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Frosthaven

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Frosthaven is the story of a small outpost far to the north of the capital city of White Oak, an outpost barely surviving the harsh weather as well as invasions from forces both known and unknown. There, a group of mercenaries at the end of their rope will help bring back this settlement from the edge of destruction. Not only will they have to deal with the harsh elements, but there…
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Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • An all-in-one campaign that will take years to complete
  • Fantastic art and superior-level design
  • Clear and concise ruleset

Might Not Like

  • An all-in-one campaign that will take years to complete
  • Those exhausted with Gloomhaven will find this a little samey
  • Outpost phase sometimes feels like a chore
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Description

Frosthaven is the story of a small outpost far to the north of the capital city of White Oak, an outpost barely surviving the harsh weather as well as invasions from forces both known and unknown. There, a group of mercenaries at the end of their rope will help bring back this settlement from the edge of destruction.

Not only will they have to deal with the harsh elements, but there are other, far more dangerous threats out in the unforgiving cold as well. There are Algox, the bigger, more yeti-like cousins of the Inox, attacking from the mountains; Lurkers flooding in from the northern sea; and rumors of machines that wander the frozen wastes of their own free will. The party of mercenaries must face all of these perils, and perhaps in doing so, make peace with these new races so they can work together against even more sinister forces.

Frosthaven is a standalone adventure from the designer and publisher of Gloomhaven that features sixteen new characters, three new races, more than twenty new enemies, more than one hundred new items, and a new, 100-scenario campaign.

In addition to having the well-known combat mechanisms of Gloomhaven, Frosthaven will feature much more to do outside of combat, such as numerous mysteries to solve, a seasonal event system to live through, and player control over how this ramshackle village expands, with each new building offering new ways to progress.

Characters and items from Gloomhaven will be usable in Frosthaven, and vice versa:

As revealed during PAX 2020, Frosthaven will be interchangeable with the original Gloomhaven board game. To an extent, anyway. Namely, you can use Gloomhaven's characters in Frosthaven and vice versa. What's more, some of the first game's items will become available throughout the sequel.

Frosthaven has a whole new set of items but there is a mechanic for bringing items over from 'Gloomhaven'. However, as it is a remote location, these products get imported and are not there as standard. Resources are much more valuable and you have to build items through a crafting system rather than just buy them.

As of the time I am typing this, Frosthaven is the most backed boardgame kickstarter of 2020 with just shy of $13 million dollars in the bank. You don’t get those kinds of numbers without being a bit special, and Frosthaven is just that.

Frosthaven is the big box sequel to current king of boardgame geeks top games of all time. It takes the fantastic card-based gameplay twist on a dungeon crawl as well as the sprawling branching story from the original. However, it now adds in a few new mechanics and systems to keep it fresh.  In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, I’ll explain what the big appeal of Gloomhaven is.

The big hook from Gloomhaven is that it was a diceless dungeon crawl game that doesn’t need a dungeon master player. The players would choose a mission and set up a map with enemies and an objective. Players will each have their own unique deck of ability cards as well as a personal deck of modifier cards. Over the course of the game these ability cards get whittled down. Eventually players may not have enough cards in hand to remain in the game and become eliminated.

This gives the game a really frantic pace as you can’t just take your time and plan everything perfectly. Because then you might run out of cards before you get to the objective. Your modifier cards are a cool feature as well. Different equipment and abilities will allow you to maybe remove a few bad cards or add in a few good ones. Maybe you’ll find something that gives your character a bit of a bonus in battle but will make you place some bad modifier cards into your deck as a balance. It’s a neat system.

Frosthaven has all of this but adds a few new flavours into the mix as well. Whereas Gloomhaven was a bustling city full of character, Frosthaven is just a small, ill equipped, harbour outpost. Players will be tasked with using materials found on their travels to develop the city of Frosthaven. You can focus on building new buildings or strengthening the defences of the city to be able to handle any threats that may come banging at the gates.

There is also a new alchemy system that allows players to try and combine resources and ingredients to produce new potions and elixirs. The events system also gets an overhaul with new events that can take place in either summer or winter. On top of all that there are 16 new characters to play with as well as stacks of new monsters. You can also bring over any characters you may have from Gloomhaven or the newly released Jaws of the Lion.

The core gameplay of the games is near identical, so if you weren’t keen on Gloomhaven or Jaws of the Lion, I can’t see you being that fond of this either. But if, like me, you were a real fan of the almost puzzle-based approach the original takes to tactical combat you are going to want to play this. One thing to mention is that Frosthaven uses the same tile-based dungeon system found in Gloomhaven, rather than the book based one found in Jaws of the Lion. This is a bit of a double-edged sword. Although I definitely prefer the look of the tile-based approach on the table, you can’t argue that Jaws of the Lion isn’t much faster to set up. The book-based approach that it takes makes set up and tear down a breeze.

Personally, I am really looking forward to playing this. I am really looking forward to getting back into this gaming system but having a few new toys and tools to play with. A brilliant thing about Gloomhaven was not only getting to know your character but getting to know how it interacts with your friends’ characters too. You would start to spot ways you can team up and play off of each other’s abilities to really reach some higher-level play. I am really looking forward to doing that all again. This is going to be a big adventure. Players will be writing their own stories inside the world of Frosthaven and personally, I don’t think it can arrive soon enough!

The skeletal remains of sheets of brightly illustrated cards lie in piles around the table. Fingers worn numb from the appliance of pressure to various counters depicting fantastical beasts and windswept vistas enter what one can only assume is the end game. Rules assimilated (and yet kept oh-so-close to hand) battle for space with monster blocks, loot decks, stacks of conditional effects, figurines, and other ephemera.

Damage tokens with ominously high numerical values glower with passive-aggressive energy, whilst box-fresh characters — flanked by a tentative selection of factory-scented cards — cower at the table’s periphery. Players shuffle through thin fragments of a not-yet-conceived strategy, hovering over the board with mouth-breathing anxiety. Flavour text is absorbed. Tea is brewed. The heating is cranked up just enough to take the edge of a sudden chill that wraps around the gaming space like a steel glove. It is almost time.

Time to enter the world of Frosthaven.

Past Presents

As a sequel to one of the highest-rated board games of all time, Frosthaven had much to live up to.

The long shadow cast by its predecessor, Gloomhaven, wound all the way back to a rather unassuming Kickstarter project launched in 2015. Pitched as a board game of ‘cooperative card-driven tactical combat’ that took place in a ‘persistent, ever-changing world,’ Gloomhaven stood out from a field filled with copycat design briefs, IP-derived collect-em-ups, and one-and-done mediocrities.

Players signed up in droves; the initial campaign attracted just shy of $400,000 from around 4000 backers. A second funding putsch in 2017 (spurred on no doubt by positive reviews and word-of-mouth mastication) raised ten times that figure. A full retail version launched that same year to much fanfare, critical acclaim and no small number of blog posts insisting that the rapture was – at last – well and truly upon us. Within a year of its debut, Glooomhaven had won six golden geek awards, sold over 120,000 copies and positioned itself as the top-rated board game on board game geek, an accolade it retains to this day. *

The game’s focus on a non-linear campaign, persistent world and tight, card-based strategic play made it a virtual institution overnight. Gloomhaven felt organic and unpredictable in ways that most other games could not even begin to emulate. Combat offered genuine challenge yet encouraged players to take their licks with good humour. Failure granted an opportunity to refine skills, hone tactics, and charge back into the breach with renewed vigour.

It captured the zeitgeist like no other game ever managed before (or since).

Some players obsessed over the endless minutia of tactical deliberations; others kicked back, let the wind blow, and let the branching narrative carry them to places unseen. Both groups loved what they saw. Intricate, thrilling and seemingly endless, Gloomhaven was without peer – a masterclass in design and a testament to the brilliance of its creator Isaac Childres. Those fortunate enough to have got in on the ground floor might look back on the game with the dull fondness of a cherished trauma. The rest of us – let’s be real now — are probably only halfway through its voluminous campaign.

Nothing Burns Like The Cold

So, no pressure, then.

An encore to a much-beloved game was always going to represent something of a conundrum for publishers Cephalofair Games. The safe option – to merely continue the story set out in its predecessor- was an obvious no-no. Gloomhaven was already overlong by most game’s standards, and its persistent world left too many loose threads to allow designers to forge a one-size-fits-all narrative of sufficient depth. The solution – reminiscent of Bioware’s attempt to reboot Mass Effect by sidestepping the vagaries of multiple endings – proved simple enough. Leave Gloomhaven far behind.

Relocate.

And Frosthaven is as far removed from the bustling metropolis of its older sibling as one could get. A remote northern outpost etched out of the frozen wilderness and cut off from the rest of the Empire during winter months, its connection to Gloomhaven is both real and ephemeral. As players take on the role of mercenaries carving a path through the ice and snow towards humankind’s most distant settlement, they bring with them only whispers of the cataclysmic events of Gloomhaven’s past. Frosthaven stands alone, as it has always stood.

Here is a place where new legends are born.

Weight Of The (Persistent) World

At first grab, the fact that Frosthaven weighs in at just over 16 kilograms should tell you all you need to know about the game in question. Cephalofair has created another vast campaign to get lost in. Although this corner of the world is smaller in both stature and significance, the tales to be told take players across the tundra, crystalised forests, mountain passes and twilight-lit fjords. The paths stretch out, an endless tapestry of opportunity. Perils await.

Glory is there for the taking.

There are six starting classes to choose from — ranging in complexity from low-high – with the option to unlock ten more as the game progresses. Curiously, importing characters from Gloomhaven is not against the rules; aside from a warning that it might affect game balance, a continuation of the ex-situ story is not entirely off the cards.

Characters are chosen, named, kitted out for their new life in the ice-covered hinterlands and placed before players who get to choose their starting deck from what (at first glance) feels like a bewildering array of options. However, the fog of new-game confusion is relatively brief, and things soon take on a recognisable feel. Initial impressions – that Frosthaven offers little more than a business-as-usual approach – are somewhat misguided. A typical game of Gloomhaven played out as a single scenario bookended by narrative text and flanked by events occurring both in the city and on the road. Here, Frosthaven presents itself as a continuation of the process in the first instance and a complete reworking in the second.

Already Player One

Still, that feeling of familiarity is hard to shake. Players choose cards, flavour text is assimilated, initiative is declared, monsters react, and scenarios are won, lost, or replayed until victory is secured. Bubbling beneath the surface of such well-trodden tropes, however, are a slew of tweaks, refinements, clarifications, and quality-of-life improvements that take the game to a whole other level. Indeed, whilst a complete list of modifications to Gloomhaven’s core mechanics is far too extensive to cover in great depth, the added polish is of such critical importance that some time must be spent on an overview. Frosthaven presents players with a streamlined version of rules that are easier to grasp whilst remaining challenging for those who thrive on mastery of such things.

Examples of such features are manifest.

Setup To Fail

Setting up a game of Gloomhaven imparted at least one player with knowledge of what lurked behind each door. At worst, everyone around the table knew what was coming next – at best, an extra ‘neutral’ non-player acted as custodian of the scenario by taking on a somewhat unsatisfying ‘GM-light’ role. Frosthaven removes player prescience from the equation altogether. Whilst the scenario book contains all the pertinent information to set up the first section of a dungeon crawl, subsequent rooms are included in a separate booklet that is only referenced once certain events – such as the opening of a door – trigger further exploration. It is an elegant solution to a once glaring flaw despite its tendency to break the flow of combat mid-battle.

Counting Rows

The apparent thought put into improving the way the game runs doesn’t end there. Physical initiative counters help keep track of whose turn it is. Monster standees’ numbers are easier to read. Status ailments such as ‘Brittle’ and party buffs such as ‘Ward’ add fresh layers of complexity to an already profoundly strategic game, and character cards — once festooned with repeated instructions on how and when to rest-now offer a slew of unique traits and abilities that compliment cards once selected.

Salute Deck

Loot, too, has been overhauled and is now handled via a randomised deck that replaces the older, less satisfying mechanic of pilfering coins from the still-warm corpse of a slain assailant. Meanwhile, the greater sense of integration between playable characters is similarly conspicuous; card synergy encourages teamwork, and the formulation of novel strategies on the fly remains one of the key features that sets haven games apart from the rest.

Combat is as thrilling as it ever was.

Auspicious Minds

But through it, all is a palpable feeling that the game has been playtested to the nth degree. Where Gloomhaven often saw gamers pour through Reddit posts in search of rules clarification, Frosthaven offers clear and precise definitions, boundaries, and exceptions. The writing is simply of a superior quality to its predecessor, and that remains true of both prose and storytelling.

Outpost It Note

Still, if Frosthaven’s encounters suggest a synthesis of design — a 2.0 ruleset of an already much-admired system – the time spent between such flashpoints represents a complete overhaul of how the game is played. Such redesign is evident from the first play session. Character notepads now include spaces for recording collected resources – hide, metal, herbs, etc. The initial impression – that Frosthaven includes a crafting mechanic – is not too far off the mark. In truth, the game goes much further than that.

Whilst the brewing of potions and crafting of weapons and armour are welcome additions, the most significant redesign at play here lies in the creation of the living, breathing community that is Frosthaven itself. Whilst road cards still manage to show their face on your way to your next thrilling adventure, the real downtime action only occurs once your character returns home. An entirely new section of the game – known as the outpost phase-offers fresh challenges and even greater strategic depth.

This outpost phase sees the player draw outpost event cards that are analogous to the city cards of Gloomhaven but offer a broader scope for action and misadventure. Some result in attacks on the town itself, which – if left poorly defended can see buildings damaged or even wrecked. Managed via yet another deck, players use resources to construct – and subsequently level up – structures that, in turn, benefit the town, characters, or perhaps even both. Making a Hunting Lodge, for example, allows players to exchange gold for the hide they might desperately need to craft some armour; it also raises town prosperity, a metric that veterans of Gloomhaven will be all too familiar with.

Overlay stickers help players visualise the growth of Frosthaven from outpost to thriving town in real-time (with some hot sticker-on-sticker action thrown in so that levelled-up buildings take on ever-more grandiose proportions). And worry not, a removable sticker set is available for those with an eye fixated on resale value.

There is fun to be had during the outpost section, but it sometimes feels like something of a labour of love. After a protracted session of seat-of-the-pants combat, winner takes all derring-do, and turn-of-a-card mishaps, bookkeeping can sometimes feel a little stale. A house rule to flip the order of play by running the outpost phase at the start of the next session felt more intuitive, but as always, you do you.

Point Of Review

Still, the question on most people’s minds is whether or not Frosthaven recaptures the magic of its oh-so-impressive sibling. Gloomhaven represented a paradigm shift in what could be done with a board game. It bridged the world of traditional pen-and-paper RPGs, rewrote formulas, eschewed notions of how much money could be spent on an actual box set and set new standards for build quality, innovation, and word-of-mouth marketing. With so much to live up to, it is little wonder that people question whether or not lighting can ever strike twice. And broadly speaking, the answer is yes, yes, it can.

Only, brace for caveats.

The Long End Of The Schtick

Whilst few would dispute that Gloomhaven represents a high tide for what one can expect from a board game, it was not without flaws. Rules were confusing; game mechanics were – at times-clumsy. Certain scenarios proved to be unbalanced to the point of being unfair, and some of the character class balances were – to put it politely – in need of a nerf or two. Still, towering over all other the issues levied at the 2017 release was one pervasive criticism that proved hard to counter.

The game was too bloody long.

Some 95 scenarios were included in the original set, and although most players would only wind up playing around two-thirds of them over the course of a campaign, finishing the game took much work. Sure, the time taken to complete any given scenario varies (with particular weighting given the number of players), and yes, some players are quicker than others but even so. From set up to take down, a single game could easily soak up 3-4 hours of your life, and once you multiply that by the sheer number on offer, the scale of the task at hand comes into sharp focus. Played once a week every week, a four-player game of Gloomhaven would take well over a year to complete and devour somewhere south of 300 hours. Here in the real world (where a once-a-week session is easier to imagine than organise), Gloomhaven is more likely to take a dedicated group of players a couple of years to plough through.

Time Synch

Frosthaven’s decision to shy away from the notion that bigger is always better suggests that the publishers agreed. Once again, 95 scenarios are included in the box and – as far as I can tell at this stage – the branching narrative includes many that can be skipped entirely. This is all well and good, but the question of how long the campaign is going to take to complete remains salient. The streamlined ruleset and familiarity with the basic concepts help keep gameplay pacing on point. However, the increased complexity of between-scenario downtime claws back any savings you may have hoped to bank. Throw in the added hurdle of a compartmentalised set-up, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Frosthaven will be yet another multi-year sojourn. Whether or not such longevity presents value for money or an imposition on your precious time is up to the individual player.

Two weekends in, I cannot wait to plough on; but again, you do you.

Case Closed

Quality was never going to be an issue here; Gloomhaven was a well-built product, and its younger sibling has followed in its footsteps. The card stock is of a sturdy design, and the inclusion of exquisite miniatures, machine-tooled counters, and some breath-taking art more than justifies the somewhat hefty entrance fee. Frosthaven’s map – which incorporates a gridded-off section of the Northern Coast alongside a zoomed-in view of the outpost itself – is a thing of beauty. Featuring a muted palette, illustrated margins and a copperplate scrawl that would not look out of place in an illuminated manuscript, it draws the eye, daring you to uncover its secrets as you face the hidden horrors lurking within.

Here, the question of value for money lurches into focus once more. There is a lot of game to unpack, and the sense that Cephalofair Games have spared no expense is palpable. Frosthaven’s unique design philosophy serves as a function of its ultimate cost, not the other way around. Removable stickers aside, everything you need to play is contained within, right down to standee versions of player characters for those who wish to keep figurines in mint condition. It’s expensive, yes.

But some things are meant to be.

Shock & Flaw

Frosthaven’s principal flaw – its declination to reinvent the wheel – is also one of its greatest strengths. Gloomhaven’s rock-star entrance into the world of gaming took many by surprise. It was so well done that most gamers found it impossible to resist. Frosthaven was never granted the advantage of surprise; it never had the option to burst onto the scene as an anonymous neophyte capturing the hearts of its assembled audience with a salut courtois. Frosthaven was anticipated from the moment the cellophane came off freshly minted copies of its prequel.

“Give us more,” the crowd cried.

And Childres answered.

“OK.”

And so, they opted for a refinement of the core experience, took a half step towards a radical departure via the outpost phase, and then set to work creating a narrative experience that put the last game’s to shame. It’s more of the same but done with so much style that most will be too dazzled by the presentation to notice.

Still, there is a slight worry that the ‘if it ain’t broke’ design philosophy might not be to everyone’s liking. The looming spectre of ‘Haven-fatigue’ is writ large here, and those keen to explore all the game offers might want to pace themselves. Frosthaven remains a rare creature in the world of board games, a curious hybrid of card-stock and RPG elements that asks players to savour each moment. Replay value is of the highest order and yet paradoxically non-existent. Each game is a unique experience, a never to be repeated session that you find yourself having to replay more than once because Frosthaven shares more than build quality and gameplay per square inch-brilliance with its paragon level forbear.

It isn’t easy.

Hard Truths

Gloomhaven was always a heady mix of luck of the draw card mechanics, resource management and lightning-fast tactical action (because who wants to be the one staring at their cards when everyone else is ready to go?) Mistakes made had lasting consequences, and party wipes remained the somewhat unavoidable consequence of a mistimed finale. In a game where the desire to push on, build your community, unravel mysteries and reach for unasked-for glory can be overpowering, setbacks often bit hard. Here at least, Frosthaven is more forgiving. Missions can be replayed, burnt-out buildings rebuilt, and characters – though they may face retirement – never have to endure the indignity of perma-death.

None of which detracts from the fact that Frosthaven retains its place at the table as one of the most well-crafted board game experiences anyone could ask for. Those wishing to take a foray into what is now inevitably going to be known as the Haven-verse would do as well to start here rather than stick to a strict chronological order by tackling Gloomhaven first. Call-backs to that campaign seem infrequent, and the few items you can transfer from the Gloomhaven archives do not feel significant enough to play a large part in any decision-making process.

Indeed, Frosthaven is a self-contained, devilishly crafted slice of board game royalty that will keep you entertained for months. With more thrills than a 50’s B-movie, more polish than a hall of fame guitar — and just enough seasoning to induce a barrage of good-humoured invectives when things go south – it positions itself a worthy successor to a game that – until now – was without peer. Where Gloomhaven offered a glimpse into the world of Kickstarter ambition, Frosthaven confirmed the trust of those who backed the game based on faith alone. Cephalofair Games delivered on their promises and then some.

And you really can’t ask for more than that.

*At the time of writing, January 2023.

Zatu Score

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • An all-in-one campaign that will take years to complete
  • Fantastic art and superior-level design
  • Clear and concise ruleset

Might not like

  • An all-in-one campaign that will take years to complete
  • Those exhausted with Gloomhaven will find this a little samey
  • Outpost phase sometimes feels like a chore