Small Wars: Frostgrave, what’s it all about


Today’s SMALL WARS post is about FROSTGRAVE, the new-ish fantasy skirmish game set in the frost shrouded city that gives the game its name. Frostgrave is a game of magic, combat, looting and exploration that combines a little old and a little new with a strong fantasy narrative element that fosters both a connected campaign game and good storytelling.


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Amidst the frozen ruins of an ancient city, wizards battle in the hopes of discovering the treasures of a fallen empire. In this fantasy skirmish wargame, each player takes on the role of a wizard from one of ten schools of magic, and builds his band of followers. The wizard’s apprentice will usually accompany his master, and more than a dozen other henchman types are available for hire, from lowly thugs to heavily armoured knights and stealthy thieves. Wizards can expand their magical knowledge by unlocking ancient secrets and may learn up to 80 different spells. While individual games of Frostgrave are quick and can easily be played in an hour or two, it is by connecting them into an ongoing campaign that players will find the most enjoyment. The scenarios given in the book are merely the beginning of the limitless adventures that can be found amidst the ruins of the Frozen City. [Osprey Publishing]

[editorial note— I use the phrase “blue line” here to represent most of Osprey Publishing’s recent output of low-cost, introductory miniature game rules on a myriad of subjects, both historical and fantastical, because of their distinctive use of the color blue on the cover.  Osprey does not use this term as far as I know]

frostgraveFrostgrave came out from Osprey Publishing earlier this year (2015), with the usual minimal fanfare I associate with an Osprey wargame release– I knew nothing about this game, then suddenly it was on the Osprey publisher table at wargame conventions, on Amazon, and there was some online buzz associated with it, about as much as any other “blue series” Osprey wargame– one more among the horde of releases, in my opinion.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the blue line series of rules, and I’m happy that Osprey is stepping up to the plate and supporting the natural marriage of great historical art and somewhat okay wargame rules at a very affordable price.  I especially like the Kindle releases of said rules, for various reasons.  I do think the flood of releases tends to create a “cult of the new” effect, when Osprey Publishing might be better employed releasing fewer rulebooks a year and doing the legwork associated with new entertainment products– building some social media buzz, energizing a fan base, recruiting some GMs to run high-profile demo games, etc.  For all I know, this is being done, somewhere, I just haven’t seen much of it in the historical miniatures community.  A quick look at the Preliminary Events List (PEL) at a recent Historical theme miniatures convention (Fall-IN! 2015) showed few, if any, games being run from Osprey publishing previous line of blue line rules.  That’s including In Her Majesty’s Name, a blue line game release that came out with lots of fanfare, two expansion books and a series of excellent 28mm figures from Northstar Miniatures.   In Her Majesty’s Name has only been out since the middle of 2014, and already, well, nada… and it’s a great little game, too!

One game I did start to notice being run at conventions (including Fall-IN!) was Frostgrave, released in the first half of 2015, was not following the “blue line pattern”.  First of all, it’s not a thin paperback, not that there is anything wrong with that.  The print edition is a large format hardcover, with extensive and vibrant illustration throughout.  It’s also 96 pages, which is quite a bit more extensive then the smaller paperbacks.  That’s not all fluff and superfluous stuff, either, but lots and lots of supporting material for the game, including campaign options, but we’ll get to that shortly.

To characterize Frostgrave by a certain type, it’s a points-based, fantasy themed skirmish game set in a consistent universe, namely of various parties investigating the ruins of an ancient city of Frostgrave.  If that sounds familiar to gamers with longer memories, yes, this has been done before as a game– namely Mordheim, by Games Workshop.   Mordheim used a very similar framework for a fantasy skirmish game back in 1999, where small bands of adventurers explored another ancient city for the same motivations– treasure and glory.  Mordheim was a big hit back in its day and (in my recollection) a pretty good small skirmish set– I have seen it adapted to many other settings besides fantasy, including a WW2 game I played in.  One of the selling points of Mordheim was the continuous campaign concept, which is also a feature of Frostgrave, and I suspect will contribute to Frostgrave having a longer shelf life.

Wizards, Schools, Spells and Warbands

The primary focus of Frostgrave is the individual Wizard character.  These are not the wimpy magic users of old D&D.   These are tough, hard-bitten specialists that live lives of adventure, plundering ruins, stealing loot, and they are not shy about reaching for some iron when the magic runs low.  Wizards study at ten schools of magic.  Schools of magic form complex relationships with each other– some being aligned, some being opposed, and some neutral.  This effects spells selection,and in a greater sense, how the game will play out tactically.

Chronomancy
Elementalism
Enchantment
Illusionist
Necromancy
Sigilism
Soothsaying
Summoning
Thaumaturge
Witchery
Table 1: Schools of Wizardy

Each school has a list of spells associated with it (See table 2) and he or she must choose EIGHT of them to start. Three must come from the Wizard’s OWN school of magic, one must come from each of the three ALIGNED schools of magic, and the last two must be from any of the five NEUTRAL schools of magic.  Each description of a school has a small table outlining alliances, neutral schools and opposing schools to make it clear.

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Table 2: Spell list per School

All of these spells have their strengths and weaknesses.  I think this is one of the detail areas that really lends a certain color to Frostgrave games.  Most of these spells are firmly within the “flavor” of their School and caster-type.  Illusionists rely on perception spells, such as Monstrous Form and Beauty.  Elementalists are kind of like magic style Green Lanterns, summoning big Elemental hammers and bolts and shields.  Chronomancy spells localize “something” and allow it to pass through time– causing decay, crumbling, and petrification, but also speeding someone up really well.  If you are at all versed in fantasy style roleplaying games, you know about all you need to know about the background to Frostgrave’s magic and wizardry.  There’s nothing particularly new about it to any avid fantasy geek.

The Wizard’s existence is summed up as a collection of statistics (called a stat line) describing how he performs.. none of that is particularly new to a roleplaying fan– Move, Fight, Shoot, Armour, Will and Health.  The higher the number, the better.  I’m from the “people move a certain way, swing a sword a certain way, fire shooty things in a certain way, defend in a certain way and run away when they don’t want to hang out any more” school of design.  In other words, all the actions defined by the “stat line” are, and should be, generic.  There just isn’t a need for that much detail there.  Frostgrave gets high marks from me for making all this stuff as simple as possible.

Warbands are another critical element to this game.  Wizards may have spells at the ready but it’s suicide to enter the ruins of Frostgrave alone.  A smart wizard recruits some cannon fodder erm, hirelings to accompany them into the ruins.  The wizard gets 500 gold crowns (GC) to hire muscle on a points/cost basis.  A must-have is an Apprentice Wizard for 200 GC.  He (or she) is a little insurance for long campaign games where the boss wizard might perish from wounds.  The Apprentice can rise up and take the boss’s place, and hire another apprentice!  There is a wide range of potential hirelings from the rulebook that can bulk up the wizard’s followers into a proper warband (see table 3).  In addition, the FRPG savvy Frostgrave player can probably add anything that seems to fit into this table, as long as it has a workable stat line associated with it.

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Table 3: Warband Hirelings (from the Frostgrave rulebook)

This is another area that adds color and customization to the game.  I could easily see slinking into Frostgrave, my Wizard being followed by his hireling thief, assassin, and infantrymen.

What do we do with all this stuff?

So you have some miniatures painted, and warbands assembled and some decent terrain put together?  What next?  You actually get into the mechanics of playing the game.  Don’t worry, they’re very easy to pick up.

  1. Initiative
  2. Action Phases in this order:
    1. Wizard
    2. Apprentice
    3. Soldier
    4. Creature

That’s pretty much the bulk of the game sequence.  Action Phases allow each active agent to perform two actions– moving, shooting, casting a spell, etc.  Combat is pretty simple skirmish stuff.  If you have played a skirmish miniatures wargame of ANY kind, including historical, all of this is fairly familiar to you.  Movement hampered or boosted by terrain, objects as cover, melee when bases come into contact, etc etc.  As I’ve alluded to above, I favor a KISS principle for running miniature skirmish games and Frostgrave is all about simplicity.  I’m not criticizing, here.  I think the familiarity that many experienced players will bring to this game is a big strength.  Frostgrave is like comfort food.. meatloaf rather than Pâté, to be sure, but it’s still a tasty meal.   There are some chrome elements of the game– critical hits and the like, and casting spells is a process that can be heavily modified by the tactical situation, but all of this is rather well defined and easy to understand.

Victory (kind of), or the long game

“Winning” is an open ended concept with Frostgrave.  You can score points by gathering treasure, but the real winner is the guy with troops (and most importantly, a living Wizard) who live to loot another day.  Frostgrave plays very well as a one-off 2-3 hour long skirmish game in a fantasy setting, but I think the game really shows its true colors when you start playing campaigns, which the rulebook concerns itself with from chapter 3 onward. There’s a certain satisfaction watching your characters grow with experience.  I haven’t seen that since.. since.. Mordheim, actually!   I have yet to play anything but a couple of quick skirmish games, myself, but the game left me wanting to continue my character from game to game.  If you want a good workable campaign system for fantasy combat, this is the game for you.

In Summary

I think Osprey Publishing has developed a great little game in Frostgrave.  There’s nothing extremely innovative about the game itself– if I could sum it up in a sentence, I’d say that Osprey has taken the fast melee sequence out of a D&D dungeon crawl and called it a skirmish game.  Before I get grief for that statement, understand that I think that’s a great thing.  Many people don’t have the time for long drawn out roleplaying sessions where they build the game narrative through repetitive trips to town to buy things, research things, interact with the local tavern and government.  Frostgrave assumes this is taking place off screen and focuses on the bare-knuckle brawl once the action starts.  I like this approach a lot– it’s about as RPG as I can get at my age and level of commitment.  The game is very well supported by Osprey and supporting material is already being published.  I just picked up Thaw of the Lich Lord and I believe other publications are about to drop or are scheduled for early 2016.   Northstar Figures, whom Osprey partnered with for the In Her Majesty’s Name game (and expansions), is producing quality 28mm figures to represent the primary wizard types, with apprentices, war band soldiers and some summoned creatures.  These are in the popular 28mm scale and can be easily supplemented with standard FRPG miniatures or GW Fantasy figures.

 Northstar Figures Frostgrave miniatures

I have a few of Northstar Figures wizard packs and will be painting them up shortly and blogging about the project, like one does.

In FROSTGRAVE, Osprey Publishing has found a system with legs that plays fast, can be taught quickly to novices, and is big and colorful with a wide-open fantasy milieu.  It’s already being played at conventions and I suspect it will grow in popularity as long as Osprey keeps supporting it.  Osprey should probably develop an outrider-style program for GMs who want to run Frostgrave at cons, as I could easily see this game gaining some traction in the upcoming year.  Well done, Osprey.

 

 

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