Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Monday, 21 March 2016

Your First Miniatures Wargame

Best known for its well-researched, fully illustrated military sourcebooks, Osprey Publishing has in the past few years been expanding into rules for wargaming with Osprey Wargames; into more esoteric sourcebooks with the Osprey Adventures line, including books like Knights Templar: A Secret History and Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam; and boardgames like They Come Unseen and the forthcoming new edition of Escape from Colditz. Its newest set of rules for fantasy wargaming is designed for short, small battles with a set-up and background that is reminiscent of Games Workshop’s Mordheim: City of the Damned, the skirmish set of rules set in the same world as Warhammer Fantasy Battles.

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is a set of fantasy skirmish wargaming rules in which rival wizards, each accompanied by a wizard's apprentice and leading a band of stalwart followers, venture into an icebound, long-abandoned city in search of ancient secrets, magical knowledge, and arcane artefacts as well as simple gold. The site is the ancient city of Felstad, once the heart of a great and powerful magical empire, but due to some kind of magical error was lost to the ice a thousand years ago. This though, is about as far as the background to Frostgrave goes, though an anthology of fiction, Frostgrave: Tales of the Frozen City, adds more. Nevertheless, this is sufficient to see rival players battling it out for possession of treasure after treasure in Frostgrave’s icy ruins.

To play, each player will require ten miniatures to represent his party of plunderers and a twenty-sided die, plus a playing area roughly three foot square and plenty of scenery and terrain to fill the playing area. The default scale for the game is in inches, but the figure scale is 28mm, so finding miniatures should not be a challenge, but North Star Military Figures produces a range of miniatures specifically for use with Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City.

Essentially in Frostgrave, each player is given the same budget to design a warband or party of ten miniatures. This party will be led by a wizard and his wizard’s apprentice, the remainder of its members being whatever soldiers the wizard has hired—hounds and dog handlers, thugs, thieves, treasure hunters, soldiers, templars, barbarians, apothecaries, and more. Each figure is defined by six stats—Move, Fight, Shooting, Armour, Willpower, and Health. In addition, every soldier is armed and armoured in some fashion and can carry a single extra item as well as his standard equipment, typically a piece of treasure that he will try and carry off the battlefield. The apothecary, for example, begins play carrying a single item, a healing potion. Both the wizard and his apprentice can carry more, reflecting one of the several ways  in which they are the focus of the game, the others being that they can suffer injury, gain experience and can go up in level, and of course, cast spells.

Frostgrave comes with some eighty spells divided between ten schools, each school being aligned with three other schools and opposed to one school. Thus wizards can be a Chronomancer, an Elementalist, an Enchanter, an Illusionist, a Necromancer, a Sigilist, a Soothsayer, a Summoner, a Thaumaturge, or a Witch. A starting wizard picks three spells from his chosen school, one from each of its three aligned schools, and two from neutral schools. Spells from aligned schools and neutral schools are more difficult to cast than those from his own school. So a Thaumaturge, who draws his powers from positive energy—perhaps even a deity of some kind—casts spells from his own school without any penalty; at a +2 penalty when casting spells from the aligned Illusionist, Sigilist, and Soothsayer schools; at a +4 penalty when casting spells from the neutral Chronomancer, Elementalist, Enchanter, Summoner, and Witch; and at a +6 penalty when casting spells from the opposed Necromancer school. In the campaign game a wizard can learn more spells from any school.

Cedric the Seer
Move 6
Fight +2
Shooting +0
Armour 10
Willpower +4
Health 14
SPELLS
Soothsayer (+0): Awareness, Mind Control, Reveal Secret
Aligned (+2): Crumble, Heal, Invisibility
Neutral (+4): Absorb Knowledge, Summon Demon

Lastly, every warband should have a wizard’s apprentice. Of course he is not the wizard’s equal and only knows the same spells as the wizard, but even so, he does bolster a warband’s magic capability. Should a wizard be killed, then the apprentice will step up and replace him.

Once the players have created their warbands, a game can be prepared. This is a simple matter of putting down terrain and scenery on the playing area and adding objectives. In the basic game, these objectives will just be treasure tokens, but a scenario—like the ten given in Frostgrave—may have other objectives. 

Actual gameplay in Frostgrave is very simple. Each turn the players roll for initiative and then play through four phases—Wizard, Apprentice, Soldier, and Creature phases—with everyone conducting each phase before moving onto the next. When a figure is activated in its phase, it has two actions. One action must consist of movement, but the other can be fighting, shooting, spellcasting, collecting treasure, or even a second movement action. Combat, whether fighting or shooting, is a simple matter of opposed rolls and adding the appropriate stat—Fighting in melee, and Shooting for the attacker and Fighting for the defender in missile combat. Whoever rolls the highest determines the outcome. In melee combat, one combatant has successfully hit the other, whilst in missile combat, the shooter misses if the defender rolls higher. If a figure is hit, then his Armour value is deducted from the attacker’s roll to determine how Health is lost. A figure reduced to zero Health is killed.

Spellcasting is a matter of a wizard—or his apprentice—rolling a die and attempting to beat a spell’s Casting Number. Failing to cast a spell can inflict damage on the caster, but a wizard can ‘empower’ a spell, spending Health on a one-for-one basis to gain a bonus to the roll. This will be either to successfully cast the spell or to make it more powerful to resist. In general, there is no limit on how many times a spell can be cast during a game, though this may vary from spell to spell.

Play proceeds like this until either one warband has defeated the other or has fled the board. The warband with the most treasure is the winner. Up until now, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is a straightforward set of skirmish rules that are clearly written and nicely work as an introduction to the hobby or the equivalent of a palette cleanser between longer and more complex games. Where Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City goes beyond this is in its campaign rules.

The campaign rules in Frostgrave allow for figure survival, their merely being taken out rather than dying if all Health is lost. They can still die, but they may instead have to rest up for one treasure hunt, or in the case of a wizard or his apprentice suffer a crippling injury like lost toes or psychological scars. During a game, a wizard can gain Experience points and for every one hundred gained, he goes up a Level. Each time he gains a Level, a wizard can improve a stat, reduce the Casting Number of a spell, or learn a spell. Of course, when a wizard improves, so does his apprentice.

In the campaign game, treasure becomes more important. It can take the form of potions, scrolls, grimoires, magical arms and armour, magical artefacts, or just gold crowns. Whilst a wizard can buy many of these items, he also can spend his gold on healing or replacing members of his warband, or he can establish a base. Each type of base grants a special bonus. For example, an Inn enables a warband to have eleven rather than ten members, whereas a Library can be searched for scrolls and grimoires. Establishing a base is free, but money can be spent to modify it with resources like a Kennel—enables a wizard to keep an extra war hound in his warband, Giant Cauldron—grants +1 bonus on all Brew Potion spells, or Celestial Telescope—confers a +2 bonus to one initiative roll in game via divination.  

Optional rules allow for critical hits and for random encounters with some of the creatures that inhabit the ruins of the city. To that end, the book includes a selection of creatures, such as giant rats, white apes, frost giants, and various types of the undead. Another optional rule enables a wizard to achieve ‘transcendence’ after learning all of the spells in the game. In effect, the wizard leaves the game, but has won the campaign. Alternatively, a campaign might end once a wizard has learned all of the spells in his school or after a number of games have been played. In addition, Frostgrave comes with ten scenarios, each a variation upon the game’s treasure hunt set-up, such as exploring a museum of living statues and being hunted by giants whilst searching for treasure. Rounding out the book is a set of spell cards, one per school, that can be photocopied and used as a ready reference per play.

Physically, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is sturdy hardback done in full colour. The writing is clear and simple and it is illustrated throughout with a mix of full colour fantasy artwork and colour photographs of warbands exploring and fighting.

As good as it is, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is not quite perfect. One issue is that of balance. Not initially because each player has the same budget with which to build their warbands, but as a campaign proceeds, it will become more and difficult to determine how balanced one warband is against another because no two players are going to spend their gold and their wizard’s Experience points in the same way. Other issues with the game are more subjective in that an experienced wargamer may find the rules in Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City a little simplistic and that the game as a whole lacks depth. Arguably, the rules in Frostgrave are never going to be more than simple—and that really can only be seen as a good thing—but there is no doubt that there is room for expansion. For example, whilst the various types of soldiers are never going to gain any experience, they could have more defined special abilities, such as war hound being able to track, a thief being able to sneak, and a treasure hunter granting a bonus to treasure rolls. Rules for different races could also be added. Right now, a player could easily use Elf miniatures to represent his warband, but there is no way to differentiate between warbands in this way in the rules. After all, who can deny the fun of sending an Orc shaman or a Dwarf runesmith into Frostgrave with their warbands? Further, whilst this is a set of fantasy wargaming rules, it does not mean that the use of gunpowder and early firearms would not be out of place in the game. Lastly, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City could benefit from a set of rules and guidelines for creating scenarios. Perhaps these and other rules might appear in a Frostgrave Companion? It should be noted that the publisher has already released a campaign, Thaw of the Lich Lord, which is fully supported by figures from North Star Military Figures.

Another issue is the terrain needed to play. The playing area is quite small and it is supposed to represent the ruins of a city. So what it needs is a lot of terrain to reflect the compact, built-up nature of the ruins of Felstad. This terrain also needs to be fairly tall, not only to model the various high buildings, but also to break up lines of sight for both Wizards and Apprentices casting spells as well as any marksmen. Tall buildings also allow better use of the Push action. Unfortunately the need for all of this terrain does increase the outlay. It is not likely to trouble an experienced wargamer with plenty of pieces of terrain to hand, but it might offput someone new to the hobby.

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City has many things going for it. First off, its rules are clearly written and presented—and above all, not complex. Secondly, both the setting and its treasure hunting set-up are easy to grasp and should a player want to do so, easy to develop and add to. Thirdly, the level of investment for the game is relatively low by the hobby’s standards—just ten figures per warband plus the terrain and scenery. All of these serve to make Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City a very accessible game, suitable as an introduction to the hobby as much as it is a lighter alternative to more formal and heavier battles.