Friday, 2 October 2015

Frostgrave - First Impressions

The bandwagon has rumbled past Brady HQ and we've jumped onboard! In other words I've recently bought a copy of Frostgrave.



I was (very) late to Mordheim. It came and went during my 20 year gaming break. The concept sounded intriguing, a skirmish game set in a ruined Warhammer city where bands of adventurers searched and fought for treasure. Kyle and I both put warbands together and a mini campaign was suggested at Friday Night Fire Fight Club. It soon fizzled out... Running campaigns is difficult at the best of times, but with Mordheim... The rules are all over the place. Perhaps it's because I had to download PDF copies (the game lost support from GW long ago), but there seemed to be an awful lot of looking things up... My head hurt after a game. Actually my head hurt during a game. Kyle's Dwarfs got stuffed on their first outing and he quickly lost interest. But I still thought the concept was intriguing. It just needed to be a bit (lot) simpler. Perhaps simpler is the wrong word. Games need to flow.

Hold on, what about Frostgrave? From the game's blurb:

"Frostgrave is a game of Wizards, battling through a ruined frozen city in search of magical artefacts."

The city may be frozen rather than smashed by a meteorite but...

I've read several online reviews and battle reports that are mostly positive. So I ordered a copy of the (nicely produced) hardback book and had a good read. I then gave the book to Kyle and he had a good read. We both concluded that Frostgrave is Mordheim Lite - and the 'Lite' part here is key.

Kyle has just moved on from primary school. His new school was supposed to have an after school Warhammer club. Kyle went along only to find that there was only one other student there... And nobody to run the thing. He wasn't too disappointed (he comes along to Friday Night Fire Fight Club with me after all), but I thought it a shame his new friend was left stranded by the lack of support. Enter Frostgrave.

So what are my initial thoughts?

It's cheap. My copy cost less than a tenner (inc postage). It doesn't require huge numbers of figures (a wizard, an apprentice and up to eight additional soldiers per warband) so there's only a small financial/time investment in buying and painting a warband. The gameplay is fast and combat/shooting simple. No tables to look up, just roll a d20 and compare results (with a few modifiers here and there). Turns are broken into phases (wizard, apprentice, soldier, beasts) with initiative rolls determining who goes first. But play moves quickly from one wizard to the other and then to apprentices etc. The action comes thick and fast so there's not much waiting around. There are plenty of spells for wizards to choose from and these really do influence the outcome of the game.

So, it's a cheap game that doesn't require a huge time investment with plenty of action to entice new players, especially younger players.

Are there any downsides? Yes. Quite a few.

Before reading on, remember I think the game achieves what it set out to do - create a simplified Mordheim like skirmish game aimed at younger players.

But the Frostgrave world is rather shallow. There's none of the lavish background that GW used to lovingly pour into Warhammer (before they blew the whole thing up - but I digress). There are no dwarfs. No elves. Or any races other than men. There are creatures in the bestiary, but they are a bit thin really. The stats for some creatures appear a bit odd to me as well. Zombies have armour 12, the same as greater demons. Really? Zombies are too hard to kill, whilst greater demons (in comparison) are not hard enough. Perhaps future supplements will flesh out the world and introduce other races. But that may introduce additional complexity that I suspect the author prefers to avoid.

There are several scenarios in the book that appear interesting, but they are perhaps a bit specific. Rolling randomly for scenarios means that the same ones are likely to come up. There's only so many times you'll want to look for treasure in the living museum I think. Specific scenarios can be fun but should perhaps be in supplements rather than the core rulebook. Additional scenarios are being published by Osprey (a cheap 3 scenario mini campaign is already available as a digital download).

The combat and shooting mechanism is perhaps too simple. We played 2 quick games tonight to test the rules. Who won or lost a melee seemed pretty random. Individual stats don't really influence scores very much. My Templar was hitting with +2 in melee... Against Kyle's newly summoned greater demon with +4. The demon (surely one of the most dangerous things to be encountered), only has a 10% better chance of winning the combat. Hmm. The spells are interesting but appear poorly balanced. Kyle's chances of casting a summon demon spell were the same as my chance to take control of one of his zombies. In our second game he managed to gain a demon, wolf and zombie without too much difficulty. Once spells are selected, they can't be changed. New spells can be learned during a campaign, but I suspect many games will be won or lost due to the initial spell choices.

We found that the game became very bloody, very fast. And perhaps that's all that matters.

I'll be running a game this weekend for Kyle and his new friend. Playing the game tonight made me realise that prerolling on the random encounters table is useful (to ensure figures are immediately available). If the kids take to the game I'll see about easing them into a short campaign. I can think of a few scenarios that would make good use of my new Battle Systems Fantasy Terrain...




  1. Interesting. This is perhaps the first review I've seen which suggested that Frostgrave had issues, though it does sound as if these could be addressed quite easily with some stat adjustments. I'm still holding fire on this game.

    1. It's only first impressions, I hope to have a few more games and will then make up my mind. I was chatting about the game earlier and decided it may be a game that I prefer to DM than play as a character. We'll see.

  2. Oh dear! Not the best first impression then.

    I think the way I see Frostgrave is the same way as I see old school D&D in that it has a specific objective in mind...get in, get the treasure and get out...and everything is geared up to that end. It's fast and brutal and success depends on your choice of soldiers and spells as well as fast movement, choosing your treasures/objectives carefully and taking advantage of (the hopefully plentiful) cover.

    It's also quick to play and easy to pick up...a big plus!

    But it is a bit 'boardgamey' and you can defnitely be punished/rewarded for lucky rolls! Neither does it have the same narrative depth/feel as say 7th Voyage or IHMN. My main concern is that it sounds like the campaign side of things may quickly imblance warbands...

    Anyway, hope you the next game goes well and that your son's new friend is hooked!

    1. Except it takes quite a while to go through all the spells. Kyle did this and picked a few blinders. I made semi random decision and suffered because of it. As I just mentioned above, I think I might enjoy DM ing the game and already have quite a few ideas for tomorrow. I aim to run a scenario where the two players will benefit by cooperating rather than fighting each other. It will be interesting to see how quickly they realise ;-)

    2. Yeah...I think a DM would really work well and would certainly help address any balance issues.

    3. I may also try the game with two d10 rather than a single d20. This should make the bonus values on weapons and the like much more important. Critical hits will be much less common and more powerful creatures will be significantly more difficult to kill - just as it should be I think.

    4. Of course that also means I'd have to fiddle with all of the armour values or creatures that should be less powerful such as zombies would loose more combats but risk taking no damage due to their silly armour values... Oh I don't know. We'll play a few more games with the system as is and see how we get on.

    5. I see a lot of reviews critical of d20s, and would like to write in its defence.

      I'll first state that fantasy settings have no "reality" to adhere to, so offer great scope for the designer's and players tastes and imaginations.
      However many players expect this world to be quite similar to the other ones they've expereinced.

      Frostgrave inherits form two traditions.
      * The D&D style, fight grab and run school of role playing.
      * The world of warhammer - especially its skirmish games.

      My case is that the world is (and should be) quite different to either of these.
      I see the Frostgrave city as a dangerous place, willed with risk and peril, it's not an archeology field trip.

      D&D games are notoriously averse to character death - but don't expect that here.
      The Warhammer family feature (or suffer from) powerful characters whose strengths allow them to dominate play.

      In Frostgrave, your wizard is the big guy, and the rest are all minions.
      Anyone diving into a fight must accept the risk that they'll end up dead.
      D20 allows the weaker and cheaper soldiers to remain in a fight for a few moves, they may even defeat a bigger guy - but most bloggers seem to overestimate the odds of that happening.

      Using the basic rules (Both Wounded and Criticals are optional and - in my opinion - spoilers), almost every combat will last several rounds, during that time the superior fight and armour scores of the higher grade soldier will count every time. Sometimes the big guy goes down, more often the weaker guy, but one round kills are near impossible, nobody "deserves" to win without conceding a scratch.

      I should probably argue why I think this is a good thing.
      Now understand we all have our own tastes, I like the unpredictable nature of frostgrave (others don't), for comparison, a previous poster quoted 7th voyage, which I consider to be absolutely awful.

      Consider a world where a Knight can easily defeat 3 thugs, or two men at arms. Now move on a couple of campaign rounds, where a "winner" can afford to hire 4 knights for his warband.
      If Knights can't lose, then the guy with most knights wins the next round - grabs more treasure, and buys more knights. Power gaming form the GW or D&D schools - but where's the involvement for the other guys. "Turned up, got slaughtered by Knights".

      So in my interpretation of Frostgrave:
      * The odd unexpecetd outcome is a good thing since it keeps the campaign and battle open.
      * The actual odds of a lesser soldier defeating a better one are probably a lot lower than you think (Scrap the critical and wounded results to prevent the "20 you're dead" effect).
      * I like the way the game avoids the "all pile into the scrum in the middle" syndrome, and rewards players whose default action goes beyond "Chaaaaaarge!!".

      Nice game - certainly.
      Unbalanced - quite a bit, but most players will get some excitement out of each game.

  3. So...any new insight on the game mechanics since these post?

    1. I do. It's good that new supplements are being published and these are definitely helping to flesh out the world somewhat. However, I suspect that the game may become a victim of its own success. New rules are detailed in different supplements, some of which are only available as (paid) downloads (eg. captains in Sellsword). I'll have to put something more detailed together and post it on my blog. Don't get me wrong though - I do like the game.