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Frostpunk: The Board Game Review
Review By @ 12:10pm 26/05/23

We don’t normally do board game reviews on AusGamers, but when we had a chance to check out a physical tabletop version of the seminal and genre-defining Frostpunk, we couldn’t say no.

Frostpunk is one of our favourite games here, with co-managing editor Kosta Andreadis proclaiming in his review that “the sheer emotional weight behind each decision is what separates Frostpunk from other city builders” and that its setting was one of “a dystopian world where labour is enforced, and free-thought is treated as a crime”. He wound up awarding the game a 9/10 on our review scale, and in picking up the game myself late last year, I couldn’t agree more with everything he wrote.

Frostpunk’s wholly realised game-world and its retro-future steampunk setting, which sees a new ice age beset upon the world is what transforms the aforementioned -punk setting to something entirely new. But the game’s setting is simply an element of drive. How you manage this unchangeable world amidst such despair is its true heart; decisions made on a macro scale to keep as much of what’s left of your society functioning, despite all the micro details filtering through and burdening your conscience.

So, translating this to a board game was a fascinating exercise for me, and the team behind it, Glass Cannon Unplugged, who managed to get it off the ground via Kickstarter, in collaboration with publisher 11 bit studios has been thoughtful in what a translation from expansive videogame into rigid IRL tabletop could -- and should -- look like. The setup is involved, and games can genuinely last hours, but such a translation needs that type of investment, because in the videogame proper, lest you find yourself out in the snow and not near a fire, time and how you manage it isn’t about being fast, it’s about being measured.

Out of the Box

Like the trammel of society’s new and impossible future, the box for Frostpunk: The Board Game is heavy. Many moving parts make up this experience, the most important of which is the central generator, through which all resources and building and management of society is essentially governed. It’s beyond significant in the videogame, and is central here too. Literally. With your hexagonal game board, built from many smaller hexagonal boards added as you progress and build, the generator sits smack bang in the middle and is an excellent representation of those in the game.

"Make no mistake, in the initial phases, it’s a complicated descent. And even though the game’s manual is an excellent tool that clearly states everything and is a great resource in its own right during play, it’s a hefty read...”

Other differently-shaped game boards are then used to manage things like generator heat, citizen health, buildings and the all-important expeditions, which were a key feature in the videogame. Then you have a series of cards, tiles and tokens and more, all of which are used to get this society up and running, but make no mistake, in the initial phases, it’s a complicated descent. And even though the game’s manual is an excellent tool that clearly states everything and is a great resource in its own right during play, it’s a hefty read easily summarised by the fact that even setting up a game can take a couple of hours. So, if you’re hosting game night with friends, we recommend getting cracking at least two to three hours before people arrive, it’s that involved.

Frostpunk: The Board Game is designed for 1-4 players, but you all face off against the world itself, and the cruels it delivers. That the game can be played solo is a triumph for it overall, but you probably want to rope some friends in to help delegate some of that emotional weight we’ve been peppering throughout. You all play as advisors, dishing up decisive action for both survival and happiness, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Set within these basic concepts is far more nuance; denizens are never happy, and you won’t always make the right decision. And decisions can sometimes lead to death, or starvation, or sickness and more.

It’s all very grim.

How this is managed from a gameplay perspective is cards. Your role ‘in’ the game is that of an Advisor (all four of you if you play the max number of people), and as such you monitor a series of systems as well as function -- heat for the generator, for example, which also requires resource-gathering and management. But you also need to feed the masses and tend to anyone sick. And this is all managed on a daily cycle with a random event occurring every morning that helps set up the scenario for that day, and through the day more can happen, such as a random weather event, though these aren’t always resolved by the end of the day, meaning you’ll wind up with a manifest of problems and so-called ‘quests’ to complete. And management of all of this is hard.

Bring the Heat

Make no mistake, Frostpunk: The Board Game wants you to fail. But the way the game is structured allows you to choose your path of management and growth, but time and resources for these are limited, so you need to choose carefully. If you heat the generator too much, you can make it explode, and that’s an automatic (and epic) fail. You can also stretch rations too far and starve your colony, and if too many people die, that’s also a fail. And if you build out too far too early, you might stretch everything too much which will have you chasing your tail or essentially feeding into any one of the many fail states of the game.

"They found the whole thing steep in terms of its learning curve, but once we got our groove on and dealt with the emotional blow of a handful of fails, the desire to beat the game grew ever-stronger...”

But it’s fun. And I can’t stress that enough. I have the advantage of having played a lot of the videogame so my understanding of a lot of the functions here -- in terms of decision-making and outcomes allowed me to sort of ‘think ahead’, so to speak. But for first-timers it can be daunting. I mostly reviewed the game solo but also played with two others, but never a fourth (a lonely old soul, am I), and those people weren’t familiar with the videogame, so even with me there they found the whole thing steep in terms of its learning curve, but once we got our groove on and dealt with the emotional blow of a handful of fails, the desire to beat the game grew ever-stronger and many hours of torturous fun was had.

You should know, though, this is an investment, particularly with your time and your patience. So if you want to get it on a whim because you like the videogame or the concept but don’t play board games that often, have a long hard think about how much play-time it’s going to get because it’s an effort to set up and keep in order and it’s a hefty box. However, if you do play a lot of board games or intend to start that new tradition of hosting ‘game nights’ or bringing your game to someone else’s this is something I can wholeheartedly recommend. Just expect to have your heart broken. Multiple times.

What we liked
An absolutely involved game that does a lot to replicate its source material
1-4 players, but also the ability to play solo
Excellent production of parts and design inside the box
The game is easy to understand, but difficult to master which feeds replayability
The manual is a god-send
What we didn't like
The manual is dense and a hefty read
The setup can take hours
Games can take a long time too, so IRL time-management is essential
It's really very heavy as a package
We gave it:
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