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Frosthaven: is it better than Gloomhaven?

Frosthaven is the official sequel of Gloomhaven, the most acclaimed strategic board game. You can see our review of this game here. While there is currently an ongoing campaign for the 2.0 edition of Gloomhaven (a complete rewrite of the game), Frosthaven is a stand-alone adventure game from the same designer Isaac Childres.

It is currently available, although in limited stock, around the world, especially on retailers. Otherwise the Gloomhaven Grand Festival campaign in Backerkit is the best occasion to pre-order the new printing with all sorts of accessories including the new miniatures.

If you are unfamiliar with Gloomhaven, Frosthaven is produced by the same company, Cephalofair Games, that defines it as a “Euro-inspired Tactical Combat in an evolving campaign”.

Lots to unpack in that single definition, so let’s look into it in more detail and see why it is immediately considered one of our favourite games.

What is Frosthaven?

Frosthaven is a non-linear campaign for 1 to 4 players exploring the grim high fantasy world created by Isaac Childres. Each game session is made of a single scenario that can have our band of mercenaries complete any type of objective from killing all enemies to secure certain positions and a following part called outpost where you can decide the future of your headquarters.

The setting is now in the north of the main continent, away from the city of Gloomhaven, in a small outpost called Frosthaven that you will have to develop and protect from the invasion of the different enemies.

This is already the first difference with the previous game: a big component of the game is about developing this outpost, including the beloved stickers, and a mechanic of resource gathering that expands on the previous currency. You now have 3 main material resources to build new structures and craft new items, with money relegated to other tasks (you can still buy items, but those are unlocked in a different way). Looting during a scenario is now more important than ever!

We will avoid spoilers as much as possible in this review, but suffice to say that there are more advanced rules that are omitted from the main rulebook and are inserted in specific envelopes in the shape of stickers to attach to the rulebook once you unlock that particular action. This is another difference compared to Gloomhaven where you would know what to expect in the late game from reading the rules.

Another introduction in the game is the passing of time, an interesting mechanic that allows the designer to script certain events after a fixed amount of scenarios played, so that you don’t have to rely anymore in the randomness of extracting a card from a shuffled deck, or allowing to perform a set of quests all in sequence ignoring the rest. This mechanic also introduces the seasons: summer is the time where you build your outpost and fortify it, while winter is when you can expect to be attacked and to be tested fiercely by the other inhabitants of this frozen region.

The game itself is played entirely without dice. Instead, each character has a deck of cards they can use to move and act during the scenario. Which card they choose will also determine the initiative for that round. Enemies also have a pre-determined deck and their actions for the turn are chosen randomly. We will go into more details about this mechanic later, as this is one of the main characteristics of the game.

Initially, players can choose between 6 different mercenaries (same number as Frosthaven but different characters), but more can be unlocked by progressing in the campaign or retiring your own characters. Indeed there is a high incentive to swap characters after retiring to unlock even more content. To retire a character you need to complete their own personal goal. This makes a long game (there are 138 scenarios in the core game) still enticing, as new characters also represent new strategies and new ways to tackle the challenges ahead.

As mentioned before, this game features a persistent world where every decision made by a party of adventurers has consequences and affects the setting and the rulebook. As the previous game, you would be able to play different parties in the same world, although we never tried this and looks more complicated in practice than it is in theory.

Not all missions are available in a single campaign, there will be decisions to be made and alliances to be fortified or broken. There are three major factions initially antagonising your outpost: the Algox, yeti-like cousins of the Inox, attacking from the mountains; Lurkers, crab-like sentient beings flooding in from the northern sea; and rumours of machines that wander the frozen wastes of their own free will. There will be various ways to handle these threats and how you resolve them will affect how they will interact with you.

All these branching opportunities are recorded using stickers and a giant chart sheet. Basically you have few cardboard pages like the advent calendar where, when instructed, you open the relevant cell to find the sticker and other information about the next scenarios you can play. While it is highly possible to play the game this way, if you, like me, likes to keep the game as immaculate as possible, we recommend to print the flowchart from the various fan-made documents available in BoardGameGeek and buy the removable stickers that save you from opening the original components. We will provide a more exhaustive list of optional tools at the end of the review.

The last point to discuss is the miniatures. The core game features 17 classes (only 6 usable from the beginning and note that the 17th class was unlocked as a stretch goal, although the original visual description with 16 classes was never updated) with a total of 18 miniatures. There are however 46 enemies (more than 20 never seen before) that are represented by cardboard standees. While you could replace them with home made prints if you are into 3D printing miniatures, there is an on-going campaign that will see the official miniatures produced in 2025.

If you can wait long enough to enjoy the miniatures, or if you are picking up the game at a later time, then you will have the option to play the entire game with moderately detailed plastic that is much better than Gloomhaven quality.

Image from Cephalofair Games

Starting to play Frosthaven

Frosthaven is a campaign game, and as such there are many components to consider even before starting a new game. The first thing you will need is someone who reads the rules thoroughly. They are relatively simple and clear, but even so, you can find the official FAQ online as there are so many different combinations of things that can happen that they cannot possibly be sorted in one single booklet.

A note of advice on the first scenarios: don’t try to have the exact answer to any dubious situation. Note down your question, agree on a house rule on how to proceed and continue the game. Later, you can google your question and see if there is an FAQ or someone already had the same doubt.

The first scenario, scenario 0, uses a simplified monster AI that provides a softer start to a beginner group. If you arrive from Gloomhaven, you can easily skip it and move to scenario 1. The rulebook as well notes with a different text colour which rules are new or different from Gloomhaven so you don’t need to re-read it all.

At the back of the rulebook there is a quick reference page that, while it’s missing the icon explanation available in the previous game, it contains enough information like the sequencing of certain phases or reference to which pages describe certain actions. There’s also an index and few appendices to summarize the most difficult parts like monster focus. On the character cards there’s also a reference to the rules more important for how to play that specific class.

Once the rules are sorted, you need to decide which ones will be your starting characters. If you have multiple players, each should choose their own character (up to 4), but if you are playing solo or with only one friend, you can choose to have multiple characters. Note that it becomes easier the more characters you control (as you know what each will do). While the game supports 2, 3 or 4 characters, the best way to play the game, in our opinion, is to use 4 characters (if possible having 4 players as well).

At the beginning you will have access only to six classes. Every time you retire one or achieve a particular objective, you unlock new characters that future players can use. Retirement is the completion of the personal quest of a particular figure and there are different goals from completing certain scenarios, to collect various resources.

There are different steps before starting a game. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that there are various decks to set up (not all cards are available from the beginning), characters to be chosen (each tuck box contains a miniature and the relevant ability cards) and then you are ready to start your campaign from the first scenario.

One thing that it’s important to mention at this stage is the use of an organizer: the game is composed of different decks, each further divided in cards unlocked, and cards locked, and sometimes even cards that have been discarded and can’t be reused. Then there are the tokens: a multitude of them between those representing statuses, damage, money, objectives, etc. There are multiple overlay tiles, those are placed on top of the map tiles to give context to the map: for examples obstacles (like rocks or trees), traps, hazards (like lava) and so on. Finding the one that you need may be more arduous than it seems. The core game comes with a basic plastic organizer, but you’ll soon want to search for other options to speed up your set up.

Image from Cephalofair Games

How combat works in Frosthaven

If you are familiar with Gloomhaven, nothing much changed. The core selection of cards, initiative order and monster focus is pretty much the same. The most important changes regard things like monster will affect elements (either consume or infuse) only if the associated ability is performed, and a Move 0 is not a move anymore. If this does not mean much for you, don’t worry, the rules explain the game clearly.

Once you have set up the board, and you’ve read the scenario introduction and goals, you are ready to start. Each character needs to choose two cards from their deck. Of the two cards they can only use the top of one and the bottom of the other. Normally the bottom represents a move action or a defensive ability, and the top part represents an attack or offensive ability.

Each card has an initiative value that decides who starts first in a round: the lower the value, the earlier that character acts.

Before revealing your cards, you have to choose one of them to represent your initiative for that round. Once all players have chosen, they reveal their initiative simultaneously and draw a card for each monster type currently on the board. This way, each round is completely different from another, and monster abilities are randomized in a way that even if you know their usual behaviour, you can never exactly predict what they are going to do.

Models then act following the initiative value from the lowest to the highest, giving priority to the characters in case of a tie.

Once you select an attack, and you are in range to perform that action, you then draw a card from your modifier deck (each player has its own but all monsters share the same deck) that represents how much more (or less) damage you inflict to the target. This deck will be refined in time since when you level up or achieve certain objectives you will have the chance to upgrade it. For example you may want to remove all negative cards first, or pack the deck with your strongest modifiers hoping they will balance with the negative ones. Each character has his own personal upgrade modifier deck, so that two level 9 characters have completely different decks.

There are tons of different abilities and all classes have their own flavour and thematic use. For example. between the starting classes, the Banner Spear relies on allies positioned strategically to perform her best attacks, and can place banners that provide an area buff, while the Geminate has 2 forms, one ranged and one melee, and has to alternate between them maximising efficiency for the best results.

This introduces us to another aspect of the card system that characterizes this game: every time you run out of cards, you can reshuffle the discarded ones but you have to “lose” one in a pile from which they can normally not be recovered. Once you run out of cards, it’s game over for that character independently of how much health they have left. This means you have a limited amount of turns for each scenario based on how many cards you have, how many you lose straight away and so on. This creates a complex strategic component of the game that always lingers there and prevents the “lost rounds” where you just want to rest and recharge before opening the next door.

This mechanic may seem hard to grasp at the beginning, but after a while it becomes a second skin and it increases the re-playability of lost scenarios. When you win a scenario at your literal last card, you’ll know what we mean.

In the first round there is almost always a monster ready to prey on you. They are usually strategically placed so that they can interact with you from the first round. Once you have selected their card during the initiative phase, all monsters will follow the instructions on that card starting from the bosses, then elite ones (represented by a yellow stand), and normal ones (in white) with the number on the standee breaking ties. Some abilities are straight-forward Move + 0, Attack +0 type, some are more complex and involve buffing allies, hindering enemies (you in this case), summoning, etc.

Each monster has a specific level determined by the scenario’s difficulty. You determine that based on your average character level plus/minus 1 to make it simpler or harder. Each monster level has basic attributes, for example Attack 2 that means the base damage on an attack is 2, but this can be further increased (or decreased) by the card ability and the attack modifiers.

And this is the core mechanic of the game and how combat works, the reason why this game is so acclaimed.

Image from Cephalofair Games

Campaign in Frosthaven

Comparing to Gloomhaven, Frosthaven campaign has much more going on. First of all, the three main branches of the campaign (Algox, Lurkers and Unfettered) are clearly outlined, with everything else left as side quests. Side quests are equally important as they define better the world around you, provide bonus and sometime are essential to retire a character or unlock something.

You can then clearly choose which branch to choose but some paths will be locked under a time requirement meaning that you may not be able to unlock the next steps until X weeks passed. We have explained above how it works, but this is a clever mechanism to reduce randomness and provide a coherent narrative.

The outpost management is now an integral part of the game. In Gloomhaven you could purchase new items, level up, retire, if you reached a certain stage of prosperity of the city unlock new items to purchase and then do the road and city events. Here you have first of all the passing of time (i.e. mark a square in the calendar part of the campaign sheet) and if you reached a scripted event (you will be prompted to enter more after completing quests or goals) you then have to resolve that.

Once that is completed you have the outpost event (the old city event). This is divided in two decks, one for summer that is mostly about collecting resources and one for winter that is mostly about defending from attacks. Losing an attack means having a chance to lose some buildings and have to repair or rebuild them. The next phase is about resolving the building abilities, that could be negative if they have been wrecked.

Finally you reach the stage where you can level up, craft new items, etc. Only after this phase you can build or upgrade a building. You can also repair any number of wrecked buildings, should you have enough resources. The number and type of buildings available at the beginning is restricted, but the more you advance in the game, the more options will be available.

Once you are ready to go out for your next scenario, you read the related road event (once again divided in summer and winter) and then you can progress your quest.

The more you advance, the more things get complicated, but everything is introduced in due course without spoiling anything.

Image from Cephalofair Games

Gloomhaven vs Frosthaven

To recap, what are the main differences between Gloomhaven and Frosthaven?

The setting: Frosthaven is set in the frozen wastes up north where you need to build an outpost almost from scratch, this also means that you have access to less resources and items than when you start in Gloomhaven.

The gameplay is similar, there are few differences in the rule set, few new rules, statuses, etc, but overall the classes are inter-compatible with Gloomhaven and Jaws of the Lion. The 2.0 edition of Gloomhaven copies the enhancements from Frosthaven and applies them to the original classes.

Frosthaven introduces rules gradually. They are initially hidden through stickers contained in envelopes that are unlocked through the campaign progression. Of the existing ruleset, there are really few differences that you can find in this convenient post in BoardGameGeek.

Frosthaven introduces 17 new classes (similar to Gloomhaven original number), again only 6 available from the start. But the other classes unlocking mechanism is different and quicker. In addition those unlock also new buildings and other ways to improve your outpost.

The outpost and seasons mechanic is completely new as is the division in two decks for the events.

There are way more scenarios (even considering Forgotten Circles expansion), but they are much less linear. Now their progression is much clearer and available through the punch-able scenario flowcharts. The areas locked out because of certain decisions are much more significative than in Gloomhaven.

There are new monsters, new items, a new crafting system that partially replaces the earlier purchasing system, resource management with 9 resources other than gold, a new alchemical chart to combine ingredients and much more to discover.

Image from Cephalofair Games

Final thoughts on Frosthaven

Frosthaven is a massive game. The commitment in time and sessions required to even just scratch the surface is enormous. While you will not see all 130+ scenarios in a single campaign, the core of the game is easily 40 scenarios but you will be doing some side quests meaning that if you commit to just a session a week, you may be in for almost 2 years of game! Between the scenario itself and the outpost phase, depending on the number of players and their level of experience, the rough 30m/player estimate from the publishing company are way too optimistic, we reckon 3 hours to 4 is the average.

The difficulty curve is steep if you have no previous exposure to this genre, but it stabilises quite quickly and everything new introduced at later stages will come natural. If you have played even just Jaws of the Lion, you will hop on pretty quickly.

The scenario themselves seem to be much more balanced than Gloomhaven and overall is a more evolved experience. The classes are new but still easy to use (they do have a complexity warning on the card itself, so that you can choose which one is more appropriate to your playstyle and experience), we miss some beginner classes like the Spellweaver, the Brute or the Scoundrel (some of these have been renamed in the new edition of Gloomhaven), but the existing ones are still fun to enjoy and diverse.

The outpost phase is a breath of fresh air, essential to the progression but not daunting. The resource collection and looting, essential now more than ever, is still random and can bring to awkward situations were you desperately miss what you need to progress a particular building, but there’s always a way around it. In the end, the main difference between Gloomhaven and Frosthaven is the addition of this mechanic that comes with the seasons and the passing of time.

Is that enough to justify jumping on this game? In our opinion yes. Apart the various upgrades on classes, cards, abilities (now the summons have their own standee) that will be replicated in Gloomhaven 2.0, the novelty is represented by owning the reconstruction of this far away place against unknown threats. This is the main narrative and most changes connect to this seamlessly.

If you are new to this saga, you are in for a treat. It’s a great game, with a better focussed story, characters progression and story building. If you have played Gloomhaven and you want more, this is the natural progression but don’t expect it to be an expansion. It’s a brand-new game, that will feel familiar but still introduce new things and surprise you at times. Gloomhaven classes can be played in this game, they even have an updated character sheet available for free, but why would you want to mix and match? There’s already enough content as it is.

If you just want more Gloomhaven, there’s Jaws of the Lion, Forgotten Circles and multiple fan-made campaigns, including Crimson Scales. But this is not more Gloomhaven, this is Frosthaven. A unique experience that builds on top of a successful foundation. And testament to this, is the fact that Gloomhaven is getting a restyle following Frosthaven example.

Other resources

Frosthaven original campaign was published on Kickstarter, where you can still find the main content. However, there is a newer campaign for its first reprint on Backerkit. And this is the link to the main Cephalofair Games website.

BoardGameGeek is an essential place where to find lots of important information about the game. In particular you can see the errata and other clarifications, and some optional tools that would really help your campaign in the files section.

Of the files, we recommend the rules differences if you are coming from Gloomhaven and may confuse previous behaviours with the new ones, the Player Aid, the Overlay Tile list with pictures if you get confused like me in all slight variations of blue in the game tiles, the Campaign Sheet if you want to print your own and the same for the Character Sheets (there’s also one for the locked classes), the Scenario Flowchart that saves you from opening the one provided with the game (but you’ll need to also obtain the Removable Stickers) and the same is valid for the Alchemy Chart (in a spreadsheet).

Apart from the miniatures that will be released in 2025, you will need an organizer. The same recommendations for Gloomhaven organizers go here, but there are few differences and Folded Space really improved their previous design. Our favourite is still Laserox with Tuckboxes, but we also bought the Map Tile archive from Folded Space for a complete storage solution. Both are available with a discount in the current pre-order campaign.

While on the topic, Laserox created also a gaming kit that is compatible with both Gloomhaven and Frosthaven. The previous campaign is currently closed but keep an eye if you are interested in their products.

Frosthaven is a giant game, and keeping track of everything could be a daunting experience. Lucky Duck Games has an official companion app (available in both iOS and Android) that covers all monster AI and few other aspects of the game. We tried it, but personally prefer X-haven, a fan made and free app available also on desktop for Windows. Not only it covers both Frosthaven and Gloomhaven, but also the fan-made Crimson Scales expansion and it never crashed on us (as opposite as the official one).

On iOS we also have Frosthaven Scenario Viewer that saves you from flipping back and forward different pages in the scenario booklet and can cover with spoiler images any part that you don’t want to accidentally read in those pages.

If you don’t have someone in your group with a good narrator voice or simply prefer a professional voice to read for you the various sections, then we definitely recommend Forteller.

Finally, from Cephalofair Games, there’s few optional purchases that greatly enhance the gaming experience: in particular the Removable Stickers allow to correct any mistake and even resell the game at a later stage, the Solo Scenarios instead expand a single class with a specific solo quest and targeted reward while the Play Surface Book Set uses the same approach from Jaws of the Lion with a booklet instead of the tiles. Personally we prefer the tiles, but it is a matter of personal preferences.