Written by Bryan Parke
Frostgrave; Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City written by Joseph A. McCullough and published by Osprey Games is a skirmish level miniature figurines (minifigs) game for two or more players. The rule book contains all the information a player needs to start playing within the frozen ruins of the city of Felstad.
A thousand years ago a terrible catastrophe fell upon the magical city of Felstad leaving the shattered ruins buried beneath great sheets of ice and the land around reduced to blasted wastes. Nothing remains constant under the passage of time and now the ice is receding, exposing the frozen carcass of Felstad. Here among the shadows of a crumbling empire, brave adventurers explore the buildings and towers looking for lost treasure and lore whilst trying to avoid or battle the undead, constructs and other denizens that dwell among the haunted streets.
This background sets the scene for the Frostgrave game; each player controls a wizard and his (or her) hireling soldiers who then explore an area of the ruined city, competing with the war bands controlled by other players and any monsters which may also appear upon the board.
It is worth pointing out that Frostgrave is a minifigs game / war game, and not a traditional board game. For readers not familiar with war games this may cause a bit of a surprise; as unlike with a board game, the playing surface (board), the pieces (pawns or meeples) and dice are not provided with the rules. Most minifig or war gamers don’t see this as a problem since the creation of thematic playing boards and the minfigs is part of the overall hobby.
Frostgrave serves as an excellent introduction to this style of gaming. Each player needs approximately ten 28mm minifigs for his or her war band, and thus the “buy in” required to play is much reduced compared to other miniature games. Generic fantasy warrior/adventurer minifigs are perfectly suitable; couple this with the fact that Frostgrave uses twenty sided dice (D20) for its resolution system, and most Dungeons & Dragons players are probably well on their way to being able to enjoy Frostgrave. Official Frostgrave minifigs are available from Nick Eyre’s Northstar Military Figures, but as mentioned, these aren’t mandatory for the game.
So how does one go about playing Frostgrave? Luckily the rule book explains everything we need to know in a clear and logical manner. The book itself is approximately 120 pages plus appendices. The text is supported by colour illustrations and bite-sized chunks of flavour text/lore scattered throughout the publication.
Chapter 1: Wizards and Warbands describes what you will need to play, how to set up the game table, and then goes onto inform the reader how to select his forces. The first decision a player must make is to choose his Wizard Type. This defines the sort of magic the wizard will use during the game; most fantasy tropes are represented (Elementalists, Necromancers, Witches, Summoners) whilst a few are more unusual (Chronomancers who manipulate time and Sigilists who manifest magic through the written word).
The wizard then selects his spells, choosing from his favoured school and then from associated colleges. There are 80 spells split across the 10 schools. Desirable selections are to be found in each so a mage must choose carefully.
On first reading, some spells seem more powerful than others; however Frostgrave can be played in one of two ways; a standard game or as part of a campaign. The value of spells can thus differ according to how the players are treating the game. More on the campaign rules later.
The player then assembles his war band; starting with a budget of 500 gold crowns (GC) and from this must recruit forces. His or her first decision is whether to hire an apprentice or not; such talented individuals cost a lot of money but are very powerful; they are the only means to add a second spellcaster to a force.
The wizard then recruits soldiers and specialists to join his war band. These are based around archetypes; “Thief”, “Archer”, “Barbarian” and so on. They vary in power and capability, along with associated cost. Talent isn’t cheap!
Chapter 2: Playing the Game tells us how to set up the gaming table. In a standard game, terrain is set on a table to a mutually agreeable arrangement. The players then alternate the placement of treasure tokens. Deployment zones (starting areas) are then selected.
Players may also choose to play one of the special games described in Chapter 5: Scenarios. These scenarios describe unusual set-up conditions, rules and victory conditions which apply during the game.
Chapter 2 then describes the rules. Players roll for initiative each turn, and then each player will “activate” (use) minifigs from their forces in initiative order during the phases of the turn:
The Wizard Phase
The Apprentice Phase
The Soldier Phase
At the end of turn the Creature Phase takes place when any “non-player” models on the board act according to the rules or particular scenario.
Each minifig takes his or her actions, such as moving, shooting with a missile weapon, or casting a spell. Where success is not guaranteed, minifigs roll a D20 (with modifiers, if applicable) to determine the outcome. In the case of combat, both participants would roll and compare results to determine the victor.
Damage is tracked using a Health system similar to Hit Points, which will be familiar to players of other fantasy games. Tracking a wizard or apprentice’s Health is critical to using a caster successfully; extreme failures when casting a spell can cause damage, whilst a caster can voluntarily take damage to improve spellcasting results. Take care if enemy soldiers are nearby!
The rules are easy to learn and a variety of online resources with summary sheets are available for use.
The victory condition for the standard game is simple; minifigs must pick up treasure tokens and then carry them off a board edge to safety. The player with the most tokens at the end of the game wins. Of course nothing is easy; wandering monsters may appear as treasure is picked up, and the opposing player will no doubt try to use his or her forces to kill the treasure bearer, thus claiming it for himself or herself.
Chapter 3: The Campaign is where Frostgrave really shines as a game system. Here we learn how to link the table top games together so the wizard and war band successes and failures are reflected from one game to the next.
The rules for Injury and Death describe the long term consequences of “dying” in the table top. A minifig may escape unharmed, be benched as he or she recovers, or even die. Suddenly throwing every minifig into a fight with reckless abandon may not be such a good tactic!
Not everything is so grim. Wizards learn from their adventures and Frostgrave uses an experience point system to let the spell casters become more powerful, giving players a set of customization options to tailor their mage as they see fit.
Moving on, Chapter 3 provides rules for converting the collected treasure tokens into actual loot that the minifigs can use; gold crowns, magical scrolls, grimoires, potions, armor, weapons and more exotic magic items can be found in the ruins of Felstad. All of these items are described within.
Items can be given to members of the war band to use, or they can be sold off to raise additional funds. There are many ways to spend those hard-earned gold crowns; recruiting new followers, buying magic items or establishing a base of operations from which the war band can operate.
Chapter 4: Spells provides all the rules for the eighty different spells available to the wizards in the ruins. The spells are provided in alphabetical order; when choosing spells players may find it more convenient to use the “Spell Cards” provided at the end of the book which group the spells by Wizard Type.
Chapter 5: Scenarios gives the rules for ten different scenarios. Each scenario provides a different table set-up, special rules or victory conditions compared to the standard scenario. This is another aspect of Frostgrave that really stands out as a game system; these quirky scenarios provide fantastic opportunities for hobbyists to create thematic terrain and source appropriate minifigs to use. The “Genie in the Bottle” is more visually-appealing if there is an actual genie minifig to represent it!
Some of the scenarios benefit from the application of House Rules. For example, when “The Worm Hunts” scenario is in play, in which a giant carnivorous subterranean terror can appear, once such ruling can be that any occurrence of a wandering monster would result in the appearance of the beast and not just the roll specified in the scenario.
House ruling and customization is encouraged within the Frostgrave rules and there are a number of online communities (groups and forums) where such ideas can be found and discussed.
Chapter 6: Bestiary describes the various antagonists and creatures which can be encountered within the Frozen City. The Random Encounters rule is actually optional, but adds an extra dimension of risk and fun (in fact, I recommend using all the optional rules). Within this Chapter we find rules for Undead, Wild Animals, Constructs, Demons and more.
The book then wraps up with the aforementioned Spell Cards and a Wizard and Warband Record Sheet.
In conclusion, Frostgrave is a quirky and fun fantasy minifigs game, with the campaign system providing an unusual gaming experience halfway between role playing game and war game. There are points where the layout could be better organised (spells by school rather than strictly alphabetical as noted,) but much of this boils down to personal preference.
The low entry point in terms of number of minifigs required, affordable cost of the rule book, and a reasonably simple rules set makes Frostgrave an attractive option for novice minifig gamers. The quirky scenarios and antagonists provide fantastic opportunities for terrain makers and model collectors/painters to indulge in the creative hobby side of war gaming. Frostgrave has something to offer gamers of all stripes.
Frostgrave is well-supported in terms of additional material; expansions have been released covering the rise of a Lich, underground exploration of the labyrinths of the Beast Mages and incursions of Demon-worshipping barbarians. Add in further support for Mercenary Captains, Alchemy and Arcane Locations and there is plenty to keep a games group entertained.
As noted at the beginning of the article, Northstar Miniatures supply the official Frostgrave minifigs. These include metal character and monster models as well as multi-part plastic kits for soldiers, cultists, gnolls and barbarians. A player can easily build a starter war band from one of these box sets, and these minifigs can be used for a variety of other fantasy games as well.
Frostgrave has an active online community. Notable resources include:
We hope this review has tempted you to give Frostgrave a try. Perhaps we’ll see you in Felstad, and remember, “If it shines it’s mine.”