Moments of Inertia by Rachel Crawford

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Tabletop wargaming can be a lot of fun, but it’s a different kind of fun from what you’ll usually find in a videogame. It’s fuzzy. While in a videogame nearly every move you make, every interaction with the other players, can be unambiguous and clear-cut, the same just isn’t true when you’re measuring inches and moving oddly-shaped minis over the surface of a table. The minis fall over, and when they get back up they’ve slid an extra few millimetres. Even the buildings your soldiers weave between and climb on top of aren’t very solid - they jitter slightly from turn to turn as they are accidentally nudged by the players.

Some designers attempt to tame the madness. To create viable competitive games, they must stamp out any ambiguity about rules. The fuzz must be shaved away to leave a wargame that is slick and streamlined, or so fractally complex that it requires computer-like memory and processing power to execute the rules, and a puritanical attitude between players who police each other’s play and punish every infraction.

Other designers aren’t trying to make a competitive game. Players who are more interested in the simpler pleasures of miniature wargaming – the storytelling, the social contact, the consensual back-and-forth, the trust – will be best served by games that embrace fuzz. Games like Frostgrave.

Over the last year or so I’ve been getting into the hobby of miniatures painting and gaming as a kind of escape (perhaps even an exodus) from videogames. It’s been quite a journey, and now it’s led me and a friend into the icy ruins of Frostgrave.

Frostgrave is a gaming system published in 2015 by Osprey Publishing and authored by Joseph McCullough. It’s done pretty well for itself in the harsh world of miniature wargaming, awarded with an ever-expanding range of official miniatures and numerous expansions and even tie-in novels. Having bought some, I can confirm that the miniatures are just as charming as they look, but I’ve yet to read any of the tie-in novels. Tie-in novels can be rubbish, after all, and still mean that your setting has ‘made it’.

The basic idea is that each player controls a wizard who is trying to get rich and/or powerful by looting the remnants of an ancient city. The wizards are not alone, as each brings a warband of hired mercenaries with them and possibly also an apprentice, who functions as a sort of less-good version of the wizard. Each game of Frostgrave involves competing over some treasure scattered across the gaming table while neutral monsters close in and mess stuff up.

It took us a few games to really get going. Partly because we’re idiots who will always stumble slowly over systems that are new to us, but also because the rules for certain spells or situations could be more clearly worded, and we had to resort to searching forums for answers or coming up with little house-rules. Which is fine! As I mentioned, Frostgrave is a fuzzy game, and that means coming up your own solutions to edge cases. It’s like performing a little bit of live-action game design each time you do it.

Now that we’re over the hump the game plays quickly and dynamically. The small model count helps, but more importantly neither player is kept waiting for long before they get to make a move (or at least roll a die) because each round of play has control switching back and forth between players. It’s smarter than a simple I-go-you-go system, consisting of three phases: Wizard Phase, in which the players take turns to activate their wizards. Apprentice Phase, in which the same happens but for apprentices (a good reason to take one with you). Lastly, Soldier Phase, in which they take turns to activate all their remaining soldiers. Wizards and apprentices may activate soldiers near them too, allowing you to do more and act faster in their phases, rather than having to wait until the Soldier Phase. Unit activations are short and sweet, too: you move and/or do an action like attack or cast a spell, and that’s it.

Of note is the ‘swingy-ness’ of the combat system. Frostgrave is played with twenty-sided dice, and the way damage is calculated means it’s possible to get really badly hurt in one hit. For example, if I fail combat against you because you rolled a 19 + your Fight stat of 2 = 21 and I only rolled a 8 + my Fight stat of 1 = 9, the amount of damage I take is 21 - my Armour of 10 = 11 points of damage! Which is often enough to put a soldier out of action1.

This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Entering combat puts your own combatant at risk as they may lose the combat and take damage. Ranged attacks are terrifying – being out in the open where an enemy archer has line-of-sight to you is hugely risky. We learned pretty quickly that the game map should never have long firing lines. Factors like these make Frostgrave a game about trying to avoid danger as much as possible while adapting to sudden dramatic changes in circumstance. The icy ruins are a scary place to be! Don’t go in expecting to do well by executing a perfectly-laid plan. It may go very much awry.

I haven’t even talked about spellcasting yet! When you create your wizard you pick out a set of spells for them to start with, pulling from a large and varied collection. Some are simple buffs or attacks while others allow you to modify the state of the table in more interesting ways. I like Push because I can use it to get enemies away from me, or kill them by pushing them off of ledges, or even push my own soldiers off the board if they’re carrying treasure. My friend likes to summon Imps near my warband at every opportunity, bogging me down with a never-ending tide of pesky demons. Wizards must be of a particular ‘school’ (e.g. Necromancer) and this makes spells from their school, and aligned schools, easier to cast. Your apprentice has the same selection of spells as your wizard, but worse stats. When your wizard levels up you can pick a spell to make slightly easier to cast.

Yes, leveling up is a thing, as Frostgrave has rules for playing campaigns in which carry your wizard and warband through multiple games. Only your wizard levels up, while your apprentice shadows your wizard’s stats, and the soldiers in your warband can only be improved with shinier equipment or by dismissing them and replacing them with more expensive soldiers. Meanwhile, soldiers taken out of action during a game have the post-game possibility of surviving, while wizards and apprentices may accrue permanent injuries that affect their stats – and yes, there is a spell that can heal them back to normal!

It’s all a very good package, but the basic rules for how experience points should be awarded needed a bit of an overhaul before we felt comfortable committing to a whole campaign with them. The ground rules encourage you to create wizards who are good at killing things and highly reward wiping out the opposing warband. The author seems to understand these criticisms well and has addressed some of them in an upcoming expansion, but for now we’re using some of Geek Ken’s tweaks (explained here).

It’s going well. Tomorrow we play the fourth game in our campaign, and as ever I am itching to get started.

  1. There’s an optional critical hit rule where rolling a 20 results in double damage, but I’m not sure why you’d ever need to play using it – getting hit on a 20 already hurts like hell. 

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