Sunday, 25 September 2016

Keeping it Frosty - 5 Ways to Balance Wizards in Frostgrave

Frostgrave is hot right now (or should that be cold) and it’s not hard to see why. Its fast pace and simple gameplay are very attractive in an age of overstuffed massed-battle games. Even so, some problems with game mechanics have come to light and I want to take a look at one in particular:

First and foremost, I want to express that I am a massive fan of Frostgrave. I really appreciate just how much Joe McCullough and Osprey have brought to the community by publishing this game. Its old school design is right up my alley, and yet I feel there are some new school concepts of game design that could really add to it. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

The Problem

When starting out in Frostgrave there are no obvious patterns in the option you are given. This really lends itself to making the gamer feel free to make decisions about their wizard’s school and the spells that they choose. Nothing feels forced on you and every choice feels natural.

A Sigilist doing what comes naturally... ignoring danger and hoping it goes away.

However, it doesn’t take much game play before you realise that your wizard doesn’t feel as flavourful as it once did; worse, they are starting to behave more and more like all the other wizards you come across. Why is it that, no matter the labyrinthine options you are given at the start of the game, players find themselves converging in the same place? What are the underlying causes of this and what could be done differently?

Well, as a total amateur I can’t possibly have definitive answers, but I can see some ways in which a slightly alternative design might have helped.

Solution 1 – School Alignments

OK, this first idea is going to take some diagrams to explain, but stick with it! At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a strict pattern governing which wizarding schools are aligned with which. However, if we try and map the relationships we come up with a diagram like this:

The Cardassians called and they want their logo back.

You’ll notice straight away that some schools offer very similar options to others (Necromancer, Witch and Summoner) and some are almost interchangeable (Illusionist and Thaumaturge). This might not be a problem for the individual choosing his wizard and spells, but in large groups it means that certain combinations become unnecessarily common.

It seems clear to me that a more symmetrical structure to alignments would by-pass this issue. For example, if there were only 8 schools and each was represented on the corner of a cube, then each would be connected via edges to 3 schools that could be friendly. There would be 3 more schools that they were unconnected to and a further school that they were diametrically opposed to. No matter which school you look at, the options would be equal and different to the others.

[As a side note, this is assumes that relationships are reciprocal i.e. if X hates Y, then Y hates X. But that needn’t be the case. A more complex relationship model could be used, allowing the 10 schools and still have balanced structure.

For example, the Orange school might be opposed to the Black school. But as far as the Blacks are concerned, the Pale Blue are their real opponent, as shown in the diagram below.

Equally, friendships don't have to reciprocate. One school may allow you to choose spells from 3 'aligned' schools. But it would be a different 3 schools that can choose spells from your school.]

Solution 2 - Spell Choice

Once you have chosen your wizard's school, the next choice you are offered is which spells to choose from within those available to you. Unsurprisingly, the different schools focus on different tactics on the tabletop. Some are aggressive, others are defensive; some add extra bodies, while others buff models already in play. Again, this may seem to give the first time player many more choices, but actually it can often stifle, leading to some schools being over represented and others being ignored.

"You go ahead. I'm going to back you up by making sure this dead body doesn't move."

The reason for this is simple. To win the game, you need to grab treasure. Hence spells that kill your opponent preventing them from taking treasure; that move your own models faster to and with treasure; and that add additional models into the game have a premium value that is obvious. Sadly, these spells are not evenly spread amongst the schools and those that offer them (Necromancer, Enchanter, Summoner and Elementalist) are understandably more popular than those that do not (Chronomancer, Sigilist, Soothsayer and Thaumaturge).

If each school had a good representation of each of the most crucial spells (in their own particular fashion), there would be less call for players to start with the same wizard nor for them to converge on the same spells as their models progressed through campaign play.

Solution 3 - Casting Values

A separate but related issue is the casting value of many of the spells in the game. This seems to be a problem in a great number of games and it's hardly unique to Frostgrave, but needs addressing nonetheless. A very simple rule of thumb in game design is that good things should cost the player more, and worse thing should cost less. More often than not, this rule is easy to apply and there is usually no problem. However, when it comes to magic games designers can sometimes seem blind to it.

It doesn't matter what the casting value is, when you need the spell most you will roll a 1.

As stated before, the best spells in Frostgrave are those that cause direct damage, those that increase movement and, to a lesser extent, those that add extra combatants. However, when looking through the rule book, we see that these same types of spells tend to be between 8 and 12 in their casting value, whereas more unorthodox spells can be anything up to 18. This is a problem, because if I have access to spells like Bone Dart, Leap, Raise Zombie or Telekinesis for a mere 8 casting value from the start of the game, what character growth is there for my wizard.

Casting values need to be re-balanced, putting those that are more effective out of reach of new wizards. Doing this would make starting players choose from the more eclectic but reasonably priced spells. New wizards would seem more unusual as though they are early in their journey of magical mastery having only learned a few tricks off by heart. They would be more likely to be different as none of the stranger spells are game winning, players are free to pick whatever they want without negative consequences. And finally, it gives gamers a reason for wanting to progress and creates narrative as players can see their wizards becoming more effective over time as they learn and improve.

Solution 4 - Campaign Growth

Any good writer knows that the heart of excitement and adventure is jeopardy. If a character gets what they want first time or can easily by pass any difficulty there is little or no adventure. A character must struggle to overcome, using only the limited resources that are available to them and facing a very real risk of failure, if we are to really get behind them. Sadly, I think this is one area in which Frostgrave is quite weak.

"I could learn to summon legions of soldiers to my aid. I just choose not to."

Currently, if a player wishes to develop the character of his wizard by learning a new spell, he has to discover a grimoire that has been long hidden in the fallen city, and rightly so. Sadly, it is at this very early stage that things start to lose their sense of peril. To find out what new spell the wizard has access to, the player rolls on a generic table of spells. Meaning that all spells are equally likely. No matter which school of wizardry you started with.

Immediately, wizards that were once different and polar opposites start finding themselves draw together. A Thaumaturge is as likely to learn something of the dark necromantic arts as he is about his own school. If this idea seems counter-intuitive then don't worry because there is a second way to acquire a grimoire. If your wizard doesn't find what he's looking for, he can simply purchase any grimoire between games at a flat price, regardless of school or difficulty of spell!

As I said before, to me, this is one of the weakest parts of Frostgrave and erodes the fun narrative a campaign can produce. That being said, it is not unfixable: removing the ability to purchase any spell would go a long way towards this. (As if your Witch knows a friendly Soothsayer that is happy to sell him trade secrets!) Perhaps purchased spells can only be from your own school and allied schools, or maybe they are somewhat randomised as well, or maybe the option is removed entirely - that is open to discussion.

The next change I would hope to see is the likelihood of finding a spell becoming stacked in favour of your original school, so that wizards are encouraged to become more representative of their particular brand of magic rather than less. It could be as simple as a 40:40:20 split between original:allied:neutral spells. Or if you were feeling particularly stern, it could be 60:30:10.
Together, these changes would dramatically change the feel of character development in Frostgrave, but even just one change would be a real boost.

Solution 5 - School Unique Powers

This final solution is likely to be the most contentious because for many people to simplicity of Frostgrave is it key draw and this idea goes somewhat against that. So I'm happy for you, dear reader, to take or leave this as you see fit.

This accurately represents how carefully I read the rules before starting to play.

I'm not the biggest fan of the GW core games - whilst their backgrounds are awesome they are generally clunky and lacking in fun. Nevertheless, Warhammer Fantasy Battle did manage to come up with one of my favourite game mechanics, which I feel would not be out of place in Frostgrave.

In the latter editions of the game, each school (or lore) of magic had its own 'lore attribute'. This was not a spell per se, but a bonus the wizard received for using his magic that added to the theme. For example, the effects of a Fire spell were increased if they hit a target that was already on fire engulfing them further into flame; a wizard using the lore of Beasts found it easier to cast spells on animals: and users of the lore of death could leech magical energy as their targets life ebbed away.

It would be perfectly possible to imagine a version of the game in which Thaumaturges were able to increase armour saves because they had successfully cast other spells or weapons in an Enchanter's warband were improved due to the natural flow of magic from him.

Bonus: Solution 6 - Unnatural events

The random wondering monsters in Frostgrave are excellent fun, but if we're in the mood for changing things up a bit, I think we could make more of these. What if the random events that occurred in the game were tied to the characters involved in the battle?

4 - You did not have adequate cladding; your pipes burst and the cellar floods

Again, a simple tweak of probability would make a huge difference here. Each school of wizardry could have its own random events table specifically tailored to their background. Necromancers might find that the dead are more likely to rise. Elementalist we see more storms and blizzards. Witches find plenty of wild animals. And so on.

These events don't have to be monsters, they could be anything from tears in space and time that block pathways, to earthquakes that shake everyone off their feet. The options are endless and with a simple 40:40:20 split between own school:enemy school:random, encounters will feel very different depending upon who you face.

Perhaps, if you wanted to really ramp up the theme, the number of successful casts from members of a school would increase (or maybe decrease) the chances of an encounter. But perhaps that's an idea better left for another day.


I love Frostgrave and I want to see it succeed long into the future. As the current release schedule for the game winds down, perhaps we will see that the city of Felstat has the longevity to see a second edition. If so, I think that these ideas could help continue driving the game forwards. Don't see these ideas as criticisms, because if I really didn't like the game, I wouldn't have spent this long thinking and writing about it!

And if anyone does try coming up with their own house rules based on my ideas, please do tell me how you got on.


  1. Wow. No comments? Lots of interesting observations and loads of thought and work have gone in to this. Cudos.
    I've not even played the game yet but your clear writing and thought process makes it unnecessary to have done so. I hope this gets the attention it deserves.

    1. Thanks for your kind words.

      Games design fascinates me, and its always interesting to analyse a designer's choices.

  2. Really good points. Frostgrave is a very fun game, full of drama and peril. And the randomness of combat really captures that!

    However, some of the spells are ludicrously OP. Teleport and Mind Control are absurdly powerful (Mind Control is almost impossible to escape once it's successfully cast) and the combination of Wizard Eye with Bone Dart or Elemental Bolt is sickeningly lethal, especially if you invest in a Fate Stone.

    Also, in a game focusing on grabbing treasure and running off with it, Telekinesis pretty much breaks things IMO. Being able to pull treasures away from the enemy and towards you is just cheese-tastic.

    I don't actually think FG was ever meant to be taken this seriously, it seems to be this light, fluffy game, but some of the builds you can do (+10 Fight Wizard with Teleport, for example) are so powerful that they can take the fun out of the game. With some nerfing here and there, I think the game can continue to be fun and fluffy, which plays to its core strengths.

    Anyway, nice article, and thanks for sharing!