvements on the campaign side of things are immense and it's made for a much tighter experience. I also know a LOT more about what's going on in the storyline for Frosthaven which I couldn't say for Gloomhaven (I may have forgotten what we were even doing after around the halfway point in the original game).

Taking all of that into account, Frosthaven takes the familiar trappings of Gloomhaven, namely Town, Upgrade, Quest, Return To Town, Upgrade (repeat) and then layers on another bonus bit of fun for you to sink your teeth into. It does become an all-encompassing experience and one that, despite how fun it is, isn't for the faint of heart. More on that later.

The Questing

Those familiar with Gloomhaven aren't going to be seeing much of a change in the core mechanics of Frosthaven. You still use your hands of cards (two per turn) to decide on your actions (resolving a top and a bottom from each) and manoeuvre around the board. These cards also act as your stamina and a timer for how long you'll be able to stick it out in a given quest meaning that clever use of cards and knowing which ones to cycle out as you rest is key to victory.

frosthaven algox

Damage is still handled in the same way with a base number noted on the cards plus the number from the flip of your combat deck. This could be minus or plus damage to your attack, allowing you to critically hit or just miss. It's a simple but effective system that continues the "Euro" trend from Issac Childres and becomes immensely satisfying as you learn to master your cards and fine-tune your combat deck to suit your characters. You can find out more about the core mechanics of the series in my original Gloomhaven Review but it's worth noting that all of the classes (at least the ones I've played) feel like they have a place and the mechanics behind them are more tightly tweaked than the original game.

Talking of characters, I'd say that you're in for one hell of a wild ride. Whilst some of the characters are easier to wrap your head around than others, some are a real step up in terms of complexity compared to Gloomhaven. Fancy being a little fellow who can speed up and slow down time around them? What about a character that's two swarms of bugs where you switch between a melee and ranged form featuring two different decks? Yeah, pretty wild!

frosthaven enemies

Whilst more complicated than previous entries in the 'Haven series, the game does signpost this with difficulty ratings on various classes when you get started so you'll be able to make some informed decisions. My friends and I have never found a particular character not fun to play which is a boon. Sure, we've had to grok them and get to know how they work but it's never melted our brains as we try to work out the puzzle.

On the subject of characters, I do like how Frosthaven deals with the different characters and unlocking the additional ones in the box. They are still found through the completion of personal quests but also by fulfilling particular criteria during your campaigns. This means that more variety and fascinating mechanics become available more readily meaning that you won't feel trapped in a particular style of gameplay.

Whilst the game also provides you with plastic miniatures (which aren't massively better in quality than those in Gloomhaven), the team have included cardboard standees for them in the character boxes and thankfully all the enemies are also still in standee form. I love the new artwork across the game which is equally as inventive and unique as the game mechanics themselves. Plus, you don't feel like you have to paint a mound of miniatures.

The Challenge

What's also nice about the changes in Frosthaven is that the team of designers and guest designers behind the game have been given time to refine their craft. There are plenty of "kill all enemies" quests which are a combat puzzle in their own right, but there are a lot of quests that have you trying to defend objectives and smash your way through rooms and that's without the scenario-specific rules that occasionally pop up. To give you an example, we recently did a quest where you slide everywhere and so all of your previous movement ideas go out of the window!

frosthaven starter sheets

This also means that the difficulty can spike quite drastically in different situations. Heck, the first quest you do when you get stuck into the game is a lot tougher than you'd think. You need to work together and try and plan as much as you can if you want to come out on top. The time limit of your hand of cards plus the lethality of some enemies helps add to that combat puzzle you're trying to solve. I don't think we've had a dud quest yet and we've done a lot. 

Enemies themselves have been tweaked and updated in Frosthaven. They still work in the same way, drawing from a deck that randomly determines their abilities and the initiative at which they'll act. The difference comes in the vast variety of enemies you'll face. Sure, there will still be the odd classic foe from Gloomhaven but once again, the designers seem to have gone mad with the variety of enemies that are available across the different quests. Want to fight a piranha pig? No? Well, here's a whole shoal of them eager to eat you AND their masters who are going to whip them up into a frenzy.

frosthaven characters

Whilst Frosthaven is a definite spike in difficulty compared to Gloomhaven and Jaws Of The Lion, it is still manageable. You can always tweak the levels of the enemies that you're going to be facing to suit a group with lower-level characters or if you're just wanting to give someone new to a character an easier time of it. So, whilst the game doesn't hold your hand, it isn't there to stomp on you. Also, remember that this is a cooperative game and if you're hour or two spent on a quest has failed at the last minute. Maybe just tick it off and carry on. Life is too short.

As someone who has played through all of Gloomhaven and Jaws Of The Lion, Cephalofair was going to have to do something special to make Frosthaven's gameplay cycle pop. The difficulty level and the variety of options available for those diving into the game when it comes to challenge helps in that regard, testing you as a veteran. I've really enjoyed the way enemies work and the ways that they interact with you as a player.

So, Should You Dive In?

One of the fascinating things about Frosthaven, and something that has come up across everything I've written so far, is that the game is big. I suppose that's not a surprise being the follow-up to one of the biggest board games in history. You're not going to run out of things to do in Frosthaven for a good few years and if you're someone who has already played Gloomhaven and Jaws Of The Lion, this is going to be perfect for you. You get a lot more of the same with a whole bunch of mechanical and quality-of-life improvements included in this behemoth.

frosthaven gameplay 1

To that end, if you liked the gameplay loop of the previous games and solved that combat puzzle, Frosthaven is going to be great. If you became fatigued by the previous games in the series then there's nothing revolutionary about the design here that is going to persuade you I'd say and it's still very much the original game but dialled up to eleven.

The base-building aspects of Frosthaven and the fact they have cleaned up the narrative and questing to make it more exciting is a huge plus. As I mentioned, I'd completely forgotten what I was meant to be doing other than killing creatures in Gloomhaven. With Frosthaven, even a year or so on, I'm still on board with what's happening and why I need to care about certain NPCs and the overall questline.

frosthaven gameplay 2

I will say that whilst there have been some improvements throughout the box, I wish they'd found a way to stick with the way that Jaws Of The Lion presented its quests. Using the books to build the dungeons was a great idea and so much easier to set up than tiles. I get that they would have had to work some magic to cover all the quests in Frosthaven but it doesn't mean I like having to go back to fishing out tiles from a box every time we set up the game. Also, I'm fairly sure if you don't like faff on the table, you're going to want to get one of the Frosthaven apps to help monitor life and initiative. Otherwise, your table WILL be hogged by a Frosthaven session.

The main thing that I want to go back to though is that this is not for the faint of heart. Frosthaven is expensive and you could buy a whole bunch of board games for the same price. With that in mind, investing in a game like this has to be something that your group needs to dedicate themselves to. It also won't be over quickly which is both good and bad, especially if you don't get to see your group all too often. If you're looking for a board game that becomes your hobby though, Frosthaven has that in spades.

frosthaven gameplay 3

For that reason, if you're new to the 'Haven line-up then do not get Frosthaven. Buy Jaws Of The Lion. It's a compact and well-crafted experience with some fascinating characters to play as and a definitive end that isn't out of reach when it comes to its campaign. Then, you make your jump to Gloomhaven (perhaps even the 2nd Edition coming in the near future) and after that, Frosthaven. It is very much the pinnacle of the 'Haven range and an absolute joy to play with more mechanics and ideas than you can shake a stick at. It's still more of a eurogame combat puzzle than a "roleplaying" adventure but I've come to love that. I have absolutely loved my time with the game but it still needs to be approached with caution!

In the end, Frosthaven is a complicated game to review. Do I love it? Yes! Would you enjoy it if you didn't like the other games? No! Is it worth you picking up? Yes but with a healthy warning that this game will dominate your hobby life and time needs to be given over to really enjoying what Cephalofair have added to this new standalone game in the series.

If you have any more questions, let me know in the comments below and I'll see if I can answer them for you!

Now, time for me to go back to my campaign and see if we can deal with those pesky Algox!

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