Walking through heavy snow is hard. I recall about nine or ten years ago there was a particularly snowy winter where I lived. I didn’t drive at the time so had to walk to the supermarket to haul my food home, which was exhausting. Also my grandmother lived alone and with the roads were not fit for cars, I was the only person who lived close enough to hike over and check in on her. After every journey I’d be tired from knee high snow, I’d be frozen in parts, and sweating through my clothes in others. That was bad enough. So I sincerely hope I never have the experience of trekking for weeks on end in a frozen wasteland with a mega storm chasing me all the way like the protagonists of Frost.
Frost is a deck building game by Jérôme Bodin. Your task is to lead a group of survivors on a desperate march across a frozen land in order to reach the safety of The Refuge. The gameplay has you balancing a razors edge as you try to maintain a good supply of food, materials, and survivors whilst gathering useful items, traversing difficult terrain, fighting off wild animals and less friendly humans, all whilst keeping at least one step ahead of an encroaching huge storm that you have no hope of surviving. As a simulation of the theme, it does a pretty good job, your deck needs to be lean, with the necessary tools to get where you are going quickly whilst fighting off hazards and minimising fatigue and terror cards that can clog up your deck and even end the game.
There is a big element of pushing your luck in this game. Assigning survivors to work is essential to acquiring food and material, but can also give you fatigue and terror cards or cost the life of the survivor. And here is perhaps the biggest downfall of the game, in that luck can play a huge part in whether or not you succeed. I am fairly familiar with deck building games, having played them in digital and tabletop forms in titles like Star Realms, Slay the Spire and a few others. I understand the concept of building a deck to mitigate bad luck by stacking the odds in your favour. And yet, there were so many times that I found myself in situations where the randomness led to frustrating no win situations, and other times where good fortune led me to accidentally breeze through the game unchallenged.
There is a large balance problem in this game, at times it feels like everything is against you and that you don’t have a fair chance of winning. The problem may be that there are many ways to lose, and small mistakes can snowball (pun intended) into big problems. There is a counter for how close the storm is, which if it reaches zero, you die. Additionally you can lose health and die from random events like animal attacks and run-ins with cannibals, and if you ever draw three terror cards in one hand, you also game over. On top of that, you have to deal with extra low temperatures at times, meaning you draw less cards. There are ways to mitigate all these problems, but you always have to plan for all of them without knowing which may actually occur. There are weapon cards to deal with aggressors, cards that remove fatigue, heal damage, increase the temperature and push back the storm. Even speech cards that let you trade for supplies or talk your way out of trouble. All these kinds of cards are often very expensive to acquire and once you have them, there is no guarantee they will become relevant or be in your hand when you actually need them. It was annoying to spend a lot of resources to warm up the region I was in, only for the temperature to reset in the next region. The cost always far outweighed the benefits. The result of all this is that problems can come out of left field and leave you helpless to overcome them. It is particularly annoying when these difficult problems appear early in the game before you even have a chance to prepare for them. I couldn’t tell you how many times I restarted after only a few rounds because I ran into a difficult problem before I had been given time to get strong enough to deal with it.
Yet I am fond of this game. The hand drawn art style is unique and captivating. There are several leaders to unlock and use, all of which feel different and push you towards different play styles. When you do manage to build a good deck, the game feels great. There are lots of decisions and optimisations you can make every turn. And though no-win scenarios were aggravatingly common, the runaway winner scenario was rare. Most victories were hard won, tense affairs. There is a lot of satisfaction to be had in barely making it over the finish line with the storm on your heels and having to use every tool at your disposal. The theming is perhaps one of the strongest elements of the game. Cards and events are simply illustrated and each have minimal mechanical elements, yet they are all crafted to make complete sense in the context of the narrative. They don’t explain themselves, and yet you can look at them and usually know exactly what is happening in the fiction that the game portrays. For example, the Grizzly Bear encounter can do you harm if not dealt with, but defeat the bear and you are rewarded with a temperature increase. The game doesn’t explicitly say that you use the bear’s pelt to warm yourself, but you understand this from the context of the card. In this aspect, I even found morality concerns creeping in and overriding mechanical needs. The cannibal card for example, can give you extra food at the cost of one survivor, but after playing a game with the gruesome alternate food cards in my deck, I started avoiding it even if it could get me out of a bind.
I played on the Xbox version of the game. Tabletop inspired video games usually work well with mouse controls but often have issues when adapted to be played with a controller, and this game was no exception. Often game elements became impossible to select, and I ran into a fair few other bugs that broke the game. The achievement list is a fairly standard selection of winning the game in various modes and methods, which did make for varied experience as I played through, it only felt grindy when I was stuck on a certain scenario. It is a challenging list that will require a good understanding of the game as well as a lot of patience and no small amount of luck.
This is not a perfect game, you could even call it problematic. But I could feel the passion for the product when playing it. Perhaps if it had been given resources to more thoroughly playtest and balance the game, it could have been something really great. When I stumbled upon this game in a sale, I didn’t know what to expect, but for all the annoyances and frustrations, I am glad I played it. It’s something different, and despite its simplistic appearance, it paints a vivid picture in your mind through clever use of theming and gameplay mechanics. Also it has cute animal people.
+ Great art work and theming
+ Some interesting and original ideas
- Unbalanced and problematic randomness