In the role of a mercenary, days and nights can be filled with the most vivid adventures. Defeat all enemies in the room. Escort the injured traveler to a safe place. Stop a dark villain from taking over the world. All with the promise of payment, of course. Then there are the hours in between. Stuck wandering the streets of a struggling outpost in the dead of winter, or warming yourself by a tavern fire waiting for the next big…
“Help! Help me!” What is this? A call to action? We rise without thinking. There is always hope that our exploits will also bring a reward, but we can’t help ourselves in times like this. Adrenaline drives us forward. We rush into rough weather and follow screaming to a nearby shelter. What we find is unexpected, yet disappointing. No one makes a move to help Brian from Board Game Quest, who is crushed under a huge box of Cephalofair Games’ latest release, Frosthaven. We cringe, knowing that the weight must be unbearable.
“Come on guys, I can’t get out from under this.” We look at each other and wonder what caused such an incident. Most of the mercenaries shake their heads and leave. Save for someone who is up to the challenge.
Let’s get Glumhaven out of the way. Love it or hate it, it remains an achievement in many ways. Have you ever played Gloomhaven? did you finish it If you answered yes, I have a feeling you’re in the minority. Who has time to fully immerse themselves in one campaign for months on end? We take over 100 scripts per campaign. And now that Frosthaven has emerged from the depths of crowdfunding, is there any reason to jump into Gloomhaven when there’s yet another campaign with over 100 scenarios?
Frosthaven is even more ambitious than its peers. It has many of the same rules and gameplay, but with new additions such as city improvements, crafting, seasonal (summer or winter) events, loot rewards, and more dynamic scenarios. It features new characters (you can also play as old ones here), new stories to unlock, and new items to uncover. It also features many side-scenarios with new content from board game content creators and designers.
How is one Frosthaven? It’s pretty simple, even if the rules get a bit confusing at times. First, players must choose a starting character. They can then go out into the icy element and follow a scenario flow chart that changes directions as the players make important decisions. Yes, you will find yourself locked out of stories. Before starting a scenario, players read a Road Event card, which contains choices and can unlock additional story elements. More road events are added to the respective decks as the story progresses.
Once inside the scenario, the game system scales according to the number of players. This determines how many monsters will spawn, including their health and power levels. Early scenarios tasked players with killing all monsters in order to succeed, but these objectives evolve as the campaign progresses. The setting includes map fragments and overlays dictated by the scenario. Typically, the starting room is visible, while additional rooms are unlocked when you enter through a separate chapter book.
Frosthaven is a card-based dungeon game. Each character has a hand limit, and each card contains a central initiative number, as well as a top and bottom action. You can use a basic two-attack or two-turn action instead of any action printed on the card, but you’ll want to maximize the effectiveness of your card’s abilities, as they provide experience and elemental affinity for you or your party members to use (or, in the unfortunate case your enemies) on future turns.
Players choose two cards to play per turn: one for the top action and one for the bottom action. Each round is played in initiative order (monsters have their own decks with initiative and themed abilities). At the end of a player’s hand (or anytime before), they can either take a short rest by removing a random card from play to collect their discard pile, or they can take a long rest to heal and lose a card of their choice.
Players either achieve the goal of the scenario, or they burn out and lose. Exhaustion occurs in the form of loss of cards or loss of health. An important rule is that players can negate damage by removing a card from play. This brings you closer to the end, but allows you to live for one more round.
A massive new inclusion is post-script items. Players can return to Frosthaven and read the Outpost event card. These can include attacks that threaten the outpost, as well as plot or narrative development. Players return with resources gained during the scenario, which can be used to build buildings, improve defenses and buildings, or even craft items. As more buildings are unlocked, so do most of the nuances of Frosthaven’s resource economy.
There is so much here that I won’t be able to cover without spoiling the trip. But I want to touch on the characters. Each character gets a personal quest. After completing (usually ten to fifteen scenarios) the character must retire. Retirement allows players to try out new classes and open sealed envelopes that contain all sorts of new items, from rules to buildings and… well, other things. They also introduce new personal quests for future characters, as they can only be completed once per campaign.
Full disclosure: I have not played Gloomhaven, although I have completed it Glumhaven: Jaws of the Lion. That said, I was aware of the system before jumping into Frosthaven, and I thoroughly tested it, learning about new gameplay elements, rule changes, or rules that are commonly misapplied. I played through about two-thirds of my first campaign (65 scenarios), many of them solo, although I was able to try both two- and three-player scenarios. I preferred to play solo with two characters to keep the difficulty down and I didn’t go beyond normal difficulty.
Having said that, I have to say that I have enjoyed my time so far. The story wasn’t as underdeveloped as I expected, the script was interesting, and the characters were fun to own. I’ve managed to try eleven of the seventeen classes so far, and all deliver on their difficulty and power levels, though none (yet) feel weak in any way. The six starting classes provide a great overview of what to expect as you encounter new classes as you progress.
Frosthaven can be tricky. A ticking time bomb in the form of your dwindling card card, combined with enemies challenging at inopportune times, requires effective play. Players can try scenarios again, and they keep the experience gained when this happens, but it can be disappointing to lose on the last turn due to a bad card draw. These scenarios take time to set up, research and survive. Fortunately, you can always return to Frosthaven and try another scenario until you’re ready to return. At any given moment, there are several options for the scenario.
To compensate for the difficulty, players can select some of the options offered or lower the difficulty level. I find that sometimes even a lower difficulty level can still be a problem, and there’s no shame in wanting to explore the breadth of the game before the inevitable next installment is announced. One could assume. I also suggest setting up any rules that keep your group from progressing, but not breaking the scenario quest.
The new Outpost Phase provides a breath of fresh air, even if it can also stifle forward movement. I like to explore my options, and as the outpost grows, so do the options for character equipment and crafting. Other options later come into play as well, making the outpost look like a living space. It also provides many ways to use the resources collected along the way. The only area here that feels underdone is city defense, which tries its best to provide side combat and resource guzzlers. They just get annoying after a while.
The card-based dungeon crawl continues to be a highlight. This is a core element of the gameplay and can be a challenging puzzle, especially when playing with others. Time initiative and enemy attacks with limited communication require a strong group. The longer players can play together, the more they will see the strengths and weaknesses of their class combinations and learn which cards may appear at certain times.
I want to touch on a few areas that I find frustrating. First of all, I would never play this game without a utility. There is an official companion app, but there are others that offer their own benefits. Regardless of which programs are right for you, these programs eliminate the need for many of the components that complicate every scenario. I play without an element board, monster cards (abilities and modifiers), monster stats and sleeves, damage and condition tokens, and initiative tokens. That’s a lot of material that could have been left over during production, making it more appealing and effective.
Another thing that disappoints me is the lack of failures. I like the idea of ending a scenario without achieving its objectives and changing the course of the campaign. I wish there was more of that here, rather than having to endure the script being repeated for the sake of results. This will add nuance to the narrative of the campaign and make players feel even more interested in their actions.
One final note: map fragments. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion was a revelation. The atlas included a printed map, allowing artists to create more unique settings and minimize set-up time. Now the setup time here isn’t too bad (with the helper app), but again we’re talking about fewer components and more time to play. I understand that the map tiles and their reuse in scenarios is a way to save on investment in developing a unique locale, but this is another aspect that seems lacking for a product with such a big budget.
I’m looking forward to the final third of this campaign. I still have characters to explore. Locales for detection. Stories to unlock. I didn’t jump into some of the build options nearly as much as I should have. I’d even admit that I’ve done a poor job of choosing to upgrade my buildings over time as I’m running low on resources and looking at replaying old scenarios for loot. But we push on. In the winter landscape, encountering new creatures, new allies, sailing the seas, climbing steep peaks, sledding on the ice, always to a great conclusion. I can sense the end near. But there is still much to discover. And yes, we go further.
Well, almost all of us do. One remained, still struggling to lift Frosthaven to retrieve the body of one Brian, struggling for breath, local purveyor of crowd-funded craft goods and not-too-proud owner of broken ribs and a crushed lung. I hope this box moves soon. I give it all I have before I burn out and run out of options.
Final score: 4 stars – Epic and at times overwhelming, Frosthaven improves on its predecessors by taking small steps forward while staying true to its core.
• Unique classes and combinations
• Scenario flowchart and seasonal calendar
• Several extended stories
• Player scaling
• Unnecessary components
• Lack of program integration
• No mistakes forward
• Additional JotL-style scenario maps