Tuesday 21 July 2015

Frostgrave - (Review) Skirmish Campaign Wargame

A skirmish campaign-based wargame, with adventurers exploring a ruined city, battling other warbands for riches. Sound familiar?

Frostgrave was a magic city, devestated by a warpstone meteorite covered in ice by a cataclysm.  A millennia later, it's thawing out - and warbands lead by wizards are exploring the city, seeking riches and hidden knowledge.  Hunting treasure is important - and is a way to win without "killing em all."

The Shiny
Frostgrave is a hardback put out by Osprey. At $25 delivered it is great value, and good quality.  Easy to read layout, and plenty of Osprey artwork as well as pictures of miniatures.   There's no quick-reference sheet but there is very handy spell cards to keep track of things.  I found no difficulty navigating the book using the table of contents. The rules go for about 40 pages but they're pretty simple - the remaining 70 or so are campaign-related.  Two thumbs up - easy to use and good quality for the cost.

 The rulebook is hardcover (surprising for Osprey) and has original artwork and pictures of minis. Glossy, and good bang for the buck.

Magic #1
In a recent post I was wishing for a game where magicians are the central characters.  Frostgrave delivers.  Your hero is a magician, supported by an apprentice.  There are 10 schools of magic - chromomancer, elementalist, enchanters, illusionists, necromancers, sigilists, soothsayers, summoners, thaumages, and witches.

Each school has its own spells, but wizards can also use other "aligned" or neutral schools (at a penalty) .  Wizards get 3 spells from their school, one from each of their aligned schools, and any two from the neutral schools.  Later in a campaign, experienced wizards can learn and use opposing magic (at a significant casting penalty)

Stats. A straight forward, descriptive stat-line similar to games like LOTR.
Move, Fight, Shoot, Armour, Will, Health. All of which are familiar.  I nodded approvingly. Until I realized "Health" meant "Hitpoints."  Ugh, I hate hitpoints.

Your wizard is your warband leader and primary fighter, but he is ably backed by an apprentice - who uses similar spells and abilties, but simply has a weaker stat line and casting chance. Both can be equipped with items (both magical and mundane.) The apprentice can take over as warband leader in the case of mishaps.

Finally, you can have up to 8 soldiers/thugs/adventurers (of about a dozen archetypes) to 'round out' your warband, and to act as meatshields valued assistants. 

Weapons are pretty generic - LOTR-style: 1H, 2H weapons, daggers, bows and crossbows.  Spells, not weapons are the main focus of Frostgrave, so it makes sense to keep them simple.  The "staff" was interesting as it had a weak attack, but also blocked some enemy damage.

Activation & Movement
Dice off for initiative.
1. Wizard Phase. Basically Wizard A acts first, along with up to 3 soldiers who are close to him. Wizard B then does the same
2. Apprentice Phase. Apprentice A acts first, along with up to 3 soldiers who are close to him. Apprentice B then does the same
3. Soldier Phase. Any soldiers from A who have not already activated do so. Then side B's soldiers.
4. Creature Phase. Any wild critters/undead etc act and attack either side.

Minis get 2 actions, of which the first is movement, and the second can be another move/cast spell/shoot/melee etc.  There are rules for jumping and falling, and "rough ground/climbing" is done at half speed.  Nothing revolutionary here.  I do like how the turn is broken up into a few sections instead of IGOUGO.

Fightin' and Shootin'
Both add their Fight + d20.  The winner then deducts the loser's Armour score to see how many HP the loser lost.  Shooting works the same, only the firer uses his Shoot and the target uses his Fight.  Modifiers are sensible and few. Once hitpoints get to 0, a model is out of the game.  Optionally, a model reduced to 4HP or less can be wounded and restricted to a single action each turn. To be honest there isn't much tactics here. But it is simple, easy and old school. But... hitpoints... grrr.

Casting is done as an action in lieu of shooting/melee.  The caster must equal or beat the spell's casting number.  If it fails by a large margin, the caster himself can take damage.  Casters can also trade health to "boost" their chances of success - a nice decision point.  Many spells can be resisted by rolling a dice and adding the target's Will stat, to beat the spell roll.

These act as NPCs with their own simple rules - they move to attack warband members within 10" or otherwise move randomly.  They add a random element to the game and act as "interactive" terrain of sorts.

In short, these mechanics are notable only in their simplicity. Which is useful if you intend to play a few games in an evening.  A platform, as you were, for the campaign and magic system.   So how do they measure up?

North Star do a complete range of wizards, apprentices and henchmen, though most readers will already have enough fantasy/medieval minis lying around to play...


Given the simple but unspectacular rules, this is the "guts" of the book.

Soldiers do not level up, and casualties either are OK, miss a game, or die for good and need replacing - like LOTR's Battle Companies. Wizards have more complex results - they can suffer from a list of permanent injuries* and lose items they were carrying.   Wizards also level up - earning range of XP bonuses by killing enemy wizards, apprentices and soldiers, recovering treasure and even casting spells (the latter might be a bit of a pain to track).
(*Permanence is relative if your mage is a powerful healer)

Wizards who gain a level (each 100XP) can improve their stats or lower the "casting cost" of a spell.
For each treasure collected and carried off-board, a warband can roll to gain gold, potions and scrolls - even magic items and armour.  Your apprentice mirrors your mage, with a reduced stat-line - which reduces record keeping a bit.  However it makes your warband less uninteresting - only the wizard is of cool and his main sidekick is a merely clone.

Warbands can establish a "base territory" (sound familiar?) that conveys various benefits, such as improved healing (temple), extra warband size (inn), random scrolls (library).  The base can even be upgraded - perhaps with a cauldron to improve potion brewing, or a kennel to keep a warhound.

There are 10 interesting scenarios, described in detail, from "worm hunt" to "genie in a bottle" "mausoleum" and "living museum."

The bestiary includes ~25 creatures, with a focus on undead and demons but plenty of wild beasts and even constructs (golems, etc) which I thought was a nice touch.  As well as a few weirder ones. Ice spiders, yes... but ice toads don't exactly fill me with fear.

All in all, a very thorough toolbox for those who like a bit of meat on their campaign.

Learning to Spel
This is a game of battling wizards, and there is a solid spell line-up (~80) to choose from.  Whilst many of your spells come from your specific school, you can choose some aligned and neutral spells, giving a decent, well-rounded arcane toolbox.

Let's say you're an Illusionist. You start with three spells - let's say invisibility, teleport and transpose.  You should have great mobility and keep your opponent on the back foot with those.

You choose a spell from each of the aligned schools of Soothsayer (mind control), Sigilist (explosive rune) and Thaumage (circle of protection).

Finally, you select two spells from neutral schools like Witches, Chronomancer, Necromancers, Summoners and Enchanters.  Petrify and Grenade are chosen.

You can't use the opposed school of Elementalism (the flashy gits) so no fireballs for you... yet. 

Given the game itself is pretty meh, it relies on the campaign to carry it, and it (mostly) delivers.

A pretty basic game system is anchored by a comprehensive magic range and Mordhiem-esque campaign system.  I'm not a fan of hitpoints and there isn't any innovative game mechanics or tactics, but it does what it says on the box.

Revolutionary gameplay? No. It's pretty basic, to be honest. I probably won't play it much.
Is it the new Mordheim?  No. But it's the closest anyone has come, campaign-wise. And that's a recommendation in itself.

Recommended?:  Yes. 


  1. Did you playtest this? I ask because if you didn't this seems like a really quick review as the game was only released today.

    1. "....the game was only released today"


      It's been out for ages.... I read a review in May.

      I've had it a few days and I'm in Australia - I ordered a copy (not preorder, simply eBay from a bookshop) ~3 weeks ago.

    2. Just looked at the Osprey website and confirmed this: "Publication Date: 20 Jul 2015" see https://ospreypublishing.com/frostgrave.

      I had had my copy auto delivered from my pre-order at amazon to my Kindle this morning.

    3. Well Osprey might not have been shipping 3 weeks ago, but eBay evidently was...

      It's not unusual for third-party retailers to jump the gun.

      It's like the Kickstarters where the backers expect to be special snowflakes and it gets shipped to stores first....

    4. That would seem to be the case here.

    5. Heh. I thought it had been out for a few months and flown "under the radar" and wanted to highlight it for my "regulars" as the other reviews were a bit sketchy and thin on the ground..

    6. No its new and much anticipated at least here in the in New England

  2. Thanks for the review. I've heard about ti, but until now, knew little about it.

  3. I received it a week ago after pre ordering it.
    Nice game and quick to learn mechanics with some depth.
    I like the fact that there is no massive overpowering magic that can kill all with the right combo in one turn.

    1. I think it has a more "crunch" than say, Song of Blades, which seems the default recommended Mordhiem replacement. And you don't have to buy $45 of PDFs to get the full game.

    2. Have you met the Elementalist yet?
      Extremely unbalanced (in my opinion).
      You hide or you die, while he levels up fast.
      In the end you die.

      Elementalists aside, I think the game is quite well balanced, through there are rumblings about the Treasure Hunter minion class being underpriced.

  4. I'm sort of interested in this game. I loved Mordheim after all. But I really wasn't sold on the waring wizards thing. Your review has moved me in a more positive direction, but funds are limited at the moment.

    1. It will appeal to the old Mordhiemers. I think it's the closest I've seen.

  5. Sounds like it's worth checking out.

    1. Might inspire you for a fantasy ruleset!

      I think it has deliberately kept close to Mordhiem, keeping gameplay very basic and familiar and focussing on the magic and campaign.

      A lot of indie rulesets fall in love with their own new mechanic or try to deviate too much from the WFB statline approach, just for the sake of being different.

      Frostgrave would be a good example of "Mordhiem with a difference" - if there actually was a significant difference. It's just streamlined it and focussed on magic, with a (slightly) different setting.

      My 10c - remove the hitpoints, and make a slightly more interesting activation system, and I'm all in. I'd also like a "build your own" from scratch SoBH style or at least a way to tweak the archetypes with +/- 1 to their stat-line.

    2. Fantasy "Clash on the Fringe" will happen ;)

      Did I ever send you a final copy of Clash btw?

    3. Don't think so. I had a go of the playtest rules (only '1's in reaction?) but then new baby came along and I lost track.

    4. Babies will do that :)
      I went with 1's for reaction rolls because I wanted it to be a very "snap a shot off from hte hip" kinda thing and not feel too "modern military shooter".
      Email inbound.

    5. Er... email would be inbound if I hadn't lost your email address.

    6. I'll email you. I'm still waiting for that game design post on communications...

  6. Can pickup a copy from Amazon £10.49... very tempted...


    1. The pricing not only shows up some of the bigger companies, but also downloadable PDFs from places like wargame vault. I mean, a rule download is $15 or $20 now.... it's just an electronic file, geez. And it's just storage on a server - you don't have worries about a limited production run....

      If Osprey can print and produce a physical hardcover 140 page glossy book for the same cost..... someone is getting ripped off somewhere...

      I used to buy random PDFs just to test try, back in the day. I don't anymore.

  7. Side note: will you make a post about setup in wargame and the fact that most games opt in for vanilla deployment: I face you, you face me across the table?

    1. Hmm it's an unexplored area. I think the only one who bucks the trend is the TFL Chain of Command...

  8. Replies
    1. Whilst I'm not going "Eureka!" this is the One! I'm considering painting up some more of my Perry medieval mercenary plastics for a few wizardly warbands... ...which is quite a step considering how much I hate hitpoints.

      If you liked Mordhiem, you'll like this, even if it didn't quite do everything I would have liked - gameplay is very old school and basic.

    2. That seems to be Ospreys approach to war game rules. They have been somewhat conservative.

    3. Whilst Frostgraves mechanics are perhaps overly bland, conservatism isn't necessarily bad per se.

      Whilst I dislike the mass produced 40K ripoffs, a lot of indie games tend to be different just to be different - you know, like that indie rock band only 3 people like - just so they can show off their special xy mechanic that does the exact same thing any other ruleset does...

    4. Agreed.

      However,I think it is an interesting business choice. They must feel such an approach has commercial benefits.

    5. I think it's safe to say that "Warhammer with one new thing" is a pretty sound business move :-)

    6. Keeping mechanics "familiar" I think maximises your target audience and thus potential revenue. I admit sometimes I am put off learning new rules by the sheer effort involved. "Do I REALLY want to play this game?"

      I often hold up Infinity as an excellent game which is too off-putting to the new player.

      Laziness aside, the mass of sequels in movie theatres suggests people like the familiar over the new and unpredictable.

    7. The irony is that in trying to be unique in their mechanics many game devs end up arriving in the same place.

      I look at a "Vietnam-in-Space-Hard-Sci-Fi" ruleset with a unique suppression mechanic and compare it to yet another "Vietnam-in-Space-Hard-Sci-Fi" ruleset with a unique suppression mechanic.

      I go "Do I really think this unique suppression mechanic is better? Enough to learn a whole new game for?"

      It doesn't enthuse me to paint models for that game, that's for sure.

      Hmm. Didn't I say "battling mages" were needed as a genre in a game design post a while back....

    8. But in fairness, you wanted them in a modern game setting. Not just a Mordheim knock off setting. :)

  9. I have been looking though my shiny mountain to see what minis I can retask for this project.

  10. Okay I've located about 2 dozen models that would be suitable so far. Some with a little conversion work. So while I'm waiting on my book to arrive, can any one give me a clue as to the basing standard?

    I can see that the NorthStar minis have integral bases, but I'm not using them. So is 25mm round bases okay? can I uses 30mm lipped round bases? Or should I be using square bases?

    1. It doesn't say and I don't think it's the sort of game where anyone would care.

      The pics reminded me of the Renedra oval bases (like Warlord uses) but 25mm slots or even 30mm PP lipped ones would be fine.

  11. Howdy. I just found your blog. Would you mind if I emailed you a few questions I had a bout a rule set and models I am creating?

    1. Sure. The email I actually check is maj_lovejoy at hotmail dot com

      Bear in mind I will experiment with the mechanics, but not thoroughly playtest (I have a newborn, so gaming time is limited!)

    2. Also, I recommend the game design posts. Not necessarily my post, but the comments section is usually worth a read - there are often good discussions/debates there about the topic raised.


  12. Got in my first game of Frost Grave... its a fin game and worth giving a try: http://fencingfrog.blogspot.com/2015/07/frostgrave-1.html