It might be my imagination but skirmish games seem to be the ‘in-thing’ at the moment. Understandable given that so few people have the time/money/energy to pour into a massed battle game, requiring 250 models per side, an 8′ by 8′ table and seven hours to play a turn. OK, a slight exaggeration, but the appeal of a quick, small game that can be played with a handful of models is undeniable
Corvus Belli have a new gorgeous looking Infinity boxed set, The Dredd tabletop game is doing well, Otherworld Miniatures have just released a new skirmish rulebook. Even gaming dinosaurs Games Workshop have scaled Warhammer Fantasy right back to an almost skirmish like game, and of course we have Frostgrave.
Frostgrave is a fantasy skirmish game of wizards, groping about the ruins of an ancient city hoping to find treasure and battling other wizards that happen to have the same idea. Each wizard accompanied by his apprentice and a small warband of hired soldiers. The fluff & background is minimal – less than half a page in the book, just enough to set the scene
There’s a low barrier to entry here, one of the lowest I’ve seen for a “proper” tabletop wargame. You need the rules (currently a bargain at £10.50 on Amazon), approx 6-7 models, a couple of D20 dice, a 3′ x 3′ space to play, a tape measure oh and some fantasy terrain. OK so the terrain might be a problem for new players, but plenty of cheap terrain options exist these days. The game is accompanied by its own range of miniatures by North Star, but you can happily play with any wizard & solider fantasy models you have to hand. This was a big draw for me, something I could try out with proxy models, and everyone has a few wizards and guys with swords kicking about their model collection somewhere, right?
A lot of comparisons have been drawn between Frostgrave and the old Games Workshop game ‘Mordheim’. Now I’ve never played Mordhiem but I can see the resemblance; groups of fantasy warbands battling over a small table full of ruins and a focus on playing over a campaign. With Mordhiem being so fondly remembered as a game, it has consequentiality stirred up a lot of interest in Frostgrave
The game is focused around your wizard, you can pick one of ten schools of magic to specialise in, then select eight spells from the pool available, which varies depending on the school you ‘major’ in. There’s 80 different spells in total, so plenty of variety. Then you have 500gp from which you need to hire your apprentice (who can also cast spells but with a lower chance of success), and the remainder of your cash going on hiring a range of soldiers to accompany you. You won’t have enough cash for more than 5 or 6 guys, but there’s sixteen different types of solider you can hire, ranging from simple thugs, up to Templars and Barbarians. The game keeps it simple throughout so there’s a minimum of customisation & equipment options available at the start
There are a range of scenarios included in the book, or you can play a straight up match – a simple scrap and treasure hunt, with six treasure tokens scattered about the table and no special rules or objectives. This standard match is what we selected for our first game.
I picked an Elementalist with a range of nice offensive spells, and a smattering of necromancy and other tricks. My opponent Rob (once again on hand model duties in some of the photos) fielding an Enchanter. An interesting aspect is the inclusion of spells that are cast “out of game” many of these are focused on playing in a campaign (i.e. the stuff you do between battles). In our case we both had spells that gave us the chance to summon of extra models for our warband prior to battle. In my case I managed to raise a zombie to join me, but Rob failed on his rolls to magically bring to life a mechanical construct to accompany him.
Predominantly the rules are nice and simple, the game flows along & plays fast. Models activate in phases and get two actions per turn (typically: move, fight, shoot, cast spell or pick up treasure). The core mechanic is a simple D20 roll, with a handful of basic modifiers for things like cover or being outnumbered in combat. Due to the single roll and using a D20 the game is quite “swingy” and deadly – a single lucky roll will almost certainly be enough to instantly kill a solider or put your wizard close to death. The game is really about grabbing the treasure and getting out of there fast, which makes spells that boost movement very powerful. We’d both picked a spell called ‘Leap’ which allows a 10″ jump over any terrain in any direction. We both ended up casting this spell more than any other spell we had available, resulting in models leaping about the map, which thematically I felt was a bit daft.
We decided to allow wandering monsters in our game which is an optional rule giving a chance of some monsters randomly popping up on the table. Wandering monsters aren’t on any side and their actions are controlled by some simple ‘if X then Y’ rules. There’s a small but well stocked bestiary in the rules, covering the sorts of nasty things you’d expect to encounter in magical frozen ruins; undead, wolves, bears, trolls, James Corden, etc. The wandering monsters led to some interesting situations with a ghoul appearing and chasing my wizard around Benny Hill style, and a group of spiders appearing exactly where neither of us wanted them to be. It does add a bit variety to the game, but might be a bit a unbalanced for some people. Speaking of balance I’d definitely warn that this is a game to have fun with and not play too competitively, it’s a light, quick & deadly skirmish, the very swingy dice rolls and randomness will frustrate you, if you play super seriously
Our game lasted about 2 hours, and a good chunk of that was setting up and learning, I’d estimate being able to play a game in about an hour once you’ve got the hang of it. It ended with me carrying off three of the treasures, and Rob taking two. I’d knocked out most of his soldiers but crucially his wizard and apprentice survived. However both my wizard and apprentice went down in the battle, which if we were playing a campaign could be potentially disastrous.
There were one or two rules issues/questions, some line of sight disputes (always a problem in this style of game) and a few other odd situations especially with climbing models. This required us to improvise and ‘house rule’ things a little, but nothing that bogged the game down too much.
Speaking of campaign, a whole chapter of the rules cover the campaign system, which like the rest of the game is simple but effective. With games being quite short it’s very much intended that you take your wizard & warband through a campaign over a series of games. It is mostly standard stuff such as gaining loot & extra equipment, dealing with injuries, hiring new guys, etc but also levelling up your wizard, learning new spells and even setting up your base of wizardly operations.
Despite playing a one off game, we rolled on the campiagn tables to see what we would have got, because everyone likes rolling on tables. Thankfully my “dead” wizard was just badly injured, needing 100gp of medical care. The other rewards I got apart from a extortionate medical bill, were a grimoire (containing a nice new spell), and a couple of magical staffs, oh and 140gp.
So Frostgrave is a great little game which I’d recommend to anyone looking for a light, quick wargame with a low barrier to entry. If you’re after a skirmish game that doesn’t take up a lot of room, playable in about an hour, yet isn’t a boardgame – I’d say Frostgrave fits the bill perfectly