Monday, 17 February 2020

The Frostgrave Immersion Tour (Part 3 of 3)

Wheel out the catapult!

When I first set-off on my journey to Estonia, I admit, I was a tad apprehensive. Although I knew a couple of the guys that would be going, most of the tour participants were strangers. What if I didn’t like them? What if felt trapped with them for a full week?

Well, not only did this fear never materialize, but actually, the exact opposite occurred. The group was amazing. Brought together by our shared passion for a wargame, and a gnawing sense of adventure, we quickly became just one big gaming group. Despite the fact we had people from England, Canada, the U.S.A., Australia, Germany, and Japan, friendships were quickly formed, stories were shared, and we laughed a lot!

Perhaps no event promoted more laughing that when Mizuho’s wizard managed to roll three consecutive natural 20s in hand-to-hand combat, single-handedly trashing poor Jon’s warband…  Mizuho said he wanted to play more ‘aggressive’ than he normally did, and he certainly did that night!

Now, where were we? Oh yes, Rakvere! After a night spent gaming in a classy spa, and sleeping on seriously soft and comfortable beds, we got back on the bus for another adventure. The temperature had dropped again, and a fresh blanket of snow covered the ground.

We cruised down the Estonian highways for a while, stopping at a small roadside cafĂ© at one point – they had no idea what had hit them! Then we took another short hop on the bus, until we saw the high wooden walls of our destination: the Viking village!

I was not the only one who thought it all look a lot like the new Rohan battlements set from Games Workshop.
After a quick tour through the crunching snow, we got down to the serious business of the day. It began with axe-throwing (I was bad), spear throwing (I was really, really bad), and archery (I did alright).  After everyone had a few goes at all of that – and proved that spear throwing especially takes a lot of practice – they wheeled out the catapult! Well, sort of a small, man-powered trebuchet really. In teams of two, we then got to bombard the fort. Well, some of us did – one team managed to launch their ammunition almost straight up in the air, sending us all scampering. Okay, the ammunition was mainly just a big ball of duct tape, but still, it was great fun!

Despite the fun, by this point, everyone’s fingers and toes were starting to numb, so we retreated inside. There, while we ate traditional Estonia fare (more sausages!) while we listed to an in-depth talk about Viking weaponry.

Stuffed and educated, we embarked on our bus, and headed back to Tallinn. There, after a rest, we were back in the atmospheric confines of the Old Hansa for another feast, and another night of gaming in that great medieval house.

The next day was the last, full day of the tour. Again we assembled in the hotel lobby for another tour of the city. This time when climbed to the upper old town, crowned by an incredible cathedral, the Estonian parliament building, and more medieval walls and battlements. We went to several glorious viewpoints that looked back across the city and out to the sea. We also went down into the old tunnels beneath the city. Although we got a lot of history of this from the audio guide – I’m still not quite sure why these tunnels were made – but they were filled with interesting stuff.  That said, the main amusement of the day for most was seeing if I could walk under the increasingly smaller doorways without ducking! (As it turns out, there was only one that even I had to duck through.)

We could totally LARP down here...
When the morning tour was done, a lunch at pub consumed, we were free to go our various ways until dinner. Five of us decided to spend the time gaming. Since there were five, me and John teamed up – he took his wizard, a I took my apprentice. It was a hilariously fun game… and my last of the tour. Although everyone gathered that evening for another game (after a dinner which featured a sword fight), I decided to sit that one out so that I could float around and talk to everyone.

I am a man prone to sentimentality, at least concerning people and places, and already I could feel the end approaching. I had come to the tour apprehensive, and now I was seriously regretting its end. Eventually though, all the games finished, the terrain was packed away, and everyone retreated to their rooms.

The next day was filled with quiet (and not so quiet goodbyes). The only event of note was when I sat on my plane, ready to fly home. We actually sat near the runway for over an hour while the pilots tried to get the plane's computer to work. Eventually, they turned the whole plane off and on again – and – as it seemingly does for everything else, that sorted the problem.

There is no doubt my Estonian adventure with Geek Nation Tours was an incredible experience and one that I will remember for a long time to come. I think, and hope, that it will not be my last!
Brent's 'Shadow Hunters' advance into the Frozen City for one of the last times on the tour!

The whole, unforgettable gang! 

Thursday, 13 February 2020

The Frostgrave Immersion Tour (Part 2 of 3)

Every good tour should involve cannon fire!
Robert starred at the table with wide-eyed horror. I was trying not to laugh. Teras had just used a Transpose spell to switch the positions of my warhound and Robert’s wizard, which left the poor wizard standing next to my barbarian and within easy striking distance of my templar, treasure hunter, and man-at-arms. In Frostgrave terms, that is about as dead as a wizard can get before the dice are rolled. Thankfully, Robert saw the humour in it all, and soon everyone around the table was laughing. Anyway, Robert would soon have his revenge as the rest of his warband went on a rampage that drove Teras’ figures from the table.

The green ork on the left is Robert's wizard. Every other figure in the photo is mine...
It was the third day of the Geek Nation Tours Frostgrave Immersion Tour and the gang was back in our gaming dungeon beneath our hotel. We’d had the morning to sleep in, relax, or go for solo explorations, but now it was time for serious gaming. And we needed to get the gaming in, for this night, we were off into the darkness.

The bus picked us up just after dinner, and drove us deep into the dark, Estonian wilderness. Soon we left the paved roads behind, and bumped down dirt tracks into the wilds of Estonia’s largest national park. There we were joined by a local guide, who passed out flashlights. With our breath condensing in the freezing night air, we plunged into the quiet dark. As we walked down a deserted track, one of our guides pointed to the heavens, where a gigantic glowing circle framed the moon. Apparently, this is a phenomenon known as a ‘winter moon’ or a ‘22° halo’. It was stunningly beautiful, and I’d never seen anything like it before.

Our first stop that night was by a strange set of rectangular foundations – all that remained of a set of bronze-age tombs that had been recently excavated. From there, we climbed up a hill to where those bronze-age people had built a hill fort on a cliff edge. If it were the day, we could have seen the sea, but in the inky blackness, all we could see was the ominous nothingness where the cliff dropped away. Nearby, stood three large standing stones. While they looked like an ancient monument, they were actually modern, one of Estonia’s most important World War II moments. (If I heard correctly, Estonia only has 8 living WWII veterans).

After our brief tour of ancient Estonia, we hopped back on the bus for a short ride to the ruins of a gigantic manor house. In the darkness, I couldn’t help think that it looked like something straight out of Ravenloft, with its incredibly heavy construction, and its’ gigantic stone columns. Delightfully, our guide had the key and we got a look at a couple of the bottom rooms. I have always been attracted to ruins, and the cracked and crumbling walls and floors of this once great home did not disappointed. In one spot, we found a pentagram scratched into the floor. We got also got to go up the grand staircase, but where it turned to go up to the next level, it was sealed shut with a massive, iron door. I wondered whether the door was really to keep us out, or perhaps to keep something else in.

Are you in there Strahd? 

We arrived back at the hotel late, but since there was no gaming, I actually went to bed earlier than any previous night. Which was just as well, because we were all up and back on the bus early the next morning! This time, as we again drove off into the wilderness, the snow started to fall for the first time on our Frostgrave tour! By the time we got off the bus, and started our walk through the Estonian bogs, a thin layer had covered the ground. Northern Estonia is a flat country, and much of the soil is poor, leaving large chunks as boggy scrubland. It is gorgeous walking country.

After the walk, we got back on the bus and headed for the small town of Rakvere, which is known for three things: its gigantic statue of an aurochs that looms over the town, its ruined Teutonic castle, and its spas…

The bus parked beneath the castle, and with cool breeze whistling in our ears, we ascended a long staircase that lead up the giant bull statue and the imposing castle gate. I am told by several people that Rakvere castle looks a lot like Winterfell from Games of Thrones. I can just say, it is an imposing structure that seemed to get bigger the more you wandered around it.

The castle was actually closed to the public for the winter, but our guides had arranged a special tour… and it was special! It began in the torture room, where we learned all kinds of gruesome, but interesting facts. We then took a walk through ‘hell’. This was actually a dimly lit, narrow tunnel, with glowing red faces learning from windows, and purposely extremely uneven floors. It was like a ‘fun house’ except with some real challenge to it. This eventually spat us out in a deep crypt, where an animatronic ‘Dance of Death’ greeted us like some demonic version of Chuck E. Cheese. In truth, it was all rather cheesy, but it was also good fun.

From there things picked up significantly. We were taken into the reconstructed great hall and given a talk on various swords throughout history – and even got to try swinging a few recreations. Then we descended into the old kitchen, where one of our number mixed up a batch of gunpowder! I’m not kidding; with the help of our guide, he took charcoal, saltpetre, and sulfur, crunched them up, and mixed them together. Then – the highlight of the day – we took the gunpowder, loaded it into a small cannon, and fired it off. Okay, it was just a signal gun, and obviously there was no ball, but it was still an impressive, and impressively loud explosion! (Though it didn’t even phase the sheep that were pinned nearby).

Having survived all of this, we had a rustic but delicious lunch in the castle. Although it was a wonderful time, it should be remembered that none of it was heated, and it was below freezing. So, having finished our meal, we got back on the bus, and headed to Rakvere’s best spa (and waterpark). There most of the group spent the afternoon and early evening splashing about or trying one of the many saunas (including the 100° Celsius sauna. I honestly wonder how often people pass out in there).

I didn’t join the group for this. Needing a bit of time alone, I went for a walk around the town. I took a look at the imposing church, walked through their interesting town square, and wandered around a mall, where I bought a couple of small gifts for my children. I returned to the spa in time for dinner, and afterwards we all retired to one of their conference rooms for another night of hard-core Frostgrave gaming! Even our guides joined us for this one, staying up well past midnight to see if they could get just one more treasure off the table!

The trip was not over though – we still had a Viking village to see, and some more of Tallinn to explore, but that will have to wait until the next post!

Again thanks to all of my fellow tour participants for taking all of the photos!

Despite the unfortunate Transpose, Robert and I had a great battle for the central treasure that game!

That's what +2 damage looks like!

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Frostgrave Immersion Tour (Part 1 of 3)

Albert Magnus knows how to make an entrance!
I couldn’t decide. Should I pack my Frostgrave warband in my carry-on luggage or my checked bag?

It was Saturday night, and I was in a hotel just across the road from Gatwick airport. Early the next day, I would be off to Tallinn, capital city of Estonia, for the Geek Nations Frostgrave Immersion Tour. On one level, I still couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Of all the wonderful things that have occurred since I wrote Frostgrave, this seemed the most improbable – a week of travel, exploration, gaming, and feasting along with eleven other Frostgrave enthusiasts!

Eventually, I put my warband in my carry-on case. If I lost my clothes, it would be annoying. If I lost my warband, it would be a disaster. Thankfully, neither occurred.

From London, it is about a 2.5 hour flight to Tallinn, and it passed without incident. In fact, the only pause I had in the trip was when I came to passport control. It was the day after Brexit, and the UK was no longer officially part of the European Union. On the other hand, I’d heard nothing would actually change until the end of the year… so which line did I get in? Well, in truth, I was one of the first off the plane, and there weren’t any ‘lines’. There wasn’t anyone waiting. I went to the non-EU window, had my passport scanned, and was passed through without comment.
Just one of the many amazing views of the city.
A driver was waiting for me on the other side, and I was quickly trundled into a comfortable car and taken on the short ride to the medieval old town, with its numerous towers, heavy stone walls, and beautiful church spires. I won’t share many photos of the city here; you can see plenty just by googling medieval Tallinn. Anyway, this first day wasn’t about tourism. After quickly dumping my stuff in my room, I headed down to the basement where half of the participants had already arrived and were diving into their first games of Frostgrave!

I should at this point thank who provided the mats and most of the terrain we used throughout the week (it was quality stuff!) – and to Brent Sinclair who got their early with glue and fake snow to give it all an extra Frostgrave feel!

Most of the gang, settling into our gaming dungeon in the hotel, for one of many games of Frostgrave!
Over the course of the six-day tour, I would end up playing 9 or 10 games of Frostgrave – most of them 3 or 4 player affairs. Over the course of those games, my enchanter, Archadeamos, went from level 0 up to level 20. He made a lot of enemies along the way, and lost a lot of soldiers, but he also recovered a small clutch of magic books, two magic staves, enchanted weapons, and all kinds of other loot. He would encounter snow trolls, bog monsters, ravenous beasts, barbarians, wraiths, and a large number of bears!

I had actually written six new scenarios for the tour, and it was a lot of fun to try them out and surprise the other guys with brand new material. In a couple of cases, I had to modify the scenarios on the fly, because I either realized I had made an error or due to the peculiar circumstances of the tour. (Yes, these scenarios will be made available in a future Spellcaster Magazine!)

The gaming that day paused only for dinner and went late into the night!

Tour Day 1

Our guide, and newly converted Frostgrave fan.
The next morning dawned cold, but clear, with not a snowflake to be seen. Dressed in our warmest clothes, we set out to explore the town with the help of our guides from Tales of Reval. Two of their members, Ivar and Koit, would become like additional participants of the tour, as they accompanied us throughout the week, and even joined in a couple of games of Frostgrave! This day, Koit was in his full medieval get-up, and, accompanied by an equally well-dressed musician, he regaled us with legends of the city, taught us our proper lordly walk, and showed us all of the interesting sites that the lower city had to offer. We also had our first encounter with the mysterious Albert Magnus who would visit us throughout the trip, speaking his wizardly riddles. Then Koit took us to a medieval pub for lunch, where the menu included: meat soup (with no spoon), meat on a bone, and meat in a pie… and that was basically it.

After lunch, we split into two groups. One returned to the hotel for a little rest (or more gaming) while the other went off to the blacksmith. Then we switched. I admit it, I was expecting to see a big guy beating out horseshoes on a huge anvil. Instead, we were taken to a modern workshop, and guided through the process of forging a little pendant with our symbol of power engraved into it. I declined the opportunity to use the blowtorch!

That evening we went to the city’s most famous restaurant, the ancient, gigantic, Olde Hansa, for a medieval feast. There, accompanied by the strange sounds of the hurdy gurdy, we partook of many intriguingly spiced dishes… so much food I could barely hope to sample most of it. Honey and cinnamon beers were also passed out, and drunk with gusto. As the most-practiced wizard in the group, I was set at the head of the table, and got to wear the funny hat.

When dinner was done, the table was cleared, the frost mats were thrown out, the terrain set-up, and the gaming began again! Of course, with nothing but candlelight to illuminate the table, it was a very different gaming experience! We often had to use our phones to figure out the results of our die rolls!

Again, the gaming went late into the night…

My phone, illuminating my wizard!
Part II coming soon... (I mean, I haven't even gotten to firing the cannon, or the catapult, or the creepy ruined mansion, or 100 degree celsius spa!)

Thanks to Brent, Robert, Teras, and John for the photos used throughout the tour blogs.