Middara: Unintentional Malum Act 1 is incredible.
I generally shoot for a longer opening for my board game reviews, but Middara is no ordinary board game. Sure there are trappings of other games built in, and you can see the influence of games the designers have played in the past in the rules, but Middara absolutely sets itself apart from any other game I’ve ever played by both successfully combining tried and true mechanics into something unique, and by telling a complex, deep, and interesting story across a massive 100 hour campaign—all while giving players the freedom to choose how they play and by allowing them to make choices about how the story unfolds. Middara is effectively a board game version of a JPRG … a really REALLY good JRPG.
*Editor’s Note: Many of the pictures used for this review contain spoilers and or unlocked content, so please don’t look too closely if you are especially spoiler sensitive.
First and foremost Middara is a dice-chucking dungeon crawler, and even if you only played Middara’s Crawl Mode (an included way to play that lays out standalone missions that can, if you choose, be played back to back as a smaller campaign) you’d still have nearly as much content as the average dungeon crawl board game. There are tons of different enemies to fight, piles of loot to gather, racks of weapons and armor to find/buy and equip, and stacks of skills to customize your character with. The combat system uses a to-hit mechanic that is a little bit clunky when you first start but becomes easy to calculate after a few plays, and the dice are built on a scaling system where you upgrade to better and better dice as you gain power.
Middara’s core gameplay loop is one of constant reward. Whether it’s doled out via loot, xp, or money, there is always some new shiny toy for your characters to be beefed up with. Those can be used for a new weapon, a new skill, a pack of new consumables, or an item upgrade—a myriad of options with which to make your character your character. As you progress and get stronger, you can kit your people out with Weapons, Armor, Cores, Relics, Accessories, and Consumables, all with different Tiers that grow in power as you do. If you like to tinker with character builds, then you are going to love this game.
Gear is all well and good, but the heart of each character in Middara are the Disciplines you choose for them. The Discipline trees are Assemblage, Cruor, Martial, Sanctus and Subterfuge, and all of the trees are distinct from one another. While they allow you to build some standard tropes along the tank/dps/healer lines, there are enough unique skills to stand apart, and the different Disciplines can be mixed and matched in so many ways that you can come up with some crazy and powerful hybrids.
For example, rather than go the traditional Paladin route of a armored up melee fighter who can bring the heals when necessary, I took Rook down a Discipline path that made him a shadow-stepping, dagger-throwing, backstabbing ninja who not only could heal his allies when needed, but his very presence allowed them to be more nimble when dodging enemy attacks. While we did take some of our characters down more traditional routes (Remi was a tanky fighter, Nightingale a summoner, and Zeke a dual wielding ranged fighter) many of our other character builds (who shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers) made Rook’s ninja-din build look downright tame in comparison.
The core dungeon crawl gameplay and character customization in this game are excellent, but they aren’t even the best part. The real meat of Middara is how Succubus Publishing took those mechanics and wove them into an interesting, elaborate, and incredibly lengthy campaign. Middara is intended to be played using the Adventure book, which tells the story of Nightingale and her friends as they prepare to finish their final test at The Academy, where they’ve been studying and training to prepare for a life out in the world of Middara. The story starts out simple enough, and it hits some anime and video game tropes beat for beat, but it doesn’t take long for the story to veer off and find its own voice.
The layout of the campaign is fairly easy to understand. A story section will introduce you to the mission that you will be playing, and you will play the mission to its conclusion, win or lose. Middara manages to set itself apart from the pack in two ways. First, the missions contain a ton of hidden information that is only revealed (usually using a red revealer on passages of obscured text) once players have taken certain actions like looting a treasure chest or moving to certain locations, or once certain story triggers are flipped. That hidden information often expands on the story, and can set new objectives for the players, give them bonus goals to shoot for, or can even have lasting consequences on the story at large. Some of those triggers even require the players to break out the Diagram Book and make changes (some simple, some profound) to the layout of the game board itself. As you play through each mission, you can never quite be sure if there are enemies hiding around the next bend, if you might stumble upon some secret passage, or if a choice you make might come back to bite you in the end, and those unknowns keep things interesting mission after mission.
The second way that Middara sets itself apart is in the story itself. While most campaign games give you a small blurb of story to set the stage for missions Middara sometimes gives you multiple pages of story. It’s long and involved (sometimes taking upwards of 20 minutes to read through sections) but most importantly it’s well-written, engaging, and not only do the outcomes of missions affect the narrative, but throughout the campaign players are faced with choices that change the outcome of the story entirely. Those choices don’t simply change the narrative but can grant or deny access to new characters for the party, can see you facing entirely new enemies, or even determine whether certain characters live or die. There are some weighty choices to be made that really get their hooks in to you and make you feel invested in the characters and what is going to happen next. The narrative is most definitely the story that Succubus want to tell, but it’s structured in such a way that the players get to put their own spin on it, and it works together beautifully.
Even when you fail missions, the story often continues (there are quite a few paths that lead to Game Over) and so even in your defeats you still get to make progress, and as your characters grow in power the stakes escalate to match. The story isn’t the only thing that is revealed as you play though. Middara has decks of hidden cards that are revealed as story flags and progress are hit, and it lends the game a Legacy-style feel that makes the game feel like it evolves over time, but these hidden cards don’t simply come available over time, many are revealed, or stay hidden, based on the choices that you make while you play. Even after we finished the campaign we had cards in each of the three decks that had never been revealed because of the path we took through the campaign. There may be enemies we didn’t face, gear we didn’t acquire, or even potential allies that we didn’t recruit, which gives the game a great amount of replay value.
Even once we’d finished our weeks-Long play of Middara, we weren’t tired of the world, the characters, nor the gameplay, but we decided to stick to our choices, leave the hidden cards hidden, and wait. Middara’s subheading is Unintentional Malum Act 1, and this truly is only the first act of a trilogy. In spite of its incredible length, even after 100 hours this isn’t the end of the story, so be fully prepared going in to this knowing that the story doesn’t conclude at the end of this act, but rather begins to ramp up even more. That’s not to say that there isn’t satisfying closure to be had for many of the plot lines, but if you want to experience the entire story (and if you play through the entirety of act 1 you almost certainly will) you will need to pick up acts 2 and 3 as well. As of the time of this writing Succubus Publishing will be bringing acts 2 and 3 to Kickstarter in June of 2019, and I can’t wait to throw money at that campaign to get my hands on more Middara.
I’ve been gushing about this game up to this point, and I don’t really have much to say that isn’t glowing, but I’m now going to touch on some of the parts of the game that didn’t quite hit a bullseye. Although, most of my complaints/concerns are being addressed in the reprint and/or have already been addressed in the official FAQ. If you do have a copy of the first printing, know that the story and campaign sheets contain some spelling and verbiage errors, and a few passages are swapped, making for a few confusing moments in the story. Some of the items as printed are overly powerful and can lead to the game being easier than it should if you don’t play as corrected in the FAQ.
While the dice system doesn’t take too much getting used to, the to-hit and damage calculations are complex enough, and your gear and skills can alter the rolls in many different ways so that calculating damage can’t simply be done at a glance. There are many ways to mitigate the luck of the dice, but if you really don’t like dice-based combat, you aren’t going to be able to get in to this system.
While my group and I absolutely LOVE the amount of weapons, armor, gear, Disciplines etc on offer, it all adds up to be an incredible table hog. Though there are bags included to tuck your heroes and all of their belongings and skills between games, if you want to play through the campaign simultaneously with multiple groups, then tracking everything will become a nightmare, especially where the hidden decks are concerned. This game is complex, big, and fiddly, but it really couldn’t pull off the breadth and depth of its campaign without being those things.
A note on player/hero count: Middara is intended to be played using 4 heroes at all times with up to four players controlling one or more characters at a time. There is a variant that allows you to play with fewer characters but that route is less than ideal, and you lose out on a lot of tactical and strategic options when you play that way. Each character takes up quite a bit of table space, especially towards the end of the campaign, so it could be quite the task to manage all four if you choose to play solo so be aware of that if you prefer solitaire gaming.
A note on game time: Any given mission of Middara usually clocks in between 1 and 2 hours, although a few of the later missions in the campaign are complex and run longer; they do so for reasons that fit with the story. If you buy Middara to play through the campaign (and you really should), you are looking at around 100 hours of game time, but even if you buy it and only play the Crawl Mode missions, you are looking at 10+ hours of happy gaming.
A note on “chrome”: Middara has excellent production values. The art, components and rulebook are all incredibly well done. Not every character or enemy that you fight is represented by a mini (some are cardboard standees), but the minis that are in the game range from good to great. The rulebook is long, but makes learning the game and referencing the rules a breeze, and the massive Adventure book is gorgeous and easy to use.
A note on approaching the story: If you like the sound of Middara, but don’t like the idea of reading long passages of text, or reading those passages out loud Succubus has made a few resources available to you. First and foremost, there is a companion app. While it’s still being developed and updated, it’s a great tool to have. Secondly, you can download the voice-files for the first parts of the story here, and listen to the story audio-book style. If you’d like to expedite things even further, Succubus has put together a cliff-notes version of the story that they call Spark Notes that are pefect for people who care more about the gameplay than the story.
The bottom line:
Middara is an absolute blast, and it has made it in to my top 5 games of all time. The gameplay is big, boisterous, fiddly and complex, but it fits in with the theme and feel of the game so well that I couldn’t see this game working out as well any other way. The story is the main draw for Middara, although the mechanics are solid, interesting and fun, especially when it comes to the myriad different ways you can build out and gear up characters. Speaking of the story, Middara’s story is unique, engaging, and captivating, and while it does use some cliches—and not every twist and turn is a shocking revelation—player choice has a significant effect on the way things play out over the campaign. The story itself is well-written, and the characters experience growth, both personally and as a group as the story unfolds. The journey through the story is incredibly satisfying from start to finish. If you buy Middara prepare for a long-haul experience. It took us nearly 100 hours to play through the campaign, but even after those 100 hours we can’t wait to see what happens in Act II. Middara has a few rough edges, but overall this game is a triumph, blending a great story with satisfying gameplay. While not every story beat is perfectly original, and while some of the mechanics have been used before, the story and mechanics come together into an awesome experience that is unlike anything we’ve played before, and we are hungry for more.
Get this game if:
You want a long, heavily narrative campaign that is as focused on the story as on the combat.
You love games that let you customize your characters significantly.
You love dice-based combat.
You like stories that give you a say in how they play out, and where your actions have legitimate consequences.
You like games that have deep skill trees, and tons of weapons, armor and items.
You love cooperative dungeon crawl games.
You want to play a board game JRPG.
Avoid this game if:
You want a game that is action over story.
You don’t like dice based combat.
You don’t like cooperative games.
You don’t like story driven games.
The copy of Middara used for this review was provided by Succubus Publishing.
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