Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Wargame Review - Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago

Frostgrave: Ghost ArchipelagoBy Joseph A. McCullough

Published by Osprey Games

‘The Ghost Archipelago has returned. A vast island chain, covered in the ruins of ancient civilizations, the Archipelago appears every few centuries, far out in the southern ocean. At such times, pirates, adventurers, wizards, and legendary heroes all descend upon the islands in the hopes of finding lost treasures and powerful artefacts. A few, drawn by the blood of their ancestors, search for the fabled Crystal Pool, whose waters grant abilities far beyond those of normal men. It is only the bravest, however, who venture into the islands, for they are filled with numerous deadly threats. Cannibal tribes, sorcerous snake-men, and poisonous water-beasts all inhabit the island ruins, guarding their treasure hordes and setting traps for the unwary.

In this new wargame, set in the world of Frostgrave, players take on the role of Heritors, mighty warriors whose ancestors drank from the Crystal Pool. These Heritors lead their small, handpicked teams of spellcasters, rogues, and treasure hunters into the ever-shifting labyrinth of the Ghost Archipelago. Using the same rules system as Frostgrave, this standalone wargame focuses on heroes who draw on the power in their blood to perform nigh-impossible feats of strength and agility. This game also includes 30 spells drawn from five schools of magic, a host of soldier types, challenging scenarios, treasure tables, and a full bestiary of the most common creatures that inhabit the Lost Isles.’

I’m a fan of the original award-winning wargame Frostgrave and part of my love of the game stems from my fascination with Felstad, the city of the setting. The frozen ruins, the shadowed history, the sheer mystery surrounding the place made for some compelling games and – and this is something I will say over and over again – it made for an excellent setting not just for a wargame but also for a roleplaying game. The stories that could be told there call out for dungeon delving and melodrama.
When I first heard of Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago I was both excited and wary. Here was a new Frostgrave game for me to battle through but it was far removed from one of the things I loved about the original. Gone were the cold, snow-covered ruins from ages past to be replaced by the jungle-rich islands and clear blue waters of a tropical paradise. Would the game carry over? What would it bring to the games, other than a change of location?

The rulebook is a gorgeously illustrated 144-page hardback. It’s sturdy and well put together, and the excellent art by Dmitry and Kate Burmak is of the high standard and quality of the original rulebook, which is something that really sold the setting of the game to me, and the snows of Felstad have now been replaced by the sun of the Ghost Archipelago. The images are wonderful and capture the atmosphere beautifully. It also contains some great miniature photography, so there’s plenty of ideas for modelers.

This book is a stand-alone rulebook – you don’t need the original Frostgrave to play it – and as with Frostgrave the system uses a 20-sided die and 28mm miniatures. It is based around a small party of adventurers, crewmen supported by a Warden led by a Heritor. Each character has a Stat-Line, a series of numbers that define a single character. Movement (M) determines how far a character can move. Fight (F) and Shoot (S) are an indication of a character's prowess in man-to-man and ranged combat. Armour (A) is what they are wearing and how much damage they can absorb. Will (W) determines a character’s determination and how much they can resist certain spells and Health (H) is how much damage they can take before incapacitation or death. As with Frostgrave’s Warbands, a Crew cannot number more than 10.

Heritors are the primary characters, akin to a Frostgrave Wizard, and these are the descendants of those who drank from the Crystal Pool more than 200 years previously. This means they have special abilities they can bring into play, such as Crushing Blow (doing extra damage), Leap (jumping pretty much where you want to) and Death Strike (I’ll let you figure that one out, but ouch). These make the Heritor almost super-human, and they are by far the most important figure on the board. You see, there is an end game to the Heritor’s quest across the islands; each player is trying to locate ‘Map Stones’ that lead them to the Crystal Pool. There is a chance you can get a Map Stone at the end of the game, and once you have all ten then your Heritor has found the Pool, and the campaign is won. This is all decided randomly and, make note, it is not easy and will take a long, long time to collect all the stones.

The Heritor is supported by a Warden, wizards capable of influencing the natural order of things. Dismissed by the wizards of the north as hedge-wizards and animists (nice!), they have come south to use their powers. Each warden has a different branch, a set of skills they can utilize; there are Beast Wardens, Earth Wardens, Storm Wardens, Vine Wardens and Wave Wardens, all able to manipulate their chosen titles. Each branch has a number of spells to choose from.

Finally, we have the crewmen. These are split into two groups; standard crewmen and specialist crewmen. The standard crewmen take up arms and are there to fight, whereas the specialists have much more focused abilities such as Archer, Pearl Diver or Scout. They also have specific equipment that you may find helpful during a fight.

The die mechanic is the same as the original game. Want to cast a spell? Roll 1D20 and score higher than the spell's target number. Want to hit someone? Both of you roll 1D20, add your Fight or Shoot skill and whoever rolls the highest wins, and the roll also determines damage.

There are some additional rules for moving, fighting in and boarding small boats - which is a lot of fun – and the Heritors have a special rule called ‘Blood Burn’. This is a drawback of using Heritor abilities; you can literally take damage by using them. It makes for some rather intense ‘do I/don’t I’ tactical choices, especially in the later stages of a fight.

On top of all this, we have some treasure tables, a bestiary to give players something to worry about, and eight scenarios to play through.

So… how did I get on with it?

Well, I’ll get this out the way; I still prefer the original Frostgrave; the frozen roads of Felstad appeal to me much more than the islands of the Ghost Archipelago, but that’s just a preference of setting and does not reflect at all on the book I have here. I think Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago is an excellent book and game, and I’ve already had some great fun with it.

I created a Heritor and I named her Sorsha. Yes, I named her after that character from that film, but the model that had been loaned to me had a shock of red hair so it seemed suitable. Her Beast Warden friend Dar (please don’t judge me) and her crew headed into the first scenario ‘X Marks the Spot’ and got completely trounced. It was a sad day. It was my own fault for misusing her abilities and not taking the effects of Blood Burn into account. I also shouldn’t have sent her off with four of the crew, and Dar off with the others. Never split the party.

However, she returned for the second scenario ‘Drichean Cages’ and did much better. In fact, she did quite well over the next few games and, even though I got very little in the way of treasure and Map Stones, I was pleased with her progress.

Then the fun started. We decided to have an encounter with three boats. Me and my opponent had a vessel each, and the third was much larger and in the centre… and full of treasure. We started at opposite corners of the board and had to sail up, board, fight, grab what we could, and get off again.
It was great. We both ended up leaving some crew in our boats to slug it out ship-to-ship while other members got on the deck of the big ship and fought it out there. With undead on the ship and sharks in the water, it made for an intense game.

Sadly, Sorsha did not survive. She rolled a 1 on the survival table after the game. She already had a permanent injury from a previous battle, ‘Lost Fingers’, and this was to lead to her undoing two games down the line. It was a huge shame, but straight away I was ready to create another Heritor and get back on the trail. I really wanted to get those Map Stones and that’s the driving force behind the game; there’s a goal to reach, a payoff that changed from being the target of a game to the determined drive of a character; that’s where the roleplayer in me takes over. I gave my Heritor a name, a personality, and instead of being a playing piece she had a purpose in life. She also kicked someone in the face, so her namesake lived on.

And that’s what makes this game so much fun. Just like Frostgrave, there’s something of an emotional investment in the game as you’re creating personalities that have a goal, abilities and sometimes drawbacks. Things happen to them and I not only measured it in statistics and how it affected the game, but also how it changed the character. That, to me, makes for a fantastic experience.

And do you know what else? Both the games – Frostgrave and Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago – are interchangeable. For example, Heritors could travel to Felstad to follow clues, or magical items might only be usable at the Ghost Archipelago, meaning a wizard could travel south. We haven’t created a game where the two worlds meet yet but it’s going to be fantastic, especially when Sorsha’s best friend Brania travels south to find out what happened to her…

Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago is an excellent game and a wonderful addition to the series. The new rules make for a unique experience and there’s enough material in here to satisfy Frostgrave fans and wargamers alike. It’s new-gamer friendly, easy on the eye and easy to follow. The setting doesn’t appeal to me as much as the original game but the games are just as much fun and the new additions are something I can’t wait to try out in Felstad, just to see how a Heritor and a Warden matches up against a Wizard and Apprentice.

The world of Frostgrave is a bit bigger and a whole lot more fun.

Highly recommended.

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