Middara is a narrative-driven dungeon crawl game designed by Clayton Helme, Brooklynn Lundberg, Brennon Moncur and Ian Tate. It's competing in a crowded market place which includes such gaming behemoths as Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Fantasy Flight Games) and the No.1 rated game on BoardGameGeek at the moment: Gloomhaven (Cephalofair Games). Any game competing amongst such heavyweights is going to need to differentiate itself from the pack if it wants to gain recognition, critical acclaim and, more importantly, sales.
So why, you may ask, am I reviewing a game that Kickstarted in June 2015 with a delivery date of March 2016? Well, all those patient Middara Kickstarter backers have only just received their pledges, a little over three years behind schedule. I am not going to debate Kickstarter campaigns, stretch goals and delays here though.
Opening the enormous box (52 x 35 x 12cm!) and reading through the rules, and as I consulted the game’s companion app, I was immediately reminded of the heady days of my youth spent playing Final Fantasy VII. This game definitely has the same feel in terms of the bright, colourful, stylised anime art and the world that the heroes inhabit. Middara is a fantasy meets steampunk alien world. The art evokes the theme and the miniatures that come with the game are high quality; better, for example, than FFG’s Descent miniatures. A quick look at the original Kickstarter shows the game was priced at $100 which, even in 2015 seems very good value for the amount of stuff that comes in this generously sized box, and it’s not unsurprising to hear tales that the publishers (Succubus) made a loss on the Kickstarter.
The quality of the components in this game, the tokens and the tiles, are exquisite, with a spot UV effect that has a gloss finish that is usually reserved for boardgame box covers. Another exciting feature is that the campaign book uses coloured filters to view text boxes, preventing players from accidentally uncovering Spoilers when checking on the effect of an encounter. The card stock is a similarly high quality and the card design is clean and uncluttered. If I was to voice one minor nitpick with the quality of the components it would be how dark the art on some of the tiles that you use in the very first encounters are, making the glorious detail on those tiles sometimes difficult to discern. I would also point out that the squares on the tiles are quite small and this makes it difficult when several miniatures are adjacent to one another. However, these are minor niggles: the component quality is excellent and the majority of tiles have the most amazing art. Full credit to the team responsible for this game's art: Stephanie Gustafsson, Alex Hansen, Hector Sevilla Lujan, Rhett Mason and Jon Troy Nickel.
Before I move onto the rules, however, I am going to make a point that I think is important. So please read what I have to say, draw your own conclusions and move on. The game came with some Kickstarter extra goodies in a black box. ‘Excellent!’ I thought, and then the wording on the edge of the black box caught my eye. It said ‘Stay Sexy’. ‘That’s odd’ I thought to myself and then continued to open the box and look through the components and then a realisation struck me. This is not a game that I would feel comfortable playing with female gamers in my game group as many of the female characters are, in my view, rather scantily clad for combat; the issue is not as bad as I have seen elsewhere, but it is apparent. In a #MeToo age, things have moved on since this game was originally designed, so perhaps this is a factor of Middara’s long gestation. Enough said, let’s leave it there.
What about the rules? Well, let’s start with what’s good about the rules. They are well laid out, there are plenty of pictures that make it easy to understand what card or token is being referenced. There are also plenty of excellent examples that explain the rules. So Middara scores very highly for components and it scores pretty well in the rules department too. However, the rules run to 75 pages! In this day and age that is simply too much. I checked Star Wars: Imperial Assault and Middara’s rules are almost double the combined Learn to Play and Rules Reference for that game. And Middara has what I would term rules density. Each rule, in and of itself, makes thematic sense but when you put them all together you end up with a lot of complexity. What do I mean? Here’s an example. Movement is orthogonal only; that makes sense. Line of Sight (LOS) is calculated by counting diagonally to the target, which also makes sense. If LOS passes through the diagonal intersection of two squares, the player must choose which square will be referenced when applying modifiers. If the square selected has hindering terrain you receive a -1 to your roll and if it contains a friendly figure you also receive a -1 to your roll. However, if it passes through multiple squares with hindering terrain and/or friendly characters that penalty is not cumulative. Each character also has a Sphere of Influence (SOI) which is different from LOS and used primarily in spell casting. All of these rules make sense, they are thematic and, in some cases, such as the flanking, backstabbing, dodging and countering rules, they add tactical depth to the game play. If you flank an opponent, you gain bonuses to hit and damage, backstabbing an opponent does the same but different modifiers apply; if you are in water, you can’t dodge (a rule that appears in the terrain section of the rulebook, but rather unhelpfully, not in the Dodge rules) and if a character moves away from being adjacent to an opponent then the opponent can make a break attack, unless the character is immune to break attacks of course. It’s complicated and there are lots of exceptions. So, as you can see, there’s a lot to keep track of.
A game always need to balance this layering of tactical and thematic rules to the cognitive load of the rule set, and these rules have a high cognitive load. For me, at least, this was a huge initial barrier to entry and I set up and put the game away at least twice until I had completed my slog through the rulebook. If you are the sort of person that insists on streamlined rules sets or who hates to get a rule wrong, then this is a game that's probably going to raise your blood pressure.
The game comes with a free companion app which you can download and I was hoping that this might help with that cognitive load that I referenced earlier. Recent board game app integrations such as Lord or the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth (yet another FFG game) deal with all those pesky keywords on cards, which means that you don’t need to understand the minutiae of every rule exception. Middara really needs this type of app but, for now at least, the Middara app only voices the scenario narrative for Chapter 1 of the game. That said, the American female voiceover artist that has been used to voice the encounters does a good job, despite the average script, and positively reinforces the anime fused teen rebellion storyline and theme.
Well that was a long intro, so what about the game itself? The game play is solid, although there is nothing truly innovative here. Perhaps that’s a harsh criticism as this game operates in such a crowded space in boardgaming terms, and Middara does focus in on the narrative storytelling aspect more than any other game that I have played. The game can be split into three elements: tactical combat, narrative storytelling, and gearing and levelling up.
The tactical combat uses an initiative track: at the start of an encounter you shuffle together the cards of the characters and monsters in the scenario and deal them out in a line. This then tells you the order in which characters and monsters activate. It’s a clean, simple-to-understand system that various items and skills can manipulate to add tactical depth. The system is only made unnecessarily complex when new monsters are spawned and you have to try and work out where on the Initiative track their card should be placed.
On your turn, you can move, interact with your environment and attack, and you do this by spending stamina points. Each character typically has 5 stamina points. The character is allowed one movement action per turn and gains a number of movement points, typically 6, which you can spend for 1 stamina point. If you want to move further on your turn, you must spend another precious stamina token to gain 2 further movement points or 2 stamina points to attack. And each turn, the player gains 3 stamina points. This is an excellent system which means that the player has to make tough decisions, whether to push and make an extra attack or conserve their stamina for a future turn.
The combat is where the tactical element of this game resides and where Middara really shines. Combat is dice based and this is a multi-coloured d6 system which uses both numbers and symbols. Consequently, it is difficult not to draw direct parallels with Descent, which uses a similar system. The dice used are based on the weapons wielded, and certain weapon combos provide dice upgrades. The numbers rolled on the attacker’s dice are compared to the defender’s defence value, and if the roll exceeds this, then you hit. The difference between the total rolled and the defence gives the base damage and then the symbols on the dice tend to increase the damage or provide free movement points, whilst opponent’s armour generally reduces the damage unless it’s magic damage or ‘irreductible’ damage, which passes through armour (another example of complex rules that make thematic sense). The symbols on the dice don’t really present options to the player in the same way surges do in Descent, but you can often exhaust weapon cards to gain abilities, so the two systems are different and there are interesting decisions to be made in Middara.
Magic exists in the world of Middara. Remember I mentioned Sphere of Influence (SOI) earlier? Well Magic is where you’re going to be using your SOI. If the target is within your SOI then roll a die and add it to the spell’s force (strength). The target then gets two dice to defend, and the highest roll wins out. If the spell caster wins then the spell takes effect, and if the opponent wins then there is no effect. It’s a simple straightforward, streamlined system.
Gear and levelling up are an important part of any fantasy dungeon crawl and this game is no different. The game comes with huge decks of equipment cards which have a rarity and avoid characters getting ridiculously powerful weapons too quickly. Levelling up uses Discipline cards which give characters unique skills and make them feel different from one another. This is how the game implements the equivalent of the class system in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or other roleplaying and dungeon crawl games. The system is clean, relatively simple and works well; it allows you to develop your character in the way that you want to. The designers score well yet again for implementing a strong experience point (XP) system. In addition, limiting the number of equipment cards that a character can have means that looking through the cards to determine effects does not significantly slow down the game. Overall, I really like this system, but it is not without its issues. There is an inherent complexity in the rules and the various keywords and tags. Looking up keywords and tags in the rulebook isn’t that easy and the game would definitely benefit from a more detailed reference than the one that comes in the back of the rule book.
Middara is a fully cooperative game which means the players are responsible for managing the monsters in this game and this is relatively straightforward. Each monster card has a set of procedures that the players follow and which dictates what the monster does depending on where the characters are located on the board. Also, if the players decide to hide out in a corner of the board to avoid triggering the monsters, then the party gains urgency tokens which, if they reach a certain number result in the players losing the encounter. This is another strong mechanic that really keeps the game moving.
Middara is a game that’s difficult to wrap your head around and it has so many huge pluses including the components, detailed storyline, beautiful art and a well realised setting, backed up by solid game play with some good mechanics, but there are some Final Fantasy style double-edged swords here. The storyline isn’t going to win a Pulitzer Prize and the game has far too many rules and exceptions which overcomplicate the combat, although they most definitely add a layer of tactical depth. Is this so different from other dungeon crawlers that you can justify owning both? Well that depends on several factors, but if you were to push me for a view, I couldn’t recommend you own both this and Descent.
I may have given this game quite a hard time in this review, but it is trying to stand out in a tough market place. I do really like Middara. It is a huge beast of a game with far more content than Descent and all of its expansions combined! Middara is a world that has narrative and artistic coherence. The app and its voiceover enhance the theme, although it doesn’t quite provide the immersion that you get from the Mansions of Madness app. The starting encounters do a good job of layering the rules on slowly so you don’t feel overwhelmed on turn one, but they could have gone further and stepped you through the rules more in a style akin to a video game tutorial. This feels like a game that was designed 5 years ago which of course it was, but it doesn’t suffer in comparison to other dungeon crawls such as Descent as a result of this. So, if you love Final Fantasy and anime style, if you don’t own another dungeon crawler and/or you’re looking for something that gives you the length of game play that you get from a game like Gloomhaven, then Middara is a great option to scratch that itch.
And if you get this game, you can expect the saga to continue. The full title of this game is Middara: Unintentional Malum Act 1. Act 2 is already in the works: there’s a new Middara expansion and a reprint of Act 1 that's currently live on Kickstarter. Click here to check out the campaign.
(Review by Jason Keeping)