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Frosthaven Review

Frosthaven Review

This review contains some item, building, and light story spoilers, but no locked character spoilers.

Frosthaven and to a lesser extent Gloomhaven are, in my opinion, some of the greatest board games ever made. Given the reputation of the Haven games and their board game geek rankings, that might not surprise you, but it certainly surprises me. It surprises me because there are a ton of core aspects contained in games like Frosthaven that completely rub me the wrong way. To the extent that I think they completely spit on some of board gaming’s fundamental values.

However, for every knife that Frosthaven jabs into my bones, it offers something powerful in exchange. Frosthaven is unrepentantly complex, and I adore that fact. It can take a monumental effort to set up and play, but it rewards that effort with the type of gameplay experiences that can only be found in a highly complex game.

You can find a video version of this review on YouTube!

Mid game dungeon with several minis and standees
Frosthaven is a big game with equally large gameplay.

Its set-up time and bookkeeping, aren’t as much flaws as they are the realistic cost required to play a game of that scale. In exchange, it offers an excellent co-op combat game with some of the best character progression ever conceived.

For me, the entire line of Haven games is something of an anomaly. I can’t deny the sheer joy I derive from them. But they also have ugly blemishes and they can only truly shine in the hands of a narrow portion of the board gaming community. Frosthaven is a game I’m happy to gush over, but I’ll just as quickly warn you away from it.

This statement is sure to ruffle some feathers. But for example, a game like Frosthaven has to be played a lot and very frequently to be properly enjoyed. If you plan to do one scenario a week over the span of years. Don’t even bother looking in it’s direction. The game would progress at a glacial pace, many aspects would have much less of an impact, and you would forget half of the important stuff between sessions.

An organizer insert with a bunch of gaming cards
The game does come with some nice inserts and dividers to help organize the behemoth.

In my case, Frosthaven is a game I play almost exclusively with my partner with whom I share a household. We can essentially play whenever we want. That’s the best way to experience Frosthaven, even if that means you choose to play it solo in order to put that kind of time in.

Gideon’s BiasFrosthaven Information
Review Copy Used: NoPublisher: Cephalofair Games
Number of plays: 50+Designers: Isaac Childres
Player Counts Played: 1 & 2Player Count: 1-4
Fan of Genre: YesGenre: Co-op Dungeon Crawler & Card Management
Fan of Weight: YesWeight: Heavy
Gaming Groups Thoughts: Loved ItPrice: $250

Presentation

There’s simply too much contained in Frosthaven to go over every component. Especially as many are kept secret until you progress through the game. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot there. It features a bunch of tiles to form the dungeons, and numerous standees for monsters and summons. There are an absolute ton of cards ranging from character ability cards to events, items, and more.

Each of the 17 characters in the game has at least one mini. They all look great alongside their matching character boards. There is a consistent quality all the way across the entirety of Frosthaven, from the great artwork to the miniatures and sturdy cards.

Frosthaven's contents spread out on a table.
Weighing in at over twenty pounds, Frosthaven has a ton of stuff in it.

There are some components that also have that quality, but I’m less enthused about them. The absolute gigaton of stickers, for example, which I’ll speak more about in a bit. The giant mission charts are also big and clunky, they should have been distilled down into a more manageable paper flow chart.

Frosthaven comes with a scenario book and a section book. The section book contains linked text that scenarios and events will refer you to read at different points. The concept itself is fine, but the sections don’t have an order to them. For example, four sections for one mission might be between four pages in completely different parts of the book. It was common to have one section open, and then something unrelated happened that caused me to turn to a different page, and then I’d have to backtrack.

Also, if you ever forget to mark something important, you get to have all sorts of “fun” attempting to rewalk the trail of events and section links to find the thing you forgot.

Several cardboard scenario flow charts fanned out on a table
Five massive cardboard flowcharts are definitely overkill and could have been distilled down into something less clunky and awkward.

The rule book is fine, but a bit too scattered for my liking. Multiple related effects are spread through completely different sections of the rulebook. Despite its complexity, Frosthaven’s rules at a basic level aren’t difficult to grasp. But there are a thousand little exceptions and things to remember, and it’s rarely easy to actually find the answers to those exceptions. Not to mention a few rules are simply obtuse, especially if you’re new.

Sticker Shock

Frosthaven has some serious sticker shock, and I really wish I was only referring to the $250 price tag. No, I mean actual stickers. You have stickers for ability enhancements, buildings, campaign milestones, and more. In fact, every time I thought I’d seen enough stickers, I unlocked even more stickers. Seriously, there are even rule stickers you add to the rule book.

Frosthaven is a legacy game, meaning you are really only meant to play one campaign unless you buy another copy. A concept I’m fundamentally opposed to. Board Games, as a medium, aren’t really wasteful. If you take care of a game you can play it a decade later. Legacy games like Frosthaven spit on that idea and either expect you to use it as a $250 paperweight afterward or toss it in the bin. It’s incredibly wasteful.

A page of stickers
There are several pages of stickers, and even more, stickers hidden within the game’s unlockable envelopes.

For Frosthaven in particular, it’s even more silly. First off, there isn’t a single legacy aspect that needs to include elements you can’t undo, such as stickers. Most of the time they are used to track what buildings you have built, or scenarios you have access to.

All of that could be accomplished with a nice tracker-style sheet of paper. Enhancements are a bit more complicated, but hey, the game even has rules for temporary ones. You just need to buy the REUSABLE sticker pack, sold separately. I’m not exactly keen on that idea after dropping $250 on Frosthaven in the first place.

Secondly, Frosthaven simply does not lend itself well to the legacy idea. The game is begging for multiple playthroughs. The missions always have an element of unpredictability due to the monster behavior cards, and you play them exceptionally differently depending on what characters you and your team are using.

The Geminate characters components and cards spread out on a table
Every character in Frosthaven has enough depth to rival entire other games.

Each of the 17 characters in Frosthaven has more depth contained in them than the entire boxed contents of most other games. With the retirement system. Most of your early characters will retire around levels 3 to 5. There’s only a handful that you will ever see high-level play with. Combine that with the fact that some choices will lock out some scenarios during a campaign you’re telling me that I’m only expected to experience around 30% of Frosthaven’s content simply for the sake of the legacy concept? Screw that.

No matter how many hundreds of hours you think you can get out of Frosthaven. There are hundreds more waiting for you if you ignore that foolishness. It does mean a lot more pain in the butt bookkeeping in order to avoid using the stickers, which is why I consider this such a massive flaw.

I know someone will read this and go. “Um, actually, most board games are only ever played between 2 and 4 times, so Frosthaven doesn’t have to be replayable”.

Look, I have no idea if that is true, but if it is, I wouldn’t proudly exclaim it because if so, the entire board game community should be embarrassed for it. If that’s the case, a lot of people in this hobby should be buying fewer games and fighting to find ways to play the ones they have instead. Or find another hobby altogether, because games are meant to be played.

A Game With Character

There are plenty of games where your choice of character completely changes your playstyle. But nearly all of them pale in comparison to Frosthaven and its brethren. Each of the 17 playable characters in Frosthaven plays so differently and offers so much depth that I could dedicate articles to each one individually and still only scratch the surface.

The six starting Frosthaven character mini's standing on their tuck boxes
Even the starting characters offer wildly different playstyles.

They all follow the same combat system but do so in very different ways. Frosthaven’s combat is too deep for me to go into minute detail about. Since this is a review, not a how-to-play guide. But it’s exceptionally strategic. Deciding how fast or slow you want to go is an integral part of the game because initiatives, both players and monsters are decided simultaneously. You might go first this round, but second or third next round.

Once the cards are on the table, you then forge the rest of your plan. You will have picked two cards to play prior to initiatives being revealed. You have to use those two cards, but you decide how to use them after everything has been revealed. This includes what each monster is doing.

The result is a multilayered combat system that somehow manages to peel back revealing even more layers as you play. It’s exceptionally skill-based with just enough randomness to keep it fresh. When attacks are made, modifiers are pulled from modifier decks that alter the attack. Another element of your character progression is actually adding to, or removing cards from that deck.

Two ability cards on the table
The middle number of one of the cards dictates your initiative. On your turn, you get to perform a bottom action on one card and a top action on the other card.

The characters themselves drastically change how you interact with those core combat mechanisms. Most characters need to be unlocked while you play and are meant to be kept secret until then, so I won’t spoil those. But I can talk about the six starting characters.

Frosthaven’s six starting characters do a great job of demonstrating the sheer difference that two characters have from one another. None of the six are what I would call simple to play, each one requires a degree of practice to truly grasp. For example, the Drifter is likely the most straightforward. Drifter is a jack of all trades who can really choose the type of combat they want to engage in. However, they have to constantly juggle a variety of persistent bonuses, using abilities to slide back tokens so they can keep the ability active.

The Bannerspear uses formations. Powerful attacks that require the Bannerspear to be in specific positions with their allies in order to use the attack. They can also summon a reinforcement that they can use to set up those formations, as well as summon banners to buff the team.

The modifier deck fanned out on a table
Each character’s modifier deck can be altered as they grow.

The Boneshaper is a necromancer that summons hordes of undead to do their bidding, while the Death Walker uses shadows to manipulate the battlefield. The Blink Blade jumps between fast and slow mode, each of which completely alters their cards and initiatives. Finally, the Geminate swaps forms altogether between a ranged and melee version of itself, each of which has its own cards.

For even more variety, you can use characters from other haven games such as Gloomhaven, but I advise doing so with some house rules in place as some of the characters from Gloomhaven are exceptionally overpowered.

The game features a degree of secret information, giving you secret battle goals and limiting how precise you can be with your communication. Combine that with the complexity of each character and the combat depth as a whole, and alpha or back-seating gaming is pretty much nonexistent. That’s great.

The Drifter mini faces a bunch of Ooze standees in a dungeon
Combat is highly strategic with tons of factors to consider.

As you level up your character, you get new cards to add to your arsenal, as well as the ability to modify your modifier deck. Each character has their own specific modifier cards they can change up, making them that much more unique.

It’s difficult to truly showcase just how strong Frosthaven’s combat is, at least in a reasonable time frame. There are a lot of moving parts, and while some of them can be clunky, the end result is one of the best combat systems available in a board game.

We Built This Town

Characters aren’t the only thing you will be progressing in Frosthaven. The outpost of Frosthaven starts pretty barren at first, in fact, you can’t even buy items when you first arrive. During a battle, however, you loot more than just gold. You acquire materials for building and crafting, such as wood, metal, and hide, as well as herbs for alchemy. Like Gloomhaven, you have outpost and road events where you have to make choices that have a variety of outcomes. But that’s just scratching the surface.

While some items can eventually be bought, others have to be crafted using the materials you loot. Additionally, each building usually has some type of function. Frosthaven occasionally comes under attack, and buildings can be damaged or wrecked in the process, requiring you to spend the materials to fix them.

The Spyglass Item card
Some items can be bought, while others must be crafted

Character retirements are closely linked with unlocking new buildings. Each character gets a random retirement goal, when it’s complete that character retires, and you create a new character. You do get a bonus for retiring characters though, and as Frosthaven’s prosperity increases, you get to start new characters at a higher level.

Buildings you can unlock can have a variety of benefits once built, from simply allowing you to buy items and enhancements, to increasing Frosthaven’s defense rating to simply planting a garden. Some even unlock new characters.

Building up Frosthaven is a slow but satisfying process where you definitely feel the effects over time as the outpost grows and expands.

The Trading Post building card
Every building adds something to the experience.

Managing the outpost adds another satisfying layer to the game, even during battle. You have to make gathering materials a priority, and it can even impact your choice of scenario chains. Scenario paths are open-ended, you are free to take on any scenario you have unlocked in any order, there are a few exceptions, but it’s rare. You can even replay previous scenarios if you missed a treasure or are just looking to earn some XP, gold, and loot.

Frosthaven does two things very well, it has an excellent combat system and great progression. That said, it’s much weaker when it veers into less charted territory. For example, the outpost attacks serve an important role in the game by providing a threat that drains your resources. But outpost attacks don’t actually involve combat.

It’s a simple threat number contested against Frosthaven’s defense rating and a modifier card pulled from an entirely separate town guard deck. It’s more or less a dice roll, it’s boring at best and frustrating at worst.

Given how strong Frosthaven’s combat is, I was pretty appalled that there wasn’t a system in place to actually fight in the outpost attacks. Then there’s a puzzle book, a book of obtuse puzzles to solve in order to progress parts of the game. It’s so far removed from the rest of the gameplay that it stands out like a sore thumb.

Resource cards spread out on a table
Collecting resources is just as important as stockpiling coins.

It’s not just a side project either, solving the puzzles in the book unlocks new scenarios and more. I have no desire to wrack my brain solving number and alphabet ciphers when I sit down to play Frosthaven. But unless I want important aspects locked off, I’m forced to either do it anyway or simply look up the answers. The latter is what I would guess most players end up doing.

There are moments when you can see Frosthaven cast too wide a net. The Outpost management is a great addition, but the weird Outpost attack minigame and puzzle book simply distract from its strong points rather than add anything meaningful to the experience.

Verdict

I’ve been pretty negative toward Frosthaven when I supposedly hold it in high regard. However, you have to understand that Frosthaven’s weak points stick out so much because of how great the rest of the game is. It would be like planting googly eyes on the statue of David. It doesn’t take away from the craftsmanship or beauty of the statue, but it’s impossible not to notice the googly eyes.

I constantly look forward to unlocking and acquiring new buildings, items, and classes. I’m always excited to play a scenario, and whenever I’m not playing Frosthaven, I want to be playing Frosthaven. At times, I’ve put off playing something I really ought to be playing for a review because I wanted to play Frosthaven instead. It’s a problem.

Character tuck boxes on a table
The moment when you first unlock a new character and get to open it’s tuckboxes is super exciting.

Frosthaven just manages to nail two satisfying concepts exceptionally well, combat, and the progression that springboards from that combat. I’ve played games with neat progression and lackluster combat, and I’ve played games with fantastic combat and no progression. The healthy marriage of the two is what keeps Frosthaven from ever growing stale, especially because of the immense variety the game offers between its characters.

It’s a shame that such a brilliant game is knee-deep in legacy garbage, and enough stickers to fill a kindergarten playroom. It creates a lot of extra bookkeeping for me when the game already has a bunch of it. But I power through that frustration because, in the multiverse of possible realities, I simply can’t see one where I’d want to put Frosthaven away forever. It’s just too good of a game, with too much replay value to ever entertain the idea.

As long as you can dedicate the time to explore it. Frosthaven really is something special.

I’m giving it my Golden Shield Award.

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Pros

  • Highly strategic combat, one of the best in board gaming
  • Fantastic Progression system between characters, items, and the outpost
  • Tons of fun to unlock new things
  • Great Co-op game with barriers to alpha gaming
  • 17 character classes that have immense depth and varying playstyles
  • Characters from other Haven games are compatible
  • It takes some legwork to bypass the legacy aspects, but if you do Frosthaven is highly replayable
  • Tons of content
  • High-quality components
  • Great scenario design
  • Nifty alchemy chart

Cons

  • Legacy elements can be frustrating, there are so many stickers.
  • The outpost attack minigame feels like a lame dice roll
  • The puzzle book is an obtuse roadblock toward campaign progression
  • Mission charts are needlessly big and awkward
  • Some rules are obtuse and the rulebook layout could be better
  • Long set-up time
  • It requires dedication, you need to play multiple scenarios a week to get the most out of it.