Frostgrave: Battle in the Ruins

Last week I found time to try out Frostgrave, the new skirmish game from Osprey that's currently burning up my internets. I mean c'mon -- the game recently got its own sub-forum on Lead Adventure Forum, and you know they don't just give those out like peanuts.

The game itself has a fairly narrow focus. It's all about wizards leading bands of soldiers, mercenaries and treasure hunters into the ruins of a once-great city in search of priceless loot. The official flavor of the game envisions the city as snow-encrusted and crawling with all manner of frigid beasties, but I'm already committed to my own ruined fantasy terrain set, which is not snowy but works just fine in a pinch.

In fact, I was very pleased to see how well our terrain meshes with my new cobblestone battle mat. It's a printed fabric product from Cigar Box Battle Mats, featuring scattered turf poking up through a field of cobblestones. The turf happens to match my own standard flock pretty well, as you can see in the pics.

We set up a basic three-player scenario. Karl brought his liturgical warband, with Bishop Stuka playing the role of soothsayer wizard and leading a band of pitchfork-wielding peasants. Josh fielded a pair of wild druids (witches, in the game) backed up by mercenaries and thieves. I went with a necromancer leading a group of thugs and men-at-arms.

(Side note: Frostgrave assumes fairly human-centric warband composition, with typical soldier profiles such as "thug" and "tracker," but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to add a little more flavor to this baseline treatment. You know: a band of elves escorting a mage into the ruins of the ancient library, or a wight sorcerer leading some skeletons on a smash-and-grab at the old mausoleum.)

We deployed 9 treasure tokens (3 for each player) per the game rules. We played on a 4x4 foot table, a bit larger than the recommended 3x3 tabletop, but I thought it wouldn't matter since we were playing a three-player game.

The game began with each warband filtering into the ruined city and angling for the closest treasure tokens (represented by barrels and chests in these pics).

My own warband got a little bottled up at the outset, which took a turn or two to get sorted out.

My treasure hunter ended up scaling an overgrown tower to secure some treasure on the ramparts. A nifty aspect of Frostgrave is that, unless otherwise specified, all terrain is assumed to be scalable. That really helped reinforce the "treasure hunters!" part of the game, as any figure can climb a wall or tree or ruined tower in search of loot.

As he was scrambling up the sheer wall, Karl's bishop cast wizard eye, a spell which allows the wizard to place a token somewhere on the board, which can then be used to draw line of sight for spells -- effectively giving the wizard a secondary perspective on the battlefield.

Here is the wizard eye, hoving atop the ramparts while my treasure hunter investigates the barrel. I kept waiting for Karl to shoot lightning bolts out of the eye, but he didn't have any shooty spells, just buffs and debuffs.

Elsewhere, Josh's druid and apprentice split up to advance on two separate treasure tokens. This proved to be a good strategy, as Josh was able to seize both without much resistance.

Frostgrave uses d20s for combat and task resolution. While some have criticized the system as being too 'swingy,' I found it somewhat refreshing. The potential for a total blowout was real (especially when using the optional critical hit rule) but that's OK -- no one wants to spend hours and hours playing a skirmish game with 10 figures per side.

Eventually Karl and I met in the center of the table near some treasure tokens. He got there before me, though, so I had to send my warhound and apprentice racing ahead of the rest of my team to try and stop him.

My guys kept his foot troops at bay, but eventually he prised away the barrel and began dragging it off the board. Nearby, his guys tumbled over a shattered pillar to seize an other treasure token.

But shortly afterward, as they were celebrating an early victory, Josh's druid swooped in and eviscerated them piece by piece.

That knight on the left side of the picture was really hoofing it, moving as fast as he could (carrying treasure cuts your move in half) but he was no match for the swift druid spellcaster.

My attempts to stymie Josh's advance were starting to bear fruit -- I raced my man-at-arms up to a treasure token while my wizard perched atop a ruined wall, ready to fling spells if needed. They were opposed only by Josh's warhound ....

But he proved more than capable in taking down the armored soldier. (I think a natural '20' was involved...) That left my wizard alone and exposed. Before he could retreat, Josh sent in a mercenary, and a few lucky dice rolls later, my wizard was toast.

Shortly afterward, we reached our time limit. Everyone had secured at least one treasure token (and Josh made off with THREE!). Even though this wasn't a campaign game, we decided to go through the post-game stuff to see whether or not our casualties survived and to figure out what treasure we had dredged forth from the ruins. As you can expect, this involved lots of rolling on random tables to determine exactly what we got. It was great fun!

This is definitely the strength of Frostgrave -- the old-school nature of the rules, which seems to offer a game experience that is by turns zany and unpredictable, often at the same time! I mean, this game literally has wandering monsters -- yes, please! We also liked that you only need to track experience for your wizard ... everyone else is expendable, for better or worse.

As others have pointed out, Frostgrave's rules engine and campaign system seems easy enough to exploit, but we don't play that way at Chicago Skirmish Wargames. Our games are flavorful and narrative experiences first and foremost. There is plenty of room to hang your own house rules onto the basic framework of the game to correct any mismatched expectations.

Doubtless we'll play this one again soon!

-- Patrick, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member

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