Middara is both similar to many games that I've played over my years as a hobby board game enthusiast and something entirely new and unique. The game was born via a successful Kickstarter campaign way back in 2015, and slowly but steadily grew into a massive product (both physically and content wise) that manages to live up to and surpass the expectations that I had for the game. I'm going to gush a bit more here than I normally tend to do in first impressions articles, but my first impressions of Middara are almost entirely positive. If you backed this game at the original $100 pledge amount, or even the $130 pre-order amount, then you got an amazing value based on what's in the box without even taking in to account the dozens of hours of gameplay content included. If you didn't back or pre-order a copy and this game sounds interesting, then you are going to want to keep a close eye out for the reprint Kickstarter coming in a few months. I've put between 15 and 20 hours into Middara's campaign, and at this point I can say that Middara is excellent, and I can't wait to see what happens next both in the game and where Succubus Publishing goes next with this franchise. The copy of the game that we were sent also included a promo box containing some minis that can be used with the base game, and some minis and cards that are for use with future content, but we're going to be focusing solely on the core game box here.
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Middara's box is large, and chock full of goodies, and once you lift the lid you are met with the trays holding the miniatures. The sculpts of the miniatures are well done, and the minis have a high enough level of detail that they would be fun to paint. There isn't an insert in the box, so lifting the mini trays reveals the rest of the contents of the box. All of Middara's double-sided tiles are the same size and shape, but the artwork and the terrain on them is incredibly varied. The tiles also make use of Spot UV, and it really makes them pop when playing, especially tiles that have water terrain on them. Not only is it easy to see, but it actually works thematically because the Spot UV areas are far more reflective than the rest of the tile.
Spoilers exist in the text of the picture on the right below.
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Middara has 5 books that range from a few pages to over 400 pages. The three smaller books contain a bounty mission connected to the story, a Diagram book that you will refer to time to time while playing the story, and a Crawl book that outlines some non-story related missions that can be played standalone, or together as a sort of linear mini-campaign. The rulebook, what you need to read to actually play the game, is a hefty 75 pages itself which is already intimidating for a board game rulebook, but thankfully it's well-written and contains numerous pages of well illustrated breakdowns and examples of play. The rules do take time to get used to, and they are hefty enough that we've had to refer to them quite a bit during play, but they aren't so complex that they can't be easily taught. It only took me about 15 minutes to get my wife up to speed enough to begin playing Middara, and when we do need to reference the rules they are laid out in such a way that finding what you need is easy enough.
The Adventure book is another story entirely, and based on how you feel when you see just how massive it is will be a good indication of whether Middara is going to be the game for you. The Adventure book contains the missions that you play during Adventure mode, and the game's story, and the two are one and the same. Middara calls itself a story driven game, and it truly is a story driven game. The story is central to Middara, but you don't even have to crack the front cover of the Adventure book until you are ready to jump in and start playing. Once you do start playing be prepared for a LOT of story. The Adventure book is huge for a reason, and that reason is that it has a massive story to tell.
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Middara has a ton of cards that represent everything from player abilities, to character and enemy stats, to the gear you equip and the treasure that you may be lucky enough to find on your adventures. The card stock is all good quality and the art is vibrant and thematic. Middara also comes with some oversized baggies to keep your characters in between story sessions. Interestingly, the Adventure book isn't the only place where there are hidden goodies waiting to be discovered. The game has 3 decks of hidden cards yet it doesn't give any indication of exactly when or how you might gain access to those cards, lending Middara a legacy-esque feel.
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At the bottom of the box rests the punchboards containing all of the tokens and cardboard standees that come with the game, and a map of the region of the world that Middara takes place in. The tokens also make generous use of Spot UV, and they are thick and colorful. Not every character or enemy that you may encounter during the game is represented by a miniature in the core box so there are quite a few cardboard standees to represent them.
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The miniatures in Middara are really well done. They aren't the most detailed miniatures we've seen, but they are really good overall. They have a painter-friendly amount of detail, and they do a really good job of conveying the stylized art from the game in 3d.
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You don't get to choose which characters you play in Middara's Adventure mode, at least not from the start, as there are only four available. That may initially seem like it could hamper the customization of those characters but that's simply not the case. The gear and abilities you outfit your characters with really make them feel unique mechanically (if you choose to spec them differently that is, but why wouldn't you?) even if the story determines their personalities overall. There are so many abilities to choose from that it took us over an hour to decide which abilities we wanted our characters to have. Once you've chosen an ability from a Discipline you aren't locked in to that Discipline specifically, although you do need to purchase lower level Disciplines in order to move deeper into that tree.
Crawl mode is a different story. In Crawl mode you can choose from any available adventurers whom you then gear and skill up as appropriate for the scenario that you'll be playing. As with adventure mode though, unless you are familiar with the skills expect to spend quite a bit of time deciding which skills to use, because there are a lot of them, and most of them sound really cool.
Middara First Impressions
Middara is a tactical dungeon crawl with dice driven combat. The crew at Succubus Publishing have obviously played and taken inspiration from dungeon crawl board games that came before, but they've done a really good job of making Middara feel like its own game. If you absolutely detest dice combat this isn't a combat system that will change your mind, as the combat is probably the least intuitive of Middara's various mechanics.
Middara uses a to-hit system where you compare the number rolled vs the target's defense. If you meet the number you've hit, and you can spend symbols rolled to add damage, which is then reduced by the target's armor, if any. If you beat the defense number, the excess is counted one for one as damage, which can then be reduced by the target's armor, if any.
Calculating whether you hit, and then your damage is a bit clunky at first, but it really opens up Middara's tactical options because it gives you multiple ways to mitigate the random element of the dice, and also gives you multiple defensive options when you are the target of an attack. Focusing on acquiring equipment that can use dice symbols to add damage can give you some huge hits, as long as you can manage to hit your target, while going for things that increase your to-hit roll will help you hit more often, and harder when you do hit, but they don't give you the versatility of an item that might have a few different symbol effects. Conversely, stacking armor might be attractive because it will reduce any physical damage that you take, but it only comes in to effect once you've already been hit, which then can open you up to Follow Up effects like combo attacks or status ailments.
Middara also has a spellcasting system, a system for counter attacking, and a system for dodging incoming attacks, all of which are viable in the right situations, and all of which rely on either building your character to suit, or saving precious Stamina Points just in case you might need them defensively. Top it all off with the absolutely huge amount of Discipline abilities that you have to choose from, and a system for upgrading the gear you choose to use, and your options for approaching combat become staggeringly high. Even though it's a dice driven system, and there are times where the dice will simply not go your way, you always feel like you have options and ways to effect the outcome of any given roll. So far we've found the combat to be fun, tactically interesting and satisfying.
Rounding everything out are the Consumable items that you can find and buy that do anything from letting you get some easy damage on an enemy to healing you, or letting you snag some extra Stamina Points. Consumables might not be 100% necessary to succeed in Middara, but you'll have a much more difficult time if you don't use them often and wisely, and they give you that many more tactical options.
As I mentioned above, Adventure mode does a very good job of easing you in and then slowly increasing the challenge as you progress. We had no issues dealing with the threats we faced until we got to the game's first Story Round, where things open up and you can take on side quests. During the second side quest we got complacent and I moved Zeke in to close range with 6 Cave Sickles. Cave Sickles have a Hive Mind ability that scales up their combat effectiveness if they are close to other Cave Sickles. The monsters took quick advantage of my careless play and Defeated (knocked out) Zeke in quick order, and the rest of the team was forced to finish the mission with only 3 characters. Our second defeat came at the hands of a non-monster surprise that I won't spoil, but the game did give us a subtle warning about what might happen, but we chose to ignore it. Excellent stuff!
All in all the gameplay in Middara is excellent. The combat is crunchy and satisfying, even if the dice can lead to runs of good or bad luck, but the game provides you with enough options to mitigate those runs of luck that the game ends up feeling tactically well balanced. If you aren't careful then the monsters will bite you, and if you get cocky and ignore some subtle hints you might end up being crushed by a rock. As far as dungeon crawl combat Middara is up there with the best of them, and we're absolutely hooked on the gameplay.
That brings me to the story, and boy oh boy does Middara have story. Middara claims to be a Narrative Driven Game and it fits the bill perfectly. Middara is simultaneously very similar to many games I've played before, and entirely unique from anything I've ever played. The game is incredibly narratively involved, which means you are going to spend quite a bit of time reading text out loud to your group. Succubus is going to release a fully realized audio-book form of the narrative via a companion app that you will be able to get for free, and based on the sample on their website it's going to sound great, but if you choose not to go that route prepare your voice for a workout.
With that being said, the story for Middara starts out in a typical JRPG/Anime way, and quickly grows more interesting and involved. The story has us hooked at this point, and we can't wait to see what happens next. My wife actually commented that if Middara's story were a novel she would happily read it, and it really is close to a novel as is. There are a few other narrative heavy games out there, but Middara really is in a class of its own, and I'll give a few examples;
Gloomhaven is a long campaign style game that features a story, but the story is disjointed and jumps around a lot unless you make a concerted effort to do the missions that are directly connected to each other without playing any side missions in between.
Kingdom Death Monster has an emergent narrative that comes to life as your settlement struggles to survive, grows, and finally prepares for a monumental final battle. It creates amazing vignettes, but it doesn't have a singular narrative focus.
While Gloomhave has a story, and Kingdom Death creates a story, Middara IS a story. There's a tale that Succubus wanted to tell with this game, and they are doing it in a way that lets the players get involved and choose some of the paths through to one of the various endings.
When you combine the interesting, tactical and fun combat with a deep, involved, well written novel-like story you end up with a combination that is greater than the sum of its parts. Middara manages to feel both familiar and unique at the same time. If you've backed or pre-ordered Middara then you are in for an absolute treat when your game arrives. If you are interested in Middara then head over to the Succubus Publishing website to sign up for their newsletter so you'll know exactly when the reprint Kickstarter launches, and keep a close eye for more Middara coverage, including a full review and a playthrough of Crawl mode, in the coming weeks and months.
The copy of Middara used for this preview was provided by Succubus Publishing.