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Frosthaven’s characters feel fresh, but its combat system doesn’t: Essen Spiel 2022 Preview

City building elements remain a mystery.

Amongst the hustle and bustle of Essen Spiel 2022 – the largest tabletop gaming convention in the world - Dicebreaker was able to play a demo of Frosthaven, the upcoming sequel to the dungeon-crawling board game Gloomhaven. Over two years after the game’s Kickstarter campaign crowdfunded nearly $13 million, with mere months until copies fall into the hands of pledge backers, we were able to experience a short scenario in which we were tasked with defeating a roving band of monsters terrorising a local dungeon.

The combat system for Frosthaven remains largely the same as the one found in the original Gloomhaven. Players still select two cards from their hand every round, choosing a top and bottom action to perform once their turn rolls around. Initiative is still decided by one of the numbers displayed on the cards selected, with attack modifiers being randomly drawn from character and enemy decks. Figures move, damage is dealt, loot is acquired – it’s definitely the same strategic, cooperative gameplay that Gloomhaven players know and love.

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However, it’s in the new playable characters and additional touches that begin to steer Frosthaven, ever-so-slightly, away from its predecessor. We unfortunately didn’t get to see in the city building and management elements that are entirely new to the series during the Essen demo. Nevertheless, a representative for Cephalopfair - the studio responsible for publishing Frosthaven and the original legacy board game – did reveal that any money players acquire in their dungeon- delving activities could be used to purchase and upgrade buildings within the stronghold of Frosthaven, with players able to then interact with those buildings in-between quests.

Frosthaven also introduces some fresh status effects for players to both utilise and survive.

When it comes to characters, Frosthaven certainly offers something different to Gloomhaven’s roster – which, whilst fun, still stuck to many of the classic roleplaying game archetypes of rogues, barbarians and wizards. All characters found in the Frosthaven demo offered something beyond what players might expect from a dungeon-crawler board game. For example, the Deathwalker might initially come across as being in-line with the well-worn troupe of the roguish damage-dealer. However, they also possess the ability to place shadow tokens that players can then use in-tandem with specific cards from the Deathwalker deck, resulting in some nifty combos.

An image of some miniatures for Frosthaven
Each character featured in the Frosthaven demo had their own unique play-style. | Image credit: Cephalofair Games.

Similarly, the Bannerspear may appear to fulfill the standard tank-esque role of attracting enemy attention away from the weaker characters in the party. Take into account the character’s more unique aspects – such as their ability to summon a Banner of Strength that gives allies a plus one to their attack stat – and they become a much more interesting figure on the battlefield.

One small chamber containing a few standard enemies and little else, meant that the demo largely felt like Gloomhaven 1.5.

Other playable characters included in the Frosthaven demo have more specific gimmicks for players to master. For instance, the Blink Blade’s entire deck features unique actions and/or effects depending on whether the player controlling them decides to use their fast or slow initiative. Each card in the Blink Blade’s deck has both a fast and slow initiative number, with the player needing to spend one of the hourglass tokens on their character card in order to use the faster option. Going faster generally results in the character gaining more benefits but requires them to choose the slower option if they have no hourglasses left to spend.

An image of the character card for Blink Blade in Frosthaven
The Blink Blade can choose from either a slower or faster initiative number, with each offer its own effects.

Meanwhile, the Boneshaper enables players to summon skeleton allies that they can then use as another body on the board – one that’s perfect for absorbing enemy blows – and to trigger various combos featured in the character’s deck. The Boneshaper is a much more delicate character when compared to those featured in the Frosthaven demo, making them better suited to staying out of the line of fire - putting their skeletal companions in harm’s way instead.

For some players, more of the same is exactly what they want. For others, disappointment could be waiting on the horizon.

Besides a new roster of characters, Frosthaven also introduces some fresh status effects for players to both utilise and survive. During the Essen demo, several characters were inflicted with the Brittle condition, which causes the victim to take double-damage from enemy attacks, which was particularly nasty when paired with the heavy damage-output of the frozen corpses. The Cepholafair representative highlighted that the upcoming board game will contain new tile hazards for players to navigate, including icy ground that can cause characters to slide.

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Whilst the new characters, conditions and tile types offered a glimpse into a game that has the potential to be more challenging and complex than its predecessor, the demo scenario was otherwise unremarkable. One small chamber containing a few standard enemies and little else, meant that the demo largely felt like Gloomhaven 1.5. Until players can get their hands on the elements that make the title really unique compared to Gloomhaven – namely, the city building and management gameplay – they won’t know whether Frosthaven is going to stand apart as a sequel, or if it’s going to be a rehash of the original. For some players, more of the same is exactly what they want. For others, disappointment could be waiting on the horizon.

The Kickstarter pledges for Frosthaven are set to be fulfilled by the end of this year, with retail copies set to be released next year.

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Alex Meehan avatar
Alex Meehan: After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.
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