Middara Review

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Middara

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There Will Be Games

Middara is a lot to unpack.

Middara is a lot of to unpack - 26 pounds worth of miniatures, cards, player mats, dungeon tiles, two spiral bound books (including one 400+ page story book), and custom dice. There's even a card-based "mini game" included. And it's apparently "volume 1" of a larger storyline called "Unintentional Malum". But I have to admit, when I opened this monster up, I wasn't thrilled and delighted with the mountain of...well, stuff. I did not wallow in ecstasy in the components and I wasn't even really very excited to get it to the table. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. And although I was attracted to the JRPG-influenced stylings of the game (which means characters might have angel wings, leather jackets, and/or prescription glasses), I found myself grimacing at the thought of Yet Another Kickstarter Dungeon Crawl, volume whatever. All the tropes were there from the vaccuform trays full of gray plastic miniatures to the gloss-embossed illustrations to the FOMO stretch goal content packed in the base game box.

Now, if you've followed my writing over the last several years, you'll be aware that I am not a fan of either the big, overwrought Kickstarter games or of overly complicated, undercooked and redundant designs. Middara was 26 pounds worth of bad portents out of the box. I'll be the first to admit that I had a bad attitude about the game after it landed on my doorstep, but know also that our SOP here at ThereWillBe.Games is for our writers (myself included) to reach out to publishers to ask for review copies for games that we might be interested in. So there was something that called to me about this sprawl, even though I'm at a point in my gaming career when I'd rather put together a Dragon Rampant battle or run a D&D game than set up a dungeon crawl board game - let alone one with a massive campaign demanding a level of commitment I'm not prepared to give. I've already let Gloomhaven languish on my shelf after a flurry of play last summer, and here comes a game that some are comparing to Isaac Childers' seminal work.

So let's shoot the moon right out of the box before this lead-in to what appears to be a negative review runs too long. Middara does some things better than Gloomhaven. There are elements that I think are more successful than Gloomhaven, especially the notion of framing a tactical, scenario-based dungeoncrawl with a fairly detailed campaign with emergent, legacy changes dependent on player activity and decisions. The enemy AI system is a little more compact, actually, and offers for quite a wide range of monster behaviors; some monsters can also be controlled by the players rather than the if-then routines provided on their cards. I like this, and I a;sp especially like the Materia-like upgrade mechanisms whereby you can improve equipment, the extensive Discipline (i.e. skill) trees, and the action-point based system - paired with a Descent-like dice system and more detailed rules for terrain and considerations such as flanking - makes for a different sort of tactical crunch than what Gloomhaven offers.

But it also doesn't feel as singular as Gloomhaven, and in some ways it feels more redundant with previous games in this genre. Mechanically, I almost feel like it's not worth digging into at a critical level. This is not a slight. But the reality of it is that if you are interested in reading this review, you've played plenty of games like Middara and you will find much in common with its antecedents. Dice make it a little wilder and less predictable than the Leading Brand, so to speak, yet it feels somehow heavier and more detailed in general terms. Spellcasting, for example, is a fairly complex affair involving the target of a spell making a Conviction check to contest the spell result. One of Middara's chief differentiators, I think, is that it offers this higher level of detail in exchange for expanded complexity in terms of rules.

The 70+ page rulebook offers up a compelling game system that, thankfully, accommodates both long haul campaign play (which is really where the game comes into its own) and one-off scenario-based play for those who can't commit. This makes the game more accessible, even if the one-shot play isn't as satisfying as buckling in and watching Rook Lars, Nightingale Arsen, Remi Moretti, Zeke Jeong, and a cast of characters that expands as you play work their way from a scored training scenario up through beating down a Shadowlord and earning the keys to an Airship...and a big fat "to be continued".

The 482-page story book is one of this game's biggest (literally) draws. It provides TONS of text to read between the on-the grid encounters. The pathway you take through the story depends on player decisions, who is in the party at a given time, and other malleable factors. For example, the first several scenarios are the characters' training trials, and the scores they earn create an outcome. Characters in the party might get possessed, imprisoned, or even completely killed as the story develops. The level of detail and intricacy in terms of stitching together a plotline across the tactical play and the storybook is quite impressive. It's quite ambitious, but it also requires some rather cumbersome logistics. Many of the scenarios require a second diagram book for the encounter setups. But you are also not trying to set up a dungeon with annoying tiles of all different shapes and sizes so it's not quite as painful as other games in this field can be.

And this game has a lot more fiction than is usual for any board game. Each monster card has a wall of text describing the unusual and unique creatures in the game. The characters all have very detailed stories. Of course none of this is of Gene Wolfe quality. It's serviceable and even mildly entertaining, but that feeling of bloat and sprawl threatens to overwhelm the finer qualities of the game. If you are playing with a group, make sure they are down with reading a couple of pages between each scenario if you are doing the campaign. Solo, it's on you to read all that text.

I've mostly played this game solo and no, I have not played all the way through the campaign. I'd be reviewing this game next year if that were the case. I've really enjoyed my solo campaign sessions but be warned that there is more to keep track of than some soloists might be comfortable with. I've had half my living room floor covered with this game and it's been quite engrossing. The multiplayer "Crawl" one-offs have been solid fun and mostly a hit with my gang. But then, I've also come away from both the campaign and the crawl modes feeling - yet again - exhausted and overwhelmed by it all.

Despite Succubus Publishing basically front-loading their flagship title with what would have been many SKUs worth of expansion content under traditional publishing means, this is a very good, very ambitious game with a huge scope. It's fairly weird and it can feel utterly singular even though the mechanisms and some of the core concepts are trope-y and shruggingly un-original. When I think about this game though, I keep coming back to wishing that it were more editorial, that the content was more focused and refined rather than bulldozed on me all at once. I'm sure some folks are happy to have a game that could potentially offer content for years to come available all at once, but I find myself wishing that the initial buy-in and delivery were more modest, controlled, and metered.

Thanks to the fine folks at Succubus Publishing for their support of quality games writing here at There Will Be Games. They supplied us with a full Kickstarter pledge, which included several stretch goals and additional products including neoprene mats, an artbook, and a box of promo miniatures. This review was prepared with and only references materials in the main product. There Will Be Games never accepts payment for reviews or other content.

 


Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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1 reviews

Board Game Reviews 
 
4.0

Summary

A tremendous, expansive package that might be too overwhelming and too front-loaded with content for its own good.
MB
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Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #298318 13 Jun 2019 01:17
This is like the Bayonetta of dungeon crawls -- so naturally, I was interested in it as well. A bunch of pleasantly weird stuff included. The thing really is crazy in the amount of content they jammed into, which I can appreciate, but can imagine I may never get to.

However, I would love to have gotten something like this when I was 15. Would have been totally engrossed for sometime with it. There are a lot of things that I like when compared to Gloomhaven, many of which you touch on -- just got the email that they are going to start up the next chapter soon; I'll probably pass on it; however, my biggest weakness in boardgaming is "weird"....
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #298319 13 Jun 2019 01:21
^honestly, how many of the various KS full system games like this would you have murdered someone for when you were 15 or whatever, right?
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #298321 13 Jun 2019 02:11
Ha, yes- the Bayonetta comparison is a good one’ it’s so over the top.

I do think that I may like the game overall better than Gloomhaven, even though Gloomhaven is the safer, more watertight design. Middara is wilder and weirder, and that counts for a lot t me.

But man, it’s just so much. The first time I set it all up to play and it was almost comical the size of everything for four characters (using the player mats) and a tiny little four tile map where the game was actually happening. I had to play on the floor.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #298322 13 Jun 2019 02:15
Ha -- yeah, this has been in the middle of the basement floor after the kids go to bed. I *maybe* could play this on our dining room table....and, you're right, it's almost comical in nature how small the playing area is to the character information areas.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #298340 13 Jun 2019 09:18
I'm strangly not even a little bit intriqued by this game. I do like dungeon crawls. And I do like adventure games. But I guess i just don't like games that try to squeeze it all into one package.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #298343 13 Jun 2019 09:42
So... this is a genuine question. How do enthusiasts in this genre play these games since there are so many long, long campaign experiences? Do y'all play them in sequence, selling one off when you're done or are tired of them? Do you play multiple flavors at the same time?

More than other genres, I feel like these games really need a continuity of playing them repeatedly in a row to create the narrative/do the campaign mechanics.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #298347 13 Jun 2019 10:34
That is definitely a legit question. This game could supply you with content for a year of gameplay. But are you-
And your group- really going to commit to the hours and hours that this game demands? Odds are, probably not. And what about when the next one comes out and you are only halfway through this one?

But people did stick with Gloomhaven, and Middara is coming along at a time when the first and second generation of Gloomhaveners might be looking for something like it to carry on with.

I have to say I’m sort of unmoved by the thought of -any- campaign game that isn’t D&D these days. I don’t want my board gaming time consumed with a campaign, I’d rather play single session games. Which is something I really like about Middara, it accommodates this desire with its crawl mode.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #298348 13 Jun 2019 10:57
I think the concept that you have to finish one of these things to prove its worth is a false notion. Isaac has even mentioned that he never expected most people to play through all of Gloomhaven, just play as much as you want and drop it. These games include a ton of content because there's not a DM there to keep it going once the well runs dry.

We tend to burn hot on these games for a couple of months and then just play every once in awhile. For instance, we have Dungeon Degenerates, Battlestations, and Marvel Strike Teams campaigns outstanding now. We will pick them all up again for another session or two at some point.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #298349 13 Jun 2019 11:09
That’s a good point...but when you look at all of the material in Middara, you have to ask -what’s- the point of the campaign if you aren’t going to go all on it?

But maybe that is the right way to look at these games- as more suitable for those who occasionally want to dip into a low commitment storyline with a minor sense of continuity and progression.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #298350 13 Jun 2019 11:28

Michael Barnes wrote: That’s a good point...but when you look at all of the material in Middara, you have to ask -what’s- the point of the campaign if you aren’t going to go all on it?

But maybe that is the right way to look at these games- as more suitable for those who occasionally want to dip into a low commitment storyline with a minor sense of continuity and progression.


I view this similarly to any game though, in that you likely won't explore it fully. For instance, what's the point of playing Chess if you don't repeatedly play it and gain strategic competency.

Middara, and other scenario/narrative driven games, ask you to explore their content more so than their strategy.

I never played all of the scenarios in HeroQuest but that doesn't devalue my time spent with it. I never built even a tenth of the combinations of vehicles I could build in Car Wars, but I still enjoyed the hell out of that game. You likely won't play with every single alien in Cosmic before you die either, doesn't matter.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #298351 13 Jun 2019 11:38

charlest wrote:
I never played all of the scenarios in HeroQuest but that doesn't devalue my time spent with it.


I assume you mean in the expansions :)

We (my brother, me, and mom) probably played the 14 base scenarios in the first summer month we had the game. Summer of baseball and dungeon exploring.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #298352 13 Jun 2019 12:10

Space Ghost wrote:

charlest wrote:
I never played all of the scenarios in HeroQuest but that doesn't devalue my time spent with it.


I assume you mean in the expansions :)

We (my brother, me, and mom) probably played the 14 base scenarios in the first summer month we had the game. Summer of baseball and dungeon exploring.


Nah, base. I've probably played the first seven or so 10 times each. That one where you go through portals to different rooms was always my favorite.
moofrank's Avatar
moofrank replied the topic: #298710 20 Jun 2019 16:12
We do have a group which does strictly long campaign and legacy games so I get to play all of these. We are almost halfway through Gloomhaven, and I just put in a more detailed review before seeing this.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #298711 20 Jun 2019 16:21
Thank you moofrank! That's awesome.