Survival. The core drive that every human being possesses and, hopefully, we never have to focus on after we’re done being infants. Our world, the modern world, is so well equipped in many countries that we can make the basic need to simply live background noise. Focus on life, creative pursuits, advancements and discoveries that go beyond “live another day.” I know there are many areas where survival is a daily fight, and it’s a terrifying concept in comparison to where I sit, wondering if I need to buy a second air conditioner to make things more “comfortable.” But, when the time comes, people still have the keys in their soul to unlock the part of them that makes decisions and choices needed to survive. And, with that bleak and existential note, we delve into the card management game Frost.
The Frost is an unseen, uncontrollable storm of perfectly deadly proportions. If you’re caught in it, you will not live: there’s no way a nomadic people can weather such brutality. Luckily, you and your tribe have a head start and fair warning: if you can make it to Refuge, a land beyond the Frost, you may all yet live and flourish. The trip ahead is fraught with many perils: starvation, fatigue, hazardous conditions and even other tribes. But you are the leader, and you have made a pledge to your people to protect them or die trying. And, in Frost, your word is good, one way or the other.
The objective for Frost is to reach Refuge before the Frost reaches you. Starting out with an eight-day buffer, you waste one day each turn, and gain a day when you successfully move onto the next area. Moving between areas will cost a certain number of resources, which break down into food, wood and people. Assigning cards as “spent resources” won’t use them up forever, but will take them out of the card pool until you depart for the next location. Should you be lacking in resources, don’t lose hope: you can send one of your tribespeople to scavenge for things. They may bring back any of the core three (including new people), but they may bring back nothing (fatigue), horrifying tales (terror) or death (lose that people card). Fatigue cards take up precious slots in your deck and what you draw each turn, and terror does the same with the added bonus of instant game over if you ever have three terror cards in your hand at the same time. You can rest to remove fatigue cards, but this only affects the ones currently in your hand, costs a turn, and totally hamstrings you from doing anything other than watching the Frost close in.
These already complex situations are only made more complex with the inclusion of ideas. Each turn, your tribe will come up with an idea card that you can spend resources (some temporary, some permanent) to generate new cards. Each idea has wild and different effects, from a pickaxe that *might* harvest fruit to new tribespeople who have their own special powers. Idea cards come with a standard effect and an “activated” effect that either generates a one-time effect OR needs a secondary card to make it happen. Gathering, for example, can only be used once but draws four cards into your hand. The pickaxe can be used a single time to harvest two wood or deal one damage to an attacker. And pets are a thing: animals that you rescue just sit there unless a human can activate them, and then they may scavenge food themselves or fight to protect their family.
One thing that really keeps Frost fresh and exciting is that you don’t necessarily know the layout of each expedition. After doing the tutorial, you’re forced to take your first trek on easy mode, which means 25 areas to cross to reach safety. There will be times when an area is exceedingly easy: you just need two food, one wood, and you’re on your way, gaining a whole extra day of buffer. Sometimes it’s significantly more difficult: five food is a near impossible draw, and risking sending people out to forage feels like it turns dark at the worst possible time. In addition, terrain may change your hand size: suddenly the snow limits you to three cards instead of five, which is desperate and scary. Other times, your way may be blocked by wolves, survivalists or cannibals, who need some kind of card to repel them, lest you incur damage. You’ll make decisions as to whether you take the damage yourself (the leader has a four hitpoint life bar) or let one of your fellow travellers take the hit, killing them but buying you more time. I banked a lot on taking hits myself, hoping that the shaman would be in the next area, who heals your HP in exchange for food.
In a deckbuilding sense, Frost is magnificent in presenting a simple notion that gets progressively more difficult. You unlock more ideas as you play, and the ideas, in turn, reveal other cards and other ideas that may pop up in subsequent playthroughs. The ability to use vision becomes a mechanic after a couple of games, allowing you to have certain cards and characters that can look ahead, helping to predict which of two areas or events you might encounter next and shaping where you’ll want to head after you pay the piper here. Eventually you even unlock new obstacles and encounters, adding complexity in terms of what to plan for and what may happen. When I unlocked the cannibalism idea, I was a bit appalled, and I was disgustedly delighted to see the “food” generated by the idea looks much different from other foods I found. There’s a good variety in what different people look like, and this only goes further when ideas create useful and less-than-useful tribespeople. Seriously, the idea of a Singer is kind of funny, but why the hell do I want more people in my tribe unless I’m all in on the cannibalism idea? Wait, maybe I am. Is there a way to eat pets? I feel like there should be a way to eat pets.
Once you manage to finish an easy game (either successfully or otherwise) you move onto custom games, which are something to behold AND show the true complexity of Frost. Increase or decrease your journey to nearly any length, including some surprisingly stressful one day journies. Add up to six legendary land encounters which will tax and demand your skills something fierce. Toggle on or off the stock HUD, which will make the number of cards you have a mystery. Don’t worry: if you don’t have enough to meet an area’s requirements, the game WILL tell you, regardless of difficulty. The customizable game is a great chance to see what kind of survivalist you are, and also to go through the variety of cards in a much faster and succinct fashion.
Additionally, the more you play Frost, you have a chance to land upon Scenarios, which are amazing, pre-built situations to get through. I personally enjoyed The Meditator for an exceptionally long game (no Frost, just travel 50 times) though I’m intrigued to find others and play more setups. The Leader, the first scenario you encounter, tasks you with keeping your core family members alive, something that really plays into the mentality and design of Frost down to the bone. There are no achievements, sadly, to keep you motivated for unlock hunts (c’mon Nintendo!) but plenty of good things await those who keep going through the scenarios.
Now, it does need to be said that Frost has a couple of small performance issues on the Switch, simply due to the nature of how the game plays. You will see some frame drops and a bit of stuttering as you change out hands rapidly, but I found this happens especially in docked mode after the console sleeps and wakes up. I had zero issues playing in handheld, and the docked play was smooth when I shut down the game and started up again. This will probably be a small patch that the developer can address soon, so don’t let that bog down your overall experience.
And that’s what Frost is: a strangely captivating and engaging experience that really hooks into your brain. From the artwork that bears this primitive, early man style of appearance to the hauntingly desolate and sparse soundtrack, I haven’t felt this drawn into a card game in years. The developer lists Ascension and Dominion as inspirations, and I certainly feel the imprint of good card design and gradually expanding and layering complexity. A single game can last a matter of seconds if you make bad decisions or close to an hour as you move forward, grim-faced and determined, against the hateful screaming of nature behind you. If you have any kind of inclination towards card management games or are interested in this bold approach to survival, then I highly, highly recommend picking up Frost and never putting it down. Whether the storm. Make the tough decisions. Protect your tribe. Survive.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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