‘The Frostgrave Folio’ Review – Plus Interview With Author Joseph McCullough

Reading Time: 9 minutesI’ve been having too much fun playing the fantasy skirmish game Frostgrave. Honestly, half of that fun has been in creating the various ruins and tombs and other structures that make up the playing field for the miniatures game. I’m currently preparing to start a 10-scenario campaign (and will hopefully be documenting the games here), and I am looking forward to the new Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago spin-off that will release later this year. After I’ve got the initial 10 scenarios completed (from the core rulebook), my plan is to tackle the other campaigns and mini-campaigns from the follow-up books. But Osprey Games isn’t waiting around for me to catch up; they’ve just released the latest expansion book by creator Joseph McCullough called The Frostgrave Folio.

Folio Cover

The Frostgrave Folio is a collection of a bunch of mini-campaigns that have been sold for a year or more in mini-ebook digital format. Here are the details from the book’s description:

[The Frostgrave Folio] includes Hunt for the Golem, a three-scenario campaign in which the warbands hunt down a rogue golem, Sellsword, which introduces rules for experience-gaining captains to help lead warbands, Dark Alchemy, which expands the rules for potions and potion brewing, and Arcane Locations, which gives additional options for bases and base upgrades. The book also includes a completely new mini-supplement, The Ravages of Time.

An internet search will turn up all manner of reviews and battle reports for the four ebooks. I’m having a hard time deciding my favorite section of the new book, although the rules for adding a Captain to your warband are quite interesting and include leveling up the soldier and special abilities the Captain can use during a one-off game or campaign. (Of course, you’ll want to confirm with your gaming group which rules you’ll use from this new expansion.)

Hunt for the Golem is great little mini-campaign that has an insane and vengeful golem running around Frostgrave and causing all sorts of problems. Dark Alchemy provides new potion brewing rules as well as three scenarios that can be run competitively, cooperatively, or solo. Arcane Locations offers three scenarios that take place in unusual locations plus some new base addition options. All of these, by the way, also include a mix of new creatures, spells, magic items, and more.

Finally, author Joseph McCullough has created a special three-part mini-campaign for two or more warbands to join together to fight a vampire Chronomancer. The scenarios are twisted and devious, and there’s an interesting time-twist to the rules that players should enjoy… and a shrinking playing area that will frustrate players (but in a good way).

This 72-page expansion book has lots of familiar artwork from Dmitry Burmak (and his wife, Kate, also is contributing art), sure to make Frostgrave fans smile, plus the great miniature photography the previous books have all provided and been enjoyed by players. All in all, it’s a great new resource for Frostgrave players.

While I was waiting on the review copy to arrive, I reached out to Osprey Books and Joseph McCullough with some questions about Frostgrave and a few other subjects. Below you’ll find Joseph McCullough’s responses, and I’d like to thank him for taking the time to respond.

Interview with Joseph A. McCullough, creator of Frostgrave

Geekdad: Frostgrave is now up to five books with the release of the new Folio–congrats! I know you’ve got a new game releasing that takes place in a different locale, but what’s the future of Frostgrave? Are you still enjoying creating content for the game and can fans expect more Frostgrave content in the future?

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McCullough: The last two years have been a blur for me–partly because of a new baby and lack of sleep, but partly because I’ve spent so much time with my mind in the Frozen City. What I love about Frostgrave is that it is the ultimate setting for weird tales. If you can imagine it, you can probably find a way to make it fit in. That said, I felt I needed to take a break from it, just to give the imagination batteries a chance to recharge. Don’t worry, there are more adventures in the Frozen City coming. I’ve got a notebook full of scribbled notes.

Geekdad: I’m very curious about the development of Frostgrave. What kind of playtesting and prototyping did you do before releasing the core book? Were there any game mechanics that didn’t make the final version or the expansion books?

McCullough: Most of the “interesting” changes to the game happened before I ever sent it out for playtesting.  Originally, I had a version where figures didn’t have Health; they were either fine, wounded, or dead. This is more in tune with most wargames these days. But, I’ve always loved Hit Points. I like the granularity of knowing how wounded someone is, and how it allows subtle differences between different figures. Also, it allowed me to introduce the rules for empowering, which I think add huge tactical depth to the game. Thus playtesting was really about fine-tuning. I think the biggest change was how multiple combats worked. My original system was overly complicated and too easy to game.

Geekdad: I am quite pleased with the balance of the game, especially the rules of combat. The flow of the game (my games, at least) doesn’t seem to get bogged down in minutiae. What has been the feedback from other players regarding the balance of the slimmer ruleset versus enjoyment of play?

McCullough: I wanted a game that played fast. I think most people are initially shocked by how suddenly a figure can die. In truth, the mathematics behind this mean that death isn’t really more probable than it is in most other games, it just happens in one (opposed) die roll instead of two or three, so it feels sudden. The combat mechanic is probably the most controversial part of the game. Some people just really dislike d20s and the perceived “randomness” it brings. I could write a monograph on this subject, but at the end of the day it is just about personal preference. I wrote the system to have a balance that I thought felt right. Some people disagree. Thankfully, a lot seem to agree.

Geekdad: I blame Frostgrave for shoving me down the rabbit hole of terrain development (but I’m loving it), and Google searches have provided me with dozens of amazing Frostgrave terrain layouts from players. Do you have any favorite fan-made terrain sets? And do you create your own terrain? (If so, do you favor any particular setting?)

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McCullough:  Building terrain is a wonderful part of the hobby, and I used to spend a lot of time at it. Unsurprisingly, I had a habit of making ruins. Ruins are useable in a variety of settings, and it meant that even when I messed up a project, it tended to look fine as a ruin! Whatever you do, don’t look at Hirst Arts Moulds… (It’s like wargaming LEGO!). I’ve seen numerous amazing Frostgrave layouts. There was an Italian player who literarily built part of the board hanging from the ceiling. The guys over at Studio Tomahawk (who did the French translation of Frostgrave) built a wonderful board covered in frozen canals. The gang over a North Star Military Figures have a great board that they take to shows, which is a huge multilevel temple. All of that said, I also own a pretty large collection of Gale Force 9’s Gothic Ruins which form the basis for a lot of my games these days.

Geekdad: What drew me to Frostgrave was the desire to find a fantasy game without a heavy RPG ruleset and with nods to traditional wargaming. Was the inclusion of XP/leveling there from the beginning or were Campaign rules added to appeal to RPGers? Do you prefer one-off games or do you play a Campaign-style game?

McCullough: Campaigns, levels, and experience are one of the main reasons I wrote the game. I’m an old role-player at heart, and wanted a way to recapture some of the fun of long campaigns I played in college without the huge time commitment. For me, RPGs and wargames are really about storytelling. The best part is inventing the back story to your minis and then seeing how their story plays out. I like one-off games if I’m playing a mass-battle game, but if its skirmish, it’s got to be a campaign game.

Geekdad: What other games do you play? I’ve often wondered if game designers lose interest in their own games after a while, or if they get burned out and take breaks; do you still find Frostgrave enjoyable or do you need to play other games to take your mind off of rule and scenario development?

McCullough: I haven’t lost interest, but there is a degree to which your own game becomes “your job” instead of “your hobby.” You can still love it, but it’s not relaxing in the same way. So, if I want to escape, I need to escape into someone else’s world for a while. My number one is Middle-Earth. I love the books, love the first trilogy of movies, and am a big fan of the Games Workshop game. The figure sculpting is amazing, and the game has some very clever mechanics. Really, though, I always enjoy looking at other people’s games, both just to have fun, but also to think about what I like and don’t like about the mechanics. Wargaming, like everything else, has trends and developments, and it is important to follow them if you want to “speak the language” and be able to fully communicate with players.

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Geekdad: Speaking of other games… you’ve got a new spin-off in development called Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago. I only know what I’ve read on your blog, but the new locale theme (islands) sounds incredible… but will it have sea/ship battles? Does it follow the 10-max warband limit of Frostgrave? Do you have anything new to share about it or a more definite release date?

McCullough: I needed some time to recharge on the Frozen City, so I decided to spend a bit of time looking at another strange locale in the world of Frostgrave. Where Frostgrave satisfies my love of weird magic, Ghost Archipelago let’s me play around with fantasy in a more pulpy, piratey, setting. The basic book does not feature ship battles–I toyed with it, but when you are playing on a small table, large ships don’t make for great scenarios. They are really just giant terrain pieces. The game will have rules for smaller boats, the kind that you can take up rivers or across swamps, so, hopefully, that will satisfy most people’s boat desire. Warbands are actually just slightly smaller, with the norm being 8 figures, but they are also slightly more complicated as you have both a Heritor, with strange powers, and a warden to cast spells. The game is slated for a September release. Assuming I get it finished in time!

Geekdad: You’ve also got Frostgrave Folio and Ulterior Motives releasing soon; the first collects your digital content but also provides some new stuff. I’m particularly curious about The Ravages of Time mini-supplement… any hints about this new content? I also have a question about the Ulterior Motives cards–other than the objective for a player to meet, will they provide additional rules that must be adhered to or will they rely only the core rules?

McCullough: The Ravages of Time is a three-scenario campaign that ideally is designed to play in one, extended sitting, as the scenarios are very closely linked. Basically you are all locked in a pyramid and suffering the effects of strange time magic. This one is more about survival that treasure!I’m quite excited about

I’m quite excited about Ulterior Motives, as it is an attempt to bring something different to the game. There are a few rules changes when playing with Ulterior Motives, but they are nothing that effects the core mechanics. Instead each card gives the players a task and the rules for accomplishing those tasks. Some of these are kept secret at the start of the game, others have to be revealed. Some of them cause weird events on the table, others only effect the specific player. Each of the forty cards is different so it’s hard to be specific!

Geekdad: Let’s talk artwork–the core book and the expansions books have some incredible artwork. How involved are you in the style and imagery? What do you have to provide to illustrator Dmitry (Burmak)? His artwork (combined with the miniature photography) just about tells a story throughout the books, so please pass along my kudos for his outstanding work.

McCullough: I can’t say enough good things about Dmitry, both as an artist and a person. He’s been wonderful to work with, and I have no doubt that his incredible artwork plays a big part in the success of the game. Starting with the Frostgrave Folio, his wife, Kate, will also be providing art–although you have to look pretty hard to tell which one painted which piece! For all of the artwork I provide a brief, usually this is little more than a paragraph or two explaining what I want, maybe with a photo attached to emphasize a specific point. I pass these on to my editor, Phil Smith, who fleshes them out a bit and then he passes them onto Dmitry.One of the great benefits of working with North Star on the figures was that it brought Kev Dallimore onboard. Kev provides most of the painting and photography for the books and there is no doubt he’s one of the best in both fields!

One of the great benefits of working with North Star on the figures was that it brought Kev Dallimore onboard. Kev provides most of the painting and photography for the books and there is no doubt he’s one of the best in both fields!

Geekdad: You’re a busy man–what’s on the horizon for you? More Frostgrave, or will you be focusing for a while on Ghost Archipelago? Any additional news or teasers you wish to provide to fans?

LichLord

McCullough: I can confirm that Osprey has commissioned me to write more for both Frostgrave and Ghost Archipelago. For GA, I’ll be working on a campaign in the vein of Thaw of the Lich Lord, a long narrative with lots of scenarios so players can run a nice chunky campaign. Meanwhile, Frostgrave will have a short break, and then return with something a little bigger than we’ve seen lately…

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