Thursday, 23 July 2015

Review: Frostgrave

There has been a lot of hype about the new game from Osprey. Considering it was only released earlier this month I have read a lot of comments, thoughts and reviews on it, both good and bad. Well, never let it be said I can't spot a good bandwagon when I see one...
Frostgrave benefits from lots of terrain.

Firstly lets talk about the physical book. It's a nice beast it has to be said. Osprey are not new to publishing books, and this shows. Frostgrave is a slightly different format to the other Osprey wargames, being hard back and slightly bigger. I'm glad though, strange as this may seem, that they didn't make it A4. I can't quite explain why but I have never liked A4 books, they are unwieldy to hold and take up too much room on the table top (it seems I can explain why after all). The book is illustrated in colour all the way through, both with photographs of the game, and specially commissioned artwork. All in all the book is up there with best in terms of quality.
...and tea. Lots and lots of tea.
And so to the game its self. There is a spectrum of wargames rules. At one end you find tournament games where the designers have made a priority of balancing the available forces, and the players try and find every loophole and quirk possible. Half the battle is won in these games before a miniature is even placed on the table, and when the battle does begin both players will be trying to play the game in a particular fashion to exploits the strengths of their force and the weaknesses of their opponents. At the other end is narrative gaming, where the designers have tried to give the players a greater number of options, both in terms of game play and force building, but at the expense of balance. These game rely on both players working together to give a balanced game, and even then this often goes out of the window, but if you are after a good story this doesn't really matter.

Frostgrave falls somewhere to the narrative side of centre. Some of the wizard builds are clearly more competitive than others. Also, being a d20 based system even the best warrior in the game (at +4 F) when fighting the worst (at +0) will only win the combat 66% of the time (though this could be augmented further with spells and magic weapons). This gives some unpredictable combat results which people will either see as a bad thing (there is a limit to the tactics involved with combat) or a good thing (it can lead to some good story telling moments, when a lowly minion fights his way bravely through against the odds). But it must also be remembered that this game focuses on the wizard and magic. Combat, although important, plays second fiddle to spell casting.

My erstwhile opponent, Mr Legg.
(10 points if you can spot the interloper here)  
Randomness plays an even bigger factor when it comes to the after game phase. During the game the primary objective of most (if not all) scenarios is finding treasure. This represents the magical artefacts strewn across Frostgrave and is after all why wizards are flocking their from all four corners of the world. After the game a roll is made on a table for each treasure token captured which tells you if you've found just a handful of gold coins, or a small fortune, a scroll, magic weapon, or something else. There is a vast difference in the available results, and a good few rolls on this table versus a bad few could make a big difference to your band. Whether this is a bad thing or not, is again down to where you fall on the tournament-narrative spectrum. Personally I like this table, but then I like random warband generator in Realms of Chaos.

One aspect that I do think Frostgrave falls down on is its lack of balancing mechanism for battles between wizards of different levels. The author has said this was deliberate as during play testing it didn't make too much difference if wizards were off different levels. Maybe he's right, but I suspect that different campaign styles will result in this being a problem for some. If the campaign progresses fairly regularly and all participants play a similar number of games then wizard levels should advance at a relatively even pace. (Notice the use of 'relatively' here. After four games each it is perfectly possible to have wizards anywhere between level 5 and 20.)  However is people play games at an uneven rate, say one person has played twice, another six times then wizards could easily range from level 3 to 40. At this kind of disparity there is little incentive for the lower levelled wizards to play the higher. They get no experience bonus and are unlikely to claim much from achieving objectives.
Leggy couldn't even pass his tea drinking roll...
Having said this such problems should be easily overcome by amenable players, it would be very easy to give underdogs an experience bonus, or let them choose the scenario.

So far I feel I have been a little harsh on Frostgrave. It is a very good game, with a lot of cool ideas. The spell lists are well thought through, giving a huge potential for a variety of playing styles. The schools are characterful and there is so much customisation available that no two wizards need ever be the same. The simple and fast style of rules lends its self to fun and eventful games, yet there is enough depth, especially in the magic system, that I doubt it will get boring, even after lots of games. Above all Frostgrave is fun, and really isn't that the most important thing.

I think the players that will get the most out of Frostgrave will be those that are willing to give and take in the name of a enjoyabl game. More tournament orientated, win at all costs players will probably not get on as well with this system. There are a few areas where literal interpretation of the rules will lead to some bias. However it is a really fun game and I'm looking forward to advancing my warband in our campaign. Watch this space for battle reports.