Frosthaven first impressions - a slicker and smarter adventure

Frosthaven box promo image
(Image credit: Cephalofair Games)

If tabletop gaming had an Elder Scrolls (something so highly anticipated that it dominates all conversation), it would be Frosthaven. This fantasy epic became the single most successful board game Kickstarter ever in 2020, and hype for the adventure has only grown since then. Which makes sense; it's a follow-up to the absurdly popular Gloomhaven, after all.

That's why I was wary when it landed - with a very heavy and ominous thud - on my doorstep. Living up to that ridiculously high bar would be difficult. However, taking on the first mission or two of Frosthaven is all you need to see that it's up to the challenge. Although it's easy to dismiss as 'more of the same', it's arguably slicker and more well-considered than its predecessor ever was. That does raise a few issues of its own, though… particularly if you're new to all this. 

Into the wild

Frosthaven miniatures on a custom 3D board during a playtest, as posted on the company's Facebook page

(Image credit: Cephalofair Games)

It's common to see Gloomhaven topping lists of the best board games, so why mess with that formula? Frosthaven is cut from the same cloth, offering a sprawling campaign of interconnected quests with branching storylines and new heroes to unlock over time. On a surface-level, it's very similar.

But that isn't to say it's a copy-paste. Along with fixing balance issues and trying to tell a deeper, more nuanced story set on the edge of civilization, Frosthaven introduces new ideas like developing your own town, crafting weapons or armor, and seasonal events. Naturally, there are all-new character classes (and foes) to use in combat as well. 

Although this will appeal to veterans who are keen to justify that steep price tag once again, one of the biggest draws isn't advertised - it's only something you realize after cracking open the box. A great deal more thought has gone into how this thing is organized.

There is a lot to prepare before you've even started playing

The first item you'll come across is a sheet detailing what goes where, and considering how many pieces are at play here, that's a blessing. Gloomhaven didn't offer any such guide, so the experience here is rather less chaotic in the long-term. 

Equally, there wasn't anywhere to put all those bits beforehand. And now? Most of them get squirreled away into plastic containers or bags, keeping things tidy in a way you'll be grateful for when you drag that box off the shelf for another session. You'll still be wading through piles of board tiles and monster bags, sure, but it's a whole lot better than before (or having to shell out for a third-party organizational system).

The downside? It'll take you a good hour and a half or so to sort through everything. There is a lot to prepare before you've even started playing, so consider yourself warned. 

Buried treasure

Three Frosthaven miniatures are lined up on a board in front of cardboard monster standees

(Image credit: Cephalofair Games)

A similar warning applies to combat. Thanks to a vast array of unique attacks, abilities, and the strategies that are born from them, it's a lot more involved than most board games for adults. If you go in expecting to rock up and play, you're going to come unstuck fast. There's so much to learn here, and it's reminiscent of something like Warhammer in that you'll need to do some studying first - Frosthaven doesn't hold your hand, even if you're using the most 'straightforward' heroes in its opening scenario.

Nevertheless, that shouldn't scare you off. If you're willing to learn, you'll find yourself playing through one of the smartest battle systems out there. Rather than relying on dice rolls (and leaving success up to chance instead of strategy), you'll play a pair of cards from your hand each turn and choose two abilities from them - one for movement, and another for attacks. Because characters have their own powers and playstyles, this results in a unique experience with a surprising amount of depth. Indeed, it makes rivals seem undercooked in terms of strategy - especially because Frosthaven doesn't fall into the trap of opting for archetypes like the fighter, rogue, or wizard. Each class is remarkably distinct, even if they don't seem it at first.

It's both refreshing and enticing thanks to being so unusual

The Banner Spear is a good example. Yes, they look like a bog-standard warrior at first glance. But dig through those cards and you'll find a reliance on positioning and calling allies into the fray. In much the same way, the Blink Blade may seem to match up with your average assassin… but they're able to zip in and out of fights thanks to temporal shenanigans or mess around with time at will. It's both refreshing and enticing thanks to being so unusual.

Anyone feeling overwhelmed by Frosthaven at first should definitely persevere, though I would recommend looking at the more beginner-friendly Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion first. Much like the journey to Frosthaven itself, the hardest part is acclimatizing.

For more recommendations, be sure to check out these cooperative board games, must-have board games for 2 players, and the best tabletop RPGs.

Benjamin Abbott
Tabletop & Merch Editor

As the site's Tabletop & Merch Editor, you'll find my grubby paws on everything from board game reviews to Lego buying guides. I have been writing about games in one form or another since 2012 and can normally be found cackling over some evil plan I've cooked up for my group's next Dungeons & Dragons campaign.