I’m pretty wary of computer games that mimic ideas from the board and card game world.
It’s very rare they manage to capture the subtlety required to make a truly great tactical or strategic game, focusing more on visual bells and whistles and (usually) adding too many luck elements to hold the interest for long. Unless they’re a direct port from an existing tabletop game, they rarely seem designed for gamers.
So it was with some trepidation I approached ‘Frost‘, a game found via Steam’s auto recommendations and described as, “a survival solo card game inspired by deck-building board games like Dominion, Ascension and the like”. While I’m no Ascension fan, the fact the designer was name-checking ‘proper’ games gave me hope this may be a winner.
But the first thing that struck me was the game’s visual style, which I find absolutely beautiful.
The drawings are stark and simple, which perfectly fits the theme, while the dark, brooding and tribal soundtrack brings a strong sense of foreboding.
The premise here is you’re a small group of survivors trying to find your way to a fabled safe refuge through a harsh winter landscape and relentless storm. It has a post apocalypse feel, but long after it rather just after: we’re talking finding fruit and making sticks into spears here; not finding cars and shooting guns.
The intros are really nice (but thankfully skip-able once you’ve been through them once ot twice) and the screen often fades out to pure white, helping to hold the mood of perpetual snow and of not knowing what could be around the next corner.
As with most deck-builders you start the game with a deck of 10 cards (in this case usually four survivors, two food, two (building) materials and two fatigue) and draw a hand of five.
There is a frost meter at the top of the screen that starts on 8: it will drop by one each turn in which you don’t complete a Region card, and go up one (to a max of 8) on turns that you do. If you drop below 1, the frost has gotten the better of you and it’s game over.
You need to travel a certain distance (usually 25) to win the game, with the number equalling the amount of Region cards you need to complete. These cards come out at random and will need a varying mix of food, survivors and materials to move past.
Each location will also have a random Event which stays until the location is passed. These can be a potential benefit (letting you trade items, for example) or a hazard (an enemy to overcome). Hazards should be dealt with before you leave the Region (some can be bribed with food, others need to be killed with a spear); as if you don’t you’ll take damage as you leave (you only have four health points).
Deck building works in two ways – using survivors in your hand to search, or by buying Idea cards that become available (one at a time) each time you draw a new hand. Cards bought usually cost resources (which go out of the game) but are upgrades on the base cards: everything from cards that generate resources, to weapons, to cards allowing you to draw more cards, discard some fatigue, or look at upcoming cards (and sometimes choose the one you want).
Using survivors from your hand is risky, as they may die (out of the game) or add a fatigue to your deck; but equally they may find extra food or materials cards (which are added to your hand, while the survivor goes in your discard pile). This almost always seems worth the risk, but equally has a nice tension and can end in some nasty situations.
Fatigue works in the same way as curse cards in Dominion, or similar cards in every deck-builder: they clog up your hand. Certain advanced cards let you deal with them, or if you draw a really crap hand you can discard all of the fatigue in it out of the game – but the rest of your hand is discarded and the frost counter moves on one too.
Beyond the (useful and nicely done) tutorial the game has two main modes; ‘classic’ and ‘scenario’.
When you start, classic is broken down into ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ options – with ‘hard’ and ‘endless’ modes opening up after you’ve beaten the game once on medium level.
There is a noticeable step up in difficulty to medium, but more interestingly it also opens extra win conditions you can meet rather than the simple ‘survive 25 Regions’. You get two random options each time, which may need you to discard a bunch of resources, win a certain number of fights or discard a certain amount of fatigue.
On ‘Hard’ mode you have to complete two of the three available objectives you’d get on medium level (but still by the time you make it through 25 Regions), while ‘Endless’ – as you’ve probably guessed – just lets you see how long you can survive.
Winning games can also open up scenarios (there are four right now, with the designer hoping to add more later). These again open up interesting twists on the base rules, as well as having their own nice little intro sequences and characters.
This is a small game from an indie publisher, so you have to expect a few little problems to sneak in. None that I’ve come across have been game-breakers, but some are definitely worth flagging up.
My biggest issue is that when playing on anything above ‘easy’ level the game removes the handy ‘resources’ window that lets you know what you currently have in your deck (in terms of basic resources). This feels to me like the only time the designer slips from knowing what gamers are really about: generally we like to plan and to calculate, not be thrown a memory element as an extra ‘challenge’.
On the tech side, the game can open on the wrong monitor if you have a two-monitor setup (this will be fixed later), which is super annoying; but you can hold down ‘shift’ as the game loads to change this (and also to choose to play in windowed mode). But this really needs to be available in the standard options menu.
Finally, another (due to be fixed) problem is you can be set an impossible win condition on medium and hard modes. Random advanced cards are unlocked as you play more games, which is a nice system; unless important ones aren’t. A case in point is the ‘lose 12 health on a journey’ condition – impossible to complete unless you’ve unlocked a healing card. However, as there are always two win conditions (plus the standard survive 25 regions option) this again doesn’t break the game (and you can simply restart).
Frost can be fairly compared to Friedemann Friese’s solitaire deck-builder Friday; a game I enjoyed for several plays but didn’t buy.
While Friday is a clever and tough solo game, it just lacked that level of variety to make me want to invest.
Frost is a similar game in some respects, but there’s so much more replay value here – and at around a fiver on Steam it is an absolute bargain. I’d actually like to see this made into a ‘proper’ card game, as while some of the elements may be a little fiddly to pull off I think it would quickly find an audience.
If you like deck-building games and are looking for a digital solo game, I can’t recommend Frost highly enough – especially at this price. I just hope enough people invest so that designer Jerome Bodin can put in the extra work he clearly wants to on the project, as there is so much more that this system could have to offer. A fantastic achievement.
* I would like to thank Studio des Ténèbres for giving me a review key on request.