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.