Review: Frost12 Oct 2016 3
Released 25 Sep 2016
Overcoming adversity and beating the odds is an archetypal idea that has populated story and song for as long as humanity has had language. Surviving the elements is perhaps the most captivating form of this idea, and certainly not a foreign one to gamers. Survival games are all over the place on tabletops and hard drives. So are digital card and deck building games. Frost is both of the above—a deck-building survival game. We're talking a can't feel my fingers, boy that wolf looks hungry, maybe cannibalism isn't so bad type of survival.
In Frost your goal is to escape…well, the Frost, a storm of epic lethality which sweeps inexorably toward you. You must lead a band of survivors through a bleak, forbidding landscape to the Refuge, the only place in the world the deadly storm will not follow. This safety is elusive however, and with the Frost pulling ever closer the odds are against you.
I want to start out by talking about the sights and sounds of the game because they are exceedingly well done. The first thing you notice is the art. The hand-drawn, graphic-novel style drives home the narrative of a depressing and unforgiving world. The UI, cards, and background are cold and uninviting—all whites, grays, and blues—as if the art design of the game itself has been whitewashed by the Frost. The words and numbers look as if they were written in pencil, as carefully as possible, by a hand that could not help but tremble.
The music and sound effects do their part to set the scene as well. The opening music for a classic game or alternative scenario is minimalistic and haunting. Rhythmic breathing, like somebody moving over difficult terrain, is the backdrop. Layered on top of this is a deep meditative chanting of "aaaahhhhmmm" and several voices humming in harmony. You really have to listen to it at a good volume while reading the initial story screens at least once, it's really quite a powerful combination.
The background sound during the game is an assortment of sharp metallic clangs and heavy thumps along with the near omnipresent sound of blowing wind. Playing cards sounds like you are pulling something out of a heavy backpack. Every button or action has an appropriately thematic sound effect and I have to imagine the developer enjoyed collecting and spookifying real-world noises for the game.
Frost is a deck-building game and you start out with a limited number of resource cards. The basic resource cards are food (apples), materials (wood), and survivors (people). You must travel long and far to reach the Refuge and will pass through a number of regions. Each region takes a toll on you and there are certain requirements you must meet to pass through it. Requirements are met using your resource cards. The Hills, for example, might require you to stop to eat before moving on—in game terms this means playing two apple and three survivor cards.
If you don't have sufficient resources a survivor can be sent to scavenge. They might succeed or they might come back empty handed and fatigued—a useless "Fatigue" card goes into your deck—or worse, they could die (the sound effect for that is pretty gruesome). You can play it safe and end your turn without traveling, but the Frost moves one step closer each and every turn.
The Frost bearing down on you is represented by a counter at the top of the screen. When you travel to a new region you increase that counter. Ending a turn without traveling to a new region reduces it. At zero, the Frost hits, and you and your band of survivors become its latest victims.
The game adds additional options in the form of events and ideas. You draw a new event card every time you travel. The event can be something helpful like trade, where you can exchange resources with other survivors to help meet your region's requirements. It can also be dangerous, like a wolf or cannibals stalking your group. If you don't defeat these dangers you must pay life (a very finite resource) or sacrifice a survivor when you attempt to travel to a new region.
You also draw two idea cards when you travel to a new region and add one idea card every time you end a turn in the same region. Idea cards can be added to your deck by spending other resources on them. Ideas are things like making a spear and stabbing that wolf (removes a dangerous event) or singing to attract nearby survivors to join you (adds a survivor card to your deck).
The gameplay is intuitive (particularly for deck-building pros) and fits perfectly into the survival narrative. The Frost counter really gives you that sense of a clock on the game and desperation will drive many decisions. When the Frost is close at hand, for example, you may be willing to permanently sacrifice a survivor to get some other resource you need to travel and stay just out of reach. There's also a temperature indicator and the colder it is, the fewer cards you start your turn with.
Inevitably, the Frost will overcome you and you will lose. It will happen a lot. Losing is part of the vibe of Frost. You'll develop some tactics and improve your game, but the Frost has the advantage. It is never slowed by bad cards, unhelpful ideas, or dangerous events.
Randomness plays a big role in the game. Bad luck can certainly doom somebody at the mercy of the wild, so this too fits the theme. In many-a-game I manoeuvred myself into a relatively advantageous position only to slide into the icy jaws of death after a bad run of cards. Losing this way feels bad, but luck cuts both ways. I've also distanced myself from the Frost and shepherded my survivors to safety by traveling turn after turn, thanks to a series of regions with easy requirements.
There are a couple ways to play Frost. Classic mode is the default game and can be played in easy, medium, hard, and endless modes. Easy mode gives you a card tracker which lets you know how many of each type of basic resource (and fatigue cards) are in your deck. This helps in making decisions on events and ideas that require you to sacrifice rather than just play a card. At higher difficulties these training wheels come off.
There are also scenarios, which are just alternate rules. In "Leader" you must make it through without losing any survivors, a big game changer. In "Gatherer" there is no Frost chasing you and the goal is to travel 50 times before losing all of your life. Both modes unlock additional cards and new scenarios as you play, which adds to the replayability of the game.
Frost is a well-designed game. It looks and sounds beautiful in its own bleak and foreboding way, especially on my iPad Pro. I did test it on my iPhone 6S plus and it looked fine there too. It is harder to read the words without expanding cards, but once you know your way around that matters less. Gameplay is fun and effective and offers ample opportunity for tactics and strategy. The sights, sounds, gameplay, and every other aspect of Frost feed its survivalist theme perfectly.
Skill definitely has a role in Frost, but chance often plays the greater part. I know this turns many gamers off, and if you're one of them, you might want to look elsewhere. If you don't mind losing to bad luck now and then there's a lot to love about Frost and it is definitely worth picking up. Frost is available on iOS and Android.