The world of Tabletop games, for those who aren't aware, is incredibly varied. Even if you're "not into board games" chances are there's a game unique and specific enough to grab your attention. A lot of these games normally don't come to the surface of popular culture much, but oversized RPG Gloomhaven was definitely one of them. Now that Frosthaven is out we took a look at this deep RPG filled with multiple classes, a city-building system, and elegant combat to see how it shapes up and if Cephalofair Games has done it again.
What's in the Frosthaven Box?
Starting from the top, Frosthaven is a beast of a game to unpack and get into. I go into it more in my feature where I explain that the unboxing is "Lengthy And Almost Perfect". Contained within the large Frosthaven Box players will find miniatures and character sheets/cards for all 17 playable characters, multiple rule and scenario books, 27 pages of cardboard standing cutouts, and cards for everything from attack modifiers, purchasable and craftable items, and seasonal events.
Unpacking Frosthaven isn't just about setting the game up to have everything come out to play, but it's setting up each of the different shops and decks to be ready for session 1 of what is meant to be a long-running game. As you unpack everything the cards all have their place to live in the box, and there are individual ziplock bags for keeping all of your tokens together that give hope for everything to come together in the box. Unfortunately, while the bottom of the box is perfectly put together as you get to the top, you'll end up with a pile of tokens.
Frosthaven begins with the player's party arriving at the frosty village to find that they're under attack from an Algox invasion. Players will have to spring into action to fight back against this incursion immediately. After successfully driving them back and meeting Satha, the mayor of Frosthaven, you're immediately set about to help make the city safer.
It's as early as this first scenario that the story begins to deviate providing players with the option to follow the Algox back to their cave in Snowscorn Mountain or take an approach through a more deadly path where there might be fewer enemies or a new friend to meet. The story in Frosthaven will not only make repeated plays more interesting but also open up and lock down certain other storylines. Playing ten sessions of Frosthaven one way and then replaying it with different choices will result in various allies unlocked, the city itself in a different state, and new enemies encountered.
It's truly impressive how this game starts its story not just in establishing your party as the protectors of Frosthaven, but also by giving greater context to the outer wilds of the region, and that the others you share the lands with aren't just mindless creatures but can have their own societal issues and worries.
Frosthaven Scenario Setup
Gameplay in Frosthaven is broken up into two sections; Combat Phases and Outpost Phases. These phases represent the times that you are out on expeditions and are able to fight off enemies and progress the greater story of Frosthaven as well as the downtime you have back in Frosthaven and how you can contribute looted resources to build up the city.
Combat scenarios will have the players getting out the relevant hex maps, each identifiable with an alphanumeric code, and placing them on the table in front of them. Then they'll grab out the required tokens, whether those be the enemies that you're about to fight, obstacles on the ground, or free loot ready to be picked up. All creatures in the encounters will have to have their stat cards located and slotted into HP sleeves and then the players can set their own character miniatures on the board.
One of the biggest criticisms of Gloomhaven was it's lengthy setup time and unfortunately, this problem continues with Frosthaven. There are a variety of ways you can make this process a bit more streamlined through the organization of enemy pieces or hex tiles in alphabetical order but you're still going to be setting up for 15+ minutes including the time you're taking to read out the scenario.
For players of Gloomhaven who are coming to Frosthaven you'll find that there is a lot about the game is the same, but there are also some differences. Any of the instructions in the rulebook that are blue with a snowflake next to them are rules that are new or different for Frosthaven allowing you to skim for content that's going to be a new experience instead of having to read the whole rulebook.
Some positive change that has been implemented is that only the first room of any Scenario encounter is listed in the Scenario book, once a door is opened you'll be directed to a passage in an equally large Section book that will provide an additional story to read and instructions on how the next room should be set up. This keeps more of the game a secret from all those playing especially the person setting up the game.
Once you're past the clunky nature of setting up a campaign in Frosthaven though the combat gameplay itself is a wonderful experience. Players will start each campaign with a certain number of cards in their hands per their character information card. Each card is divided into a top half and a bottom half offering different options with each. Most commonly the top ability will be more combat focused while the bottom ability will feature a support or movement ability, but this is far from being a hard rule.
The first part of any round of combat is where all players will reveal two cards that they will be using in the turn, as well as pick the initiative value on one of them. At this time the enemy's initiative will also be revealed. Then in the order of initiative, the enemies and players will take their turns.
The enemies all operate on the same AI, moving into a position to attack whatever is closest to them and then trying to deal damage. While the AI is simplistic it keeps the flow of battle going and is easy for all players, and not just the one who has read the extensive rulebook, to understand what should go next. Depending on the type of player you are this simple AI will allow you to game the system, baiting enemies in certain ways or knowing you'll never be a target because there's always someone else closer. There's less chaos to factor into your strategy, but the known AI certainly does still allow you to plan out a strategy. Whether that's a good thing one way or another really depends on your individual style.
When it comes to a player's turn while they're locked into which cards they're using they can freely choose which card they want to use the top ability from, and which will use the bottom. They can also choose the base "deal two damage" or "move two spaces" from either card but it must always be top from one and bottom from another.
These cards are tied to how fatigued your character is. If they get to a point where they can't play any more cards then a rest must be taken to regain some cards from the discard pile however if there aren't enough cards to take from the discard pile then your character is out for the rest of the scenario. This system works extremely well, not just as a game mechanic of a hard of cards that continually gets smaller, but also as an in-game explanation for why your warrior might just leave a battle.
When a Scenario has been completed players will get to update their character sheets with all of the loot and experience they've obtained, a new section from the Section book will be read, and the players will know what Scenarios are available to choose from next.
Frosthaven Outpost Phases
The Outpost Phase is everything that happens in between your combat. This will mean events at Frosthaven occur, time passes, and you can spend your resources to create and expand Frosthaven itself.
For the most part, the progress of time will just mean another day has passed and you're ready to go out on another adventure, there will be times that certain events happen after X number of days or weeks, these will allow you to know when something major is about to occur so that you can start to prepare and plan accordingly. This does a good job of making the world feel real and alive, as well as giving the players a sense of progression. It's easier to see how far you've made it in the world when you can see where you started.
Outpost events can vary wildly, sometimes in your favor and sometimes very much against you. A lot of the time it will be that something occurs in the town, and based on your decision it could resolve in a different way. These outpost events can also mean enemy raids on Frosthaven where you'll need to weigh up the strength of the invading forces with the defense of the town. Depending on the outcome of these it could result in damage to your buildings. The players will always be playing the balancing game of investing in the town as well as themselves to keep it protected from these attacks.
The Outpost phase is also when you'll be able to level up your characters, purchase new items, craft items, and even retire your character if they've met their goal. This can definitely take a bit of time as you weigh up your best options for your character with the resources you've managed to collect but will also be what makes your development of the character you've chosen to play so personalized to your style of play.
The New Frosthaven Characters
Frosthaven gives you access to six characters from the start, but as you play through campaigns offers you access to eleven more. Each character is extremely unique to play and all offer something more than just fitting into the general RPG archetypes.
The Banner Spear is a strong character but on top of dealing heavy damage, they also have the ability to set up different banners around the battlefield. Depending on where they and their allies are you'll be able to set up different boons on your party members or yourself. The Blinker is a rogue who has cards that have a fast and slow option for movement. Even the initiative of the Blinker's cards will be unique depending on how they choose to attack. This allows the Blinker to have a more diverse number of actions they can take depending on whether they want to run the risk of slowing themselves down or charging ahead to deal damage quickly.
These added mechanics for each of the starting classes have some complexity to them that Gloomhaven players might have only seen after getting to the Advanced Classes in that game. Each character wielding their own unique abilities to set up also means that the time it takes for each to get ready for a particularly large turn is different. You'll have certain rounds where everyone politely takes their movement and action, but in a different turn where the Banner Spear can only do so much the Blinker might have just the right pieces in play to deal a devastating amount of damage to three enemies at once. This timing difference in abilities means that each character will get their time to shine and no one will feel like their moment has been taken from them.
What Are Our Final Thoughts On Frosthaven?
Frosthaven is everything that its reputation promises and more. Inside this 31lbs box, you've got the makings of a deep RPG factoring in different play styles, a lengthy narrative with a good amount of replayability, room for growth as single characters as well as expanding your character roster, and a full building system for the town of Frosthaven.
Each aspect of this game has been lovingly crafted and refined to a polished sheen. Characters are balanced and fun to play, and the weight of your decisions during Outpost Phases can be felt for many sessions to come. The only aspect of the game that leaves some desire to be had is the efficiency of the storage, making setup and pack down a barrier to play, especially when you're digging through 30 zip lock bags for a specific kind of enemy.
Should I Buy Frosthaven?
If you're someone who has played and enjoyed Gloomhaven and want more then this is an immediate yes. This game holds up to its reputation not only in it's level of polish but time investment. It will require you to sit down with a consistent group of friends or solo with two characters, for many many sessions to get through the game. If you want that deep narrative RPG without diving all the way into playing a full TTRPG though then Frosthaven is an easy recommendation.
It's also good to know that if you're someone who is on the fence about a game like Frosthaven but not sure if you want to dive fully in there are better entry-level options like Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion. This will get you introduced to a lot of the mechanics and give you a better indication if Frosthaven is something you want to step up to next.
The copy of Frosthaven used to produce this review was provided by the publisher.