Thursday, 3 December 2015

First Frost – Thoughts

My good online chum Edwin suggested that I blog about my first impressions of Frostgrave – so here we are! (Warning: I might ramble on a bit.)

Luckily I knew what to expect – I’d been mulling over the idea of buying the game for a while, and so had done my research. This involved mooching through the Lead-Adventure Forum, various blogs, and several gameplay videos on YouTube. If you haven’t played Frostgrave yet, but are thinking of diving in, I suggest you do the same – if nothing else the videos will give you a good handle on the rules by seeing them in action.

Steer clear of blogs/forum threads that over-analyse the creation of warbands though. As is the nature of things, I’ve seen some posts detailing how to get the maximum potential out of your warband/magic school/spell selection etc. To me, this sucks all the joy out of a game. Go for your gut instinct – give your wizard character, write a background, follow a theme, roleplay – and then build your warband, select spells and such, based on that.

A word of warning for those of you coming in from Mordheim and such – Frostgrave is all about the wizard; and, to paraphrase the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks of yore, YOU are the wizard! The rest of the warband are simply henchmen and do not progress or level up (although if you choose to have an apprentice, he will improve in line with your wizard). I gather that a future expansion will cater for a limited improvement of soldiers, but the wizard is your main focus.

The sole aim of your wizard is his/her quest for magical knowledge. During each game you must find treasure, cast spells, zap the enemy and survive encounters. All this gives you experience and knowledge. Your warband is simply a tool – be prepared to loose henchmen – it doesn’t really matter so long as you get that grimoire!

Warband Creation

Like many skirmish rules, a big part of the game is the initial creation of the warband.

The Wizard – AKA you!

First you must choose your school of magic and choose the spells you want to start off with. I won’t list them all, or go through the merits of the various spells within each school (go buy the rules!) but there are lots to choose from.

Some spells turn your wizard into a killing machine, some buff up your soldiers, some speed things up, others slow things down. Most spells are cast in-game, while others are cast beforehand. There are big shooty fireball spells and more subtle, tactical spells. They vary in difficulty, and casting spells from a school different to your own are even harder to cast.

Take your time over this and maybe work to a theme or storyline. The wizard is the most important character in the game, and spells are his/her raison d'être.

Wizards can carry lots of extra gear, and you can buy and extra weapons for them.

It is the wizard who benefits from any advances you may accrue during your games.

The Apprentice

You start off with 500 Gold Crowns with which to hire your minions.

It’s highly recommended that you start off by hiring an apprentice. He costs a whopping 200gc, and is basically a less able version of your wizard. His/her stats (more of which later) are not as good and he/she finds casting spells more difficult.

However having an apprentice as an extra spellcaster in the game is extremely useful. Failed to brew that important potion before the game? Let your apprentice have a go! In fact apprentices get their own phase in the game (see below).

Apprentices can carry a reasonable amount of extra gear, and you can buy and extra weapons for them.

Your apprentice improves as your wizard improves - their stats are linked.

Soldiers

The rest of your ward band consists of soldiers – grunts, minions, followers, fireball fodder.

Again, I won’t go into the merits of each and every troop type (see the author’s blog for a brief rundown) but your initial choice is important.

Do you go for lots of cheap, somewhat crappy troops, or decide that quality beats quantity? Do you want troops that can easily hold their own in a scrap? Do you want lots of ranged attackers? Do you want sneaky ones who move fast and can get that all-important treasure off the board sharpish? Do you want a healthy mix of all of them?

If you (wisely) decided to hire an apprentice, then you only have 300gc left to spend, so choose wisely!

Word of advice: don’t get too attached to your minions – they will die, or you will probably end up firing them in preference of some better soldiers. No progression for these guys.

Stats

The stats are simple. Not Song of Blades and Heroes simple, but simple enough for my cobwebby brain. Movement, fighting, shooting, willpower, armour, health – the basics.

Each soldier type has different stat values. I used this website for calculating my warband (others are available), which also usefully gives their stats. Soldiers can only carry one extra item of gear and are limited to whatever weapons/armour they have listed. 

A quick note about races: all the stats are generic - a Human thief is the same as a Goblin thief, an Elf archer is the same as a Halfling archer. There are no racial profiles or modifiers. In fact, soldier type stats aside, the only thing that differentiates is figure size. All shooting is line of sight, so an Ogre thug would in theory be easier to hit than a Dwarf thug, although conversely an Ogre crossbowman would have a better line of sight than his Dwarf counterpart.

The Wizard Sheet

Included at the back of the book is a wizard sheet. This is where you write down all the details of your warband.

Make sure you do this, as you’ll need to keep track of stuff during the game (a good A4 version can be found here).

Spending money

Let’s be honest, our main concern is (or should be) how much is this going to cost me? Apart from the initial spend on the rulebook, how much will I have to fork out for figures, terrain etc.?

Figure Selection

Although there is an official line of Frostgrave miniatures, the game is clearly designed to allow you to draw on whatever fantasy figures you have in your collection. There are no GW-only tournament-style restrictions here and no standard base size/shape either. 

I recommend a ‘what you see is what you get-ish’ approach to figures. For example a barbarian is listed as carrying a two-handed weapon, but if your only barbarian figure carries a sword and shield… well, so long as he is easily identifiable as a barbarian, or is clearly marked as such, and/ or both players agree that the figure counts as a barbarian, then all’s good.

By adopting a WYSIWYG-ish approach, fantasy gamers should be able to find a representative of most magic schools, troop types etc.

Wandering monsters are optional, although some scenarios in the book call for certain beasties. The creatures listed are pretty generic (rats, skeletons, trolls etc.) and again, fantasy players should be able to draw upon their existing stash. You can also use ‘counts as’ figures – no ice spiders in your collection? Use that old Tomb Kings beetle swarm instead.

However if, like me, you haven’t played a fantasy game for approx. 30 years (with the exception of a couple of entry-level SOBH games with my kids) and gave all your figures away years ago when you supposedly grew up, then you won’t have an extensive collection of figures to pillage. Luckily the Frostgrave community is full of players who have sourced cheap fantasy figures, such as the Reaper Bones line, or have used plastic historical figures to kitbash some minions.

Followers of this blog will know that I started off with a box set of Fireforge Games Mongol steppe warriors, and then augmented these with some individual plastic sprues from other historical ranges off eBay. Just for variation I also turned to eBay to nab some plastic miniatures to represent some troop types and as a source of cheap monsters. Also, don’t underestimate the power of cadging – some gaming chums, real and online, have very kindly given me some minis and sprues, refusing all offers of payment (thanks guys!) Oh, and I also spent a few bob on some of the many and varied miniature manufacturers out there.

So, even if you don’t own any fantasy figures, you can get hold of them cheap enough. Your warband is only going to consist of about 10 figures anyway (notwithstanding monsters etc.)

Terrain

The Frostgrave rulebook makes one thing clear – you’ll need lots of terrain. Ruins, weird statues, ruins, tombs, ruins, walls and more ruins.

Again, if you already have a collection of fantasy terrain then you’re quids in. Otherwise you’ll have to make or buy some (or, like me, play against a mate who’s a seasoned Mordheim player and has lots of Mordheim terrain).

Or you can use books, boxes, bits of polystyrene packing etc. So long as everyone involved is happy – who cares?

Let it Snow?

One concern you might have – snow. This is FROSTgrave – adventures in the FROZEN city. Do you really want to rebase all of your minis and terrain to make them look all snowy?

Well, you don’t actually have to. For a start, Frostgrave is a frozen city that is thawing – greenery is allowed! I’ve also seen (on the Lead-Adventure Frostgrave forum) Frostgrave games set in the desert, on water and of course on standard green-ish wargames tables.

If you don’t want to frostify stuff, then don’t. If anyone has a problem with that – sod ‘em!

Gameplay

So you’ve conjured up a wizard, hired an apprentice, forked out for some hirelings and got your table ready - time to play Frostgrave!

The Rules

I’m not going to go too deeply into the rules here– again, buy the book!

What I will tell you is that they are very simple and easy to pick up. As mentioned above, a look at the many gameplay videos on the myriad wargaming YouTube channels (my personal favourite being The Battlehammer guys) will tell you all you need to know.

All rolls are on a D20 dice. I’ve read complaints that this is too random, but I like it. Using D20s adds a thrill of danger to the situation – it really gives your cheapo thug a fighting chance against Mr. Scary Knight, or makes the chance of your level gazillion wizard successfully casting a spell by no means certain.

First off you plonk down the treasure tokens (rule of thumb – put them in the places that will give you the most fun in trying to reach) and then decide who goes on which side of the table.

During the game you basically have four phases – wizard, apprentice, soldier and creature.

The wizard phase sees your wizard (and up to 3 henchmen) performing 2 actions each. These actions could be move, fire, cast a spell, swig a potion etc. but one action must be movement (usually).
Then your apprentice (and up to 3 henchmen) also do 2 actions.
Then, whoever is left in your warband also does 2 actions.
Finally, any wandering monsters and creatures not under the control of the players do their 2 actions.
What happens is this:
Role for initiative – highest roll goes first and does the wizard phase
The other guy (or, of course, gal) does his (or, of course her) wizard phase
The first player’s apprentice phase,
Second player’s apprentice phase,
First’s soldier phase,
Second’s soldier phase,
Creature phase,
Roll for initiative again for the next turn.

That’s it.

As mentioned above, all rolls are on a D20 – so both players roll a D20 and add modifiers to fight or shoot, while spellcasting is done by the player rolling a D20 and trying to reach the required casting number for that particular spell (plus or minus modifiers).

Movement is in inches, and can be halved if on rough ground, climbing (all walls/obstacles are deemed climbable), taking a second move action or carrying treasure.

Note there are no morale/nerve rules. While certain spells or situations might require you to make a roll against a figure’s will, there are no skedaddles, routs or animosity type things. However I have heard of some players who house-rule that if both a warband’s wizard and apprentice are taken out of a game, the remainder must perform some sort of morale test, lest they bugger off too.

Thoughts on Gameplay

All in all I found that both of the games I have played ran pretty smoothly, and there wasn’t a lot of rulebook flicking.

The only slight annoyance I found was having to keep track of everything on your wizard sheet – docking your Templar 2 health after losing a round of battle, crossing off that potion your apprentice just drank etc. An annoyance yes, but a necessary evil in any skirmish game and testament to my own impatience and disorganised of bookkeeping rather than any fault of the rules.

Make sure you write everything down in pencil, and use a rubber (eraser for my American readers – I’m not suggesting you go wargaming ‘fully protected and ribbed for her pleasure’).

One thing you will consistently have to do is refer to the spell sheet included in the book (there is also a separate copy available todownload). This will tell you everything you need to know about the spell you are about to cast. A handy deck of spell cards is also available.

I’d also like to see a printable list of all soldier types and creatures that I can refer to throughout the game without flicking through the rulebook, although I acknowledge that giving away too much information might preclude some people from buying the rulebook first.

All that aside, the most important question is: did I have fun?

YES!

I thoroughly enjoyed the games: playing was easy, and that little bit of background you give to your wizard really helps add colour to the proceedings.
There were no horribly unrealistic situations arising from the rules and we both went away happy.

Post-Game

If you’re playing a campaign (and there are a bunch of scenarios in the book, plus a separate mini-campaign, notwithstanding expansion books) there’s even more fun to be had post-game.

First you roll for each member of your warband who bit the dust (or snow) during the game. Yes, for those of you who have grown emotionally attached to your figures, death is not a certainty – your minions might actually survive or miss a game (or they might die – sorry).

For your wizard and apprentice it’s not so straightforward, and a whole host of wounds and injuries await a battered spellcaster (or again, they might actually die).

Then you can choose a base (inn, library, laboratory etc.) – each type confers different benefits.
You then tot up all the experience you have gained during the game – 100 experience points = 1 level. For each level your wizard can improve a stat, make casting a certain spell easier, or learn a new spell.

Of course, in order to learn a new spell, you must first have a grimoire for it. This is where rolling for treasure comes in. For each treasure token your warband has grabbed, you roll on various tables. You might get gold (to buy new, better soldiers or replace dead ones), magical weapons and items (why not give your archer some added oomph with a magic bow?), scrolls and potions (one-off spells that you can carry into battle) or grimoires (a Reveal Death spell – just what I always wanted!)

If you have enough gold you can also buy these items, or indeed fit out your base with extra goodies (need an extra warhound? Buy a kennel!)

Levelling up

A quick word about levelling up your wizard. Due to the vagaries of luck, circumstance (or in my case, tactical ineptitude) you might find the difference between your wizard’s level and that of your regular opponent to be too great after a few games.

Some players have written of their concerns about this, suggesting that the rules allow wizards to progress too quickly. However others have expressed their satisfaction with the rate of progression, saying that it's actually okay, and that a few points of difference don’t really matter.

I haven’t played enough games to form my own opinion, but we’re all pretty reasonable people aren’t we? I’m we can concoct various house rules to cope with any such eventuality.

Conclusion

(Finally!)

That’s the thing with Frostgrave – the rules are basic enough to pick up and play quickly, whilst allowing you to introduce any house rules you see fit. Yet the sheer number of spells, troop types, magic schools, creatures, treasures etc. gives the player an infinite number of playing styles, tactics, scenarios and the like.

When Frostgrave came it out generated quite a buzz, and I think that buzz is richly deserved. Wizards, magic, monsters and treasure – what’s not to like?

Bottom line – it’s a great game, go and play it!