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Board Game Review > Middara: Unintentional Malum Act 1

I don't keep my finger on the pulse of all the independent Kickstarter campaigns running at any given time. There's just too much unique content being produced month after month for me to sift through everything. I leave that to those who write previews and reviews for a living (I am an IT Consultant for a living; I write reviews as a hobby because I'm passionate about board gaming). The only way an independent Kickstarter campaign is going to be on my radar is if the designer/publisher reaches out to me to let me know the campaign is running or if it's created a bit of buzz already in the key circles that I frequent. I definitely wasn't closely monitoring Kickstarter campaigns four years ago when the original edition of Middara  was initially funded. It was an adventurous dungeon crawl that promised to be so much more than an ordinary dungeon crawl. With options to run in campaign mode for an ongoing narrative or crawl mode for one off gameplay, it could work as a long term project for committed game groups as well as a fun game for casual players. It was a long road from its 2015 campaign to its 2019 fulfillment with a lot of unhappy backers along the way who voiced frustration at the late fulfillment of the game. In early summer 2019, a few months after delivery of the original Middara  game was completed, Succubus Publishing launched their Middara: Unintentional Malum Triology  Kickstarter campaign. This offered a reprint of the original game (retitled Middara: Unintentional Malum Act 1), expanding it to over 80 hours of content, as well as two new adventure expansions (Acts 2 and 3) and a host of other Kickstarter exclusive add-on and stretch goal content. It also promised a faster turnaround on delivery to backers. Suddenly Middara  and its designers (Clayton Helme, Brooklynn Lundberg, Brenna Moncur, and Ian Tate) were the talk of the town and my husband Chris and I had an intense discussion about backing the second campaign. We were torn - yes the game sounded really cool, but we already own one behemoth campaign dungeon crawl (I’m looking at you Gloomhaven). Did we really need another? We hemmed and hawed and let the decision hang in the air. And then then publisher decided for us, by sending us a review copy of Middara: Unintentional Malum Act 1 (M:UMA1).

As soon as the box arrived at the end of June, I poured over all the components. So much stuff! Such a huge box! The artwork (conceived and illustrated by Stephanie Gustafsson, Alex Hansen, Hector Sevilla Lujan, Rhett Mason, and Jon Troy Nickel) is absolutely beautiful. The illustrations are well drawn, well detailed, and bursting with color.
The game could have an audience in the tween set if the drawings were a little less risqué, but as marketed to older teens and adults, everything is within decency standards.

The minis are of good quality; well sculpted. I do wish that at least the starting adventurer minis came pre-painted (I always wish that because I have no painting skills or supplies) especially when M:UMA1 is priced at $150. The components are sturdy and should hold up to regular usage. We haven’t sleeved our cards yet and because of the sheer quantity of them (hundreds) they’ll likely remain unsleeved. I especially enjoy the custom dice, separated by color to indicate which dice should be used during dice rolls.

After examining all the game contents, my interest was definitely on the upswing and Chris and I  set about assembling a crew to play the game in adventure mode. It’s daunting to find others willing to commit to 80+ hours of gameplay, but soon enough we had a happy foursome. One of the players, Craig, actually owned the original edition of Middara but hadn’t found the time to assemble a group and get it on the table. Our other player was his coworker and friend Matt.
Craig showed up for our first night of gameplay with a sweet surprise – he had ordered the fancy game mats and was happy to share them with us for our adventure.

In M:UMA1  adventure mode, players begin the first game by taking on the roles of young students preparing for their Magical Aptitude and Skill Test (MAST). We spent that first evening getting to know the four starting characters (called adventurers) and deciding who would role play each one. Every adventurer has their own unique backstory, motivations, starting equipment (armor, weapons, relics, consumables, etc.), and vivid personality.  I chose Nightingale because I saw myself in her and thought I would really enjoy playing her. Chris chose Rook, Craig took Remi, and Matt selected Zeke.
M:UMA1  adventure mode breaks down the overall campaign (called the adventure) into many sessions called encounters. We typically play one or two encounters each evening we get together, with each encounter lasting anywhere from one to two hours. To start an encounter, all players gather round the table and lay out their adventurer cards and equipment. The narrative is read from the Adventure book, or alternatively listened to on the Middara app. We all really love the app. It’s available on the Apple App store or Google Play store and allows players to hear the narrative bits of the story without requiring one of them to do the reading aloud. The voice actor Succubus Publishing hired is fantastic; she is an expressive reader who brings the characters alive. While the entire adventure in M:UMA1  is narrative driven and so every encounter advances the plot at least a little bit, there are some encounters that have several pages of story so using the app is really nice. After the narration is finished, the location boards are set up for the encounter, forming the terrain, similar to any other dungeon crawl. Directions for setup are given in the Adventure book with modifications in the Diagram book. Some elements of the terrain may have their details partially hidden, such as loot tokens (which hide the exact reward until a character performs an encounter adjacent to the token) and totem tokens (which hide what they represent until an adventurer comes within line of sight of the token). The starting spaces on the board for each adventurer and the monsters (called combatants) are specified in the Adventure book. Once everything is setup, the game begins; turn order for adventurers and monsters is driven by initiative cards that were shuffled and randomly laid out in a row during setup.
During the encounter, players spend their turns moving their adventurers around the terrain, following movement rules, as they work to complete the encounter goals. Usually this involves reaching the exit token, but other goals are possible. Since players typically get rewards (gold, equipment, experience points, etc.) each time their adventurer slays a monster, most will want to prioritize battling the monsters over making a quick run for the exit token. There isn’t a lot of analysis paralysis during game play as the best options for next steps on a player’s turn are usually fairly obvious. Combatants spend their turns completing actions as specified on their description cards. Those that are designated as adventurer opponents are called intelligent combatants and have intelligent combatant cards, while the ones that players control and that fight on behalf of adventurers are called command combatants. 

Exploring the terrain and battling intelligent combatants are governed by an extensive set of rules (60+ pages!) provided in the rulebook. It took us at least three encounters before we really understood most of the basic rules and even now, we find ourselves frequently checking the summary poster we printed out as a giant player aid. There’s just too much information to memorize it all, especially when the information is subject to change due to errata. Which brings me to one of the few complaints I have about this game -the large volume of errata. You either have to remember to frequently check the long list of corrections and changes (to the 1.0 rulebook and to the text printed on various components such as equipment cards, combatant cards, etc) and update gameplay as you go along,  or dedicate a session to reviewing all the changes and corrections and marking up the components with the correct text in one sitting. We started off trying to do the former but it was so frustrating that we switched to the latter and it took me at least an hour.  For the rulebook errata, you can take a shortcut to getting the updates in place (if you don’t mind the ink and paper expense) by printing out the updated 1.08 rulebook from the Succubus website. Another note on the rules- deciding which rule set to play under has become a complicated issue that players will need to come to agreement on as Succubus has compiled and released an entirely new version of the rules (v1.1) that changes several of the fundamental aspects of the game. This was done in response to the feedback from players who have extensively played through the game using the original 1.0 rulebook with errata corrections. The major overhaul is meant to strengthen aspects of the game that felt too weak and weaken aspects that seemed overpowered, but not all players agree on the changes. Also, the 1.1 changes are still in Beta release and so they are subject to change as they continue to be finalized. Our little group likes to keep things simple, so we opted to stick to the 1.08 rule set, at least for now.
Theme is really important to me, so I was very happy to discover that Middara’s theme is well implemented across all components and the gameplay thus far in M:UMA1 . This is where the game really shines over its competitors. Its narrative is extremely detailed and offers so much depth in the characters. More so than Gloomhaven. More so than any other board game I’ve played. An experienced  screenwriter could easily adapt the storyline into a fantastic adventure film for the big screen and I’d go see it. My two year stint playing through the Pathfinder Skull and Shackles Adventure Card Game is a distant second in plot development, and even then, that game only had such a rich narrative track because we employed a user written storyline that we found on BGG (the publisher offered little in the way of quality narrative for the game). I come back to the table each week to play M:UMA1 , not just for the fun of fighting monsters and gaining rewards, but also to find out what happens next in the story. Bonus: as the plot unfolds, adventurers grow in skill and discipline and new content becomes available.
At the time of this writing, we've played through all of Chapter 1 and are partway through Chapter 2 (about 10 distinct sessions). Once we are finished with M:UMA1  in adventure mode (we estimate it will take us over a year, meeting weekly) there are plenty of scenarios and special content for us to replay M:UMA1  in crawl mode.  In fact, a large portion of the Kickstarter promo box is content exclusively for use with crawl mode and I’m excited about eventually digging into that.
Based on my experience with M:UMA1  so far, I highly recommend the game. Not only is the game worthwhile on its own merits, but the friendship building that comes from playing a year+ long adventure with others is wonderful. You can make a full afternoon or evening out of each session, sharing a meal together before sitting down to play the game. Although I was given a review copy of Act 1, I like Middara so much that I’ll be purchasing Acts 2 and 3 myself (or putting them on my Christmas list). You can pre-order the entire trilogy or any part of it on the Succubus Publishing website once the publisher reopens wave 2 pre-orders.
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Publisher: Succubus Publishing
Players: 2-4 (We played with 4)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 1 - 3 hours per encounter
Game type: narrative driven, dungeon crawl, campaign, action points, role playing, cooperative, dice rolling, grid movement
Rating:
review-OUIOUIOUI
Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
OUI OUI OUI: I LOVE THIS GAME. I MUST HAVE THIS GAME.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.




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