01 February 2016
We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of… erm… Frostgrave.
Osprey Games | Fantasy skirmish | £14.99 | 2+ players
90 minutes | www.ospreygames.co.uk
Panting after dashing between the crumbling ruins of former homes, shops and taverns, the illusionist and her apprentice throw themselves against a wall for a moment to catch their breath. Great plumes of clouds erupt from their mouths as their breath hits the frozen air. With his chest still heaving, the apprentice peers over the wall to search for the abandoned alchemy lab… where it’s rumoured there are still ancient arcane treasures waiting to be discovered. Across the devastated street, covered in thick snow, he feels a pull in the winds of magic as he spots a small, dilapidated house.
The illusionist feels it too and the pair nod at each other. She points to the building, then holds up three fingers, indicating when they should break cover and dash to the safety of the alchemy lab. With another nod from the apprentice she starts to count… but before she can reach one, the air begins to crackle with magical energy and a blast of fire erupts against the wall, showering them with dust and loose bricks. Before ducking back into cover the illusionist spots the brightly coloured, almost garish clothing of a fire elemental who is catching his breath before summoning another powerful attack. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be so easy after all, thinks the illusionist, as she quickly chants her own counter spell…
Welcome to the world of Frostgrave, a fantasy skirmish game that pits wizards against each other in a bid to discover magical artifacts from the ruins of a frozen city. Created by Joseph McCullough, this is the first title from the new Osprey Games. If Osprey sounds familiar to you, it’s because the company has a long tradition in publishing historical books and historical wargames, like Bolt Action or Lion Rampant.
Frostgrave is a 136-page rulebook that’s accompanied by a line of models from Nottingham-based (aren’t they all?) North Star Figures. Before we move onto the game itself, it’s worth noting that North Star really has done a great job of bringing the artwork of the various wizards in the rulebook to life with a range of wonderfully detailed figures. Originally Osprey wasn’t planning on releasing an accompanying miniatures line but we’re glad it drafted North Star in because it feels like more of a complete package now. However, although the wizards and their apprentices are good, the star of the show is North Star’s set of 28mm multi-part hard plastic soldiers to accompany the magic wielders. The set can be used to make 20 soldiers armed with a selection of 100 weapons/arm variants, 40 different heads and more than 30 pieces of equipment. The detail on these is exquisite and for £20 we can imagine them becoming a popular choice for many wargamers.
Anyway, enough about the lovely miniatures…what does Frostgrave play like? Well, the idea is that a wizard and their apprentice must lead a small band of soldiers into the frozen wastes of Frostgrave city to try and uncover magical treasure. There are actually 10 different classes of wizard to choose from including Summoner, Necromancer, Illusionist, Soothsayer, etc. and each is gifted in a range of different spells. So, as you might expect the Necromancer is naturally gifted in creating zombies, while the Illusionist can create fake treasure to fool their opponent.
Rather like a role-playing game, you actually begin by creating your wizard on the appropriately named ‘Wizard Sheet’ and choosing what spells are in their magical arsenal. Each wizard needs eight spells and the first three must be chosen from their natural school of magic, while three more come from types aligned with their class and the final two come from neutral types. For example, you are creating Nigel the Necromancer and your first three spells must come from the Necromancer spell list, the next three can be chosen from the Witch, Chronomancer or Summoner selections on the ‘aligned’ list and the final two can come from the Elemental, Sigilist, Illusionist, Enchanter or Soothsayer ‘neutral’ options It’s wonderful to be given such a great amount of choice when creating your character and even when facing off against another wizard of the same class, they may have completely different spells up their wizard’s sleeve than you do. Further variety is added by the addition of a small warband to accompany your wizard and their apprentice because there are times when a sword is more effective than a fireball. Again, the options are almost dizzying with thugs, archers, trackers, knights, rangers, barbarians, etc. all on the cards (and most can be created using the North Star box set). Joseph really has created a game that provides the player with an abundance of choice and that is definitely something to be applauded.
With your party ready to go, it’s time to start exploring the ruined frozen city. One thing to note from the off is that Frostgrave is best approached a little differently to some other skirmish games because it’s not necessarily about totally wiping out your opponent. Instead, you’re meant to be exploring for treasure and pocketing said items to increase your wizard’s experience. Sadly, the other party is trying to do the same and the combat really comes about when you’re both after the same artifact. This becomes particularly apparent when you consider wizard classes like the Illusionist aren’t beasts in combat, instead it’s about fooling the enemy while you leg it with the treasure chest, possibly while giggling. Some will no doubt find this approach a little jarring because you’re not always getting rewarded for killing the enemy, but approach a game in the right frame of mind and you’ll have some tense encounters as you to struggle to gather the most treasure.
When you do need to engage in a bit of fisticuffs then, once again, Joseph has created a fluid and fast system based around 20-sided dice. In a scrap, both players roll a D20 and then add their fight statistic to it, so an infantryman adds three, while a barbarian adds four. After you’ve both rolled, you work out the difference between the total score of the winner’s roll and the loser’s armour rating, which becomes the number of wounds suffered. For example, take the two classes mentioned previously, the infantryman rolls 10 and adds three for a score of 13, while the barbarian rolls 12 and adds four, totaling 16. The infantryman has an armour rating of 11 so take that away from the barbarian’s roll of 16 and you’re left with five wounds. Simples. After a few goes you’ll be blasting through combat without even thinking about it.
You’ll also be blasting through your soldiers pretty quickly as they have a nasty habit of dying... rather easily. Again, it can be slightly odd to think of your warband as cannon fodder but, ultimately, they’re just there to protect your wizard and apprentice. Don’t get attached to them – particularly in a campaign – as you can buy new mercenaries before each quest.
Spell casting, meanwhile, is a little different but still wonderfully straight forward. Once again players must roll a D20 but this time they’re trying to score the casting number of a spell, e.g. a Thaumaturge can cast a shield spell if they roll 10+. There are no modifiers on this roll because shield is within the Thaumaturge’s natural school of magic. However, if he was trying to cast a spell from his neutral list, e.g. poison dart from the Witch list, he must add four to the normal roll of 10 – so would require 14. Again it’s all pretty straight forward and you’ll be flinging fireballs around in no time. Another nice touch is that things can go spectacularly wrong when casting spells hinting at the danger of messing with such arcane powers. If you fail to roll the required number, then you may potentially take damage. Say you need 12 but only roll two, your wizard takes two points of damage. As such there’s a fantastic risk and reward element to magic that makes for some dramatic last gasp moments.
However, although these are the basics of the game, they’re really only the tip of the iceberg because where Frostgrave comes into its own is with the campaign system. You see, creating your wizard is really only the beginning and as you progress through a longer campaign you can level up, learn new spells, buy magical items to boost your casting power and so on. A niggle with the campaign is that it does tend to favour the more aggressive spell casters (like the Necromancer) because they get XP for kills. Due to the fact soldiers die pretty quickly, they’ll be leveling up much faster than a wizard who just gets XP for successfully casting spells, potentially unbalancing campaigns. While we’re on niggles, the lack of a set turn limit means games can go on
for slightly too long so perhaps agree a limit with your opponent before starting a game, particularly if you’re pressed for time.
However, as Joseph states in the introduction: “think of this book and these rules as a starting point. If you think of ways to make your games of Frostgrave more fun and interesting, then do it – it is your game, after all”. So there’s plenty of scope for house rules to amend any niggles you come across.
Frostgrave is an enjoyable fantasy skirmish game with a rich background that really feeds nicely into the gameplay. The basic rules are solid, making for some fluid and fun spell casting action. However, delve into the campaign mode (with the addition of a few house rules to suit) and Frostgrave becomes a wonderfully rewarding experience.
This article originally appeared in issue 2 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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