Side Quests

Frosthaven Board Game Review

Cover art for Frosthaven with an icy battlefield.

Campaign-based, cooperative board games like Gloomhaven have been around for several years, with famous series like Descent leading the genre. Once Gloomhaven hit the market in 2017, it dominated the #1 spot on’s list of highest-rated board games voted by users until last year, now sitting at a modest #3 spot at the time of this review. Some have called it “D&D-in-a-box,” which isn’t too far off the mark; much of what’s included is a script, a world, and battle system that guides players through a grim fantasy landscape beset not only by demons, dragons, and undead, but greedy humans. While it boasts its own races, Gloomhaven’s claim to fame is its exquisite battle system, enemy artificial intelligence (i.e. ruleset), and constant feeling of discovery. If that sounds up your alley—or you’re already a fan of GloomhavenFrosthaven is all that and more. And anyone can jump right in even if they haven’t played Gloomhaven.

Introduction to Frosthaven

Frosthaven takes place in a barren—mostly cold—landscape untamed by man. Or woman. Or rock person. Or sentient cluster of shared-mind insects in the shape of a sapien. Gloomhaven’s not the safest place in the world, either, but it’s a sanctuary compared to the village of Frosthaven. Here, your heroes— adventurers, explorers, mercenaries, whatever your character card calls you—assist the settlers with building and improving upon Frosthaven while going out on the road in search of treasure or to satisfy your character’s personal quest. While initially linear, Frosthaven soon moves in several directions as players decide who to support, how to support them, or to go off and do something else entirely. The story unfolds as players see fit, when they see fit.

Generally, players engage in a rhythmic formula of gameplay, procedurally-speaking. Players start in an outpost phase at Frosthaven where they use Frosthaven’s buildings, purchase or craft items, level up their characters if able, and engage in general maintenance what-not. Then they go out to complete whatever scenario they’ve agreed to tackle, read a script, and set up the board with monsters for the coming conflict. After the battle’s won (or lost), players return to Frosthaven for another outpost phase and repeat forever until the game’s somehow run out of content hundreds of hours later.

The core of the game lies in the scenarios. Each scenario usually lasts players a couple hours, at least, which may vary depending on the number of players. One to four players can conquer the tundra, but I reckon three players is the sweet spot. Most of the gameplay involves cooperative deliberation, making tough tactical decisions, making sure you’re following the scenario’s rules properly, and shuffling cards. Lots and lots of card shuffling here, folks. Players get a lay of the land right away for each scenario but only get to see the first room, with the rest of the map lying in secret behind closed doors. In a hex-grid, player standees fight enemy standees. Pew pew, crush, oof, ow, and all that.

Frosthaven‘s cards are its lifeblood. Each card’s anatomy, or its layout, breathes life and unique tactical decisions during each round of combat and exploration. Players play two cards on their turn of a limited deck that only improves with eventual level-ups between a few scenarios. Of the two cards, players decide on a top half and a bottom half, and never two of the same. Top halves are typically attacks, while the bottom half is typically movement abilities, though every single card for every class is different, either slightly or magnificently. For instance, a top half might be a three-damage attack that infuses an element for later bonuses, while the bottom half may offer a move four and grant one shield from all attacks this round. Other cards might not grant attacks or movement at all but rather a permanent buff for that scenario. Cards may also trash—not to be recovered after shuffling the discard—yet offer a powerful ability, attack, or movement (think five damage, stun, and heal two self all in one go).

Since characters pass out over time, resource management in terms of cardplay is critical and how the vast majority of scenarios play out in Frosthaven. Players trash a card every time they rest after depleting their ten- to twelve-card deck, which means each series of plays between card shuffles gets shorter and shorter until players either run out of cards or lose all of their health. No dilly-dally allowed here. Kill the baddies efficiently, get from point A to point B, and grab that precious—sometimes optional—loot.

Enemies get a turn, as well, and the initiative number on player and enemy cards determines the order of play. When players simultaneously reveal their two cards, each enemy type flips a card from that unique enemy type’s deck. For instance, all frost imps may do a move, ranged three attack, and curse, while all polar bears may hibernate, shielding and healing themselves. Next turn, those same imps may heal allies in range three while the polar bear stands in place to do a more powerful attack that bleeds players.

Unlike Gloomhaven, almost all Frosthaven scenarios (and there are over a hundred of them) offer a unique premise and objective. The simplest scenarios require players to kill all enemies and reach the end of a tunnel, while more complicated scenarios may require players to pick up blast charges, attach them to pillars, and fight a mini-boss at the end of a cave. In addition to unique objectives, players may have to ride boats to navigate water, run from a rolling boulder, or engage in a purely fictitious, just-for-fun drunken tale that breaks from the game’s formula entirely. This is probably the single greatest upgrade from Gloomhaven, which, while a ten-out-of-ten experience, tended to feel samey with cookie-cutter scenario design.

Another significant addition for Frosthaven is the return trips to Frosthaven upon each scenario completion or defeat. Players engage in a procedural series of duties in Frosthaven, including reading a random encounter card that leads to a binary decision for the betterment of Frosthaven, spending money for crafting materials, crafting equipment, brewing potions, buying equipment, upgrading buildings, and leveling up or retiring characters. The sense of progression this offers makes Frosthaven feel like an outpost players are nurturing and helping to build, but it also feels like a bit of a time-sink and bookkeeping when sometimes players may rather be thumping sea creatures on the head.

Frosthaven is an investment and may be for the time-rich only. Don’t expect to just pick up and play this game. This is a commitment. To make the most of your time, you either need to spend an entire day playing with a friend or two to complete three or four scenarios or leave it set up in a spare room. Taking the entire game out of its gargantuan box to put it away again after one scenario feels like a poor use of time, but to each their own. That said, while Frosthaven will demand your time, you are certainly getting what you pay for, as this game currently retails for about $200 USD. There’s a lot of game here, so don’t worry about getting your money’s worth, but let’s get to that: impressions.

Frosthaven Impressions

I’ve given a general and basic overview of what this game entails, but is it any good? As you might have picked up on, this is one of my favorite games of all time, whether video game or board game. The exquisite design of each scenario—and they’re not all balanced—makes most scenarios feel like a gripping race for time. Expect to hear someone halfway through a scenario say, “Guys, I’m running out of cards.” “What do you mean you’re running out of cards? We still haven’t gotten to the last room.” “I mean I’m running out of cards. We gotta wrap this up. We probably can’t kill everything in this room since we have to move on.” “Okay, but they’re just going to chase us and beat on us all the way to the end.” “I’ll put down some traps to force them into a slow path forward and heal you guys from the rear. Let’s just get to the next room and see what’s up.”

Because of the variable nature of each scenario and crisp design, every scenario feels like a unique challenge despite using the exact same engine. At its core, Frosthaven is about moving on a hex-based grid and killing different kinds of enemies, but the layout, hazards, unique rules and setbacks, and painstakingly designed characters and enemies make every situation feel novel and fraught with peril. When players overcome a difficult round or situation, the momentous feeling of success will bring a smile and sense of satisfaction rarely found in any tactical game.

This isn’t just an elegantly designed combat game, either. Gloomhaven faltered on its storytelling and clarity in quest progression, but that has been overhauled and laid out clearly in Frosthaven. Each path players can take in whatever series of quests they want is made clear with a punch-out board and stickers that get affixed to the map. Yes, this is a “legacy” game or a game that’s meant to be drawn on, torn up, and stickered. For those accustomed to most other board games, this can feel sinful, but it has its own sense of delight.

Players shouldn’t fuss too much over the rules. At the outset, Frosthaven is rules-heavy, specifically with regard to enemy movement and targeting. Don’t forget that this is your game and your experience, and it’s nearly impossible to get all of the rules right all of the time. With so much to keep track of in the right order, oversights are going to happen. Play on! Was it gripping? Did you have fun? Did you make memories? All’s well, I say.

Like its forebearer, Frosthaven is a game that’s undeniably well-designed and thoughtful. While it may not be every person’s cuppa, our readers at RPGFan who err towards the complex and strategy RPG titles will undoubtedly fall in love with what Isaac Childers and his team have concocted. My only question is: where does he go from here when it seems like he’s completely milked this design for all its worth in Gloomhaven and Frosthaven?

Jerry Williams

Jerry Williams

Jerry has been reviewing games at RPGFan since 2009. Over that period, he has grown in his understanding that games, their stories and characters, and the people we meet through them can enrich our lives and make us better people. He enjoys keeping up with budding scholarly research surrounding games and their benefits.