A Middara review by a Gloomhaven veteran

TL,DR:

Middara is a solid Dungeon crawler with tons of contents and an interesting story (provided the “Anime” style of the characters and come-of-age story doesn’t completely annoy you). So if what you’re looking for is a modern dungeon crawler with a massive campaign and characters you’ll get attached to, this is right your alley. However we found it to be a bit too heavy on rules, and less tactical than Gloomhaven, so it didn’t really scratch that “Euro dungeon crawler” itch for our play group.

Background

Our play group of 2 has about 200h of playing Gloomhaven, which is why I’m pompously claiming I’m a Gloomhaven veteran. We finished the campaign of the main game, and I am about mid-way on Jaws of The Lion with a different group, at the time of this writing. We have been looking for a new “massive campaign tabletop” for a while, and Middara seemed to be as tactical as it gets, while not being Gloomhaven.

We have played about 20h of Middara so far, have completed what we consider to be the “opening arc” of the game (tutorial + a few missions) as well as a Level 1 bounty.

In both cases, we have played the games on Tabletop Simulator (except for Jaws of The Lion). Both companies are actually fully supportive of the TTS ports of their games, which I need to mention is simply great. There was no way our play group would ever have tried these games otherwise, given that we live 500km apart. The TTS scripts for both games are awesome, making setup a bliss in both cases. I strongly recommend you check them out if you are curious about either of these games.

Disclaimer: In this review we’ll often assume that you’re pretty familiar with Gloomhaven already, and that this is why you landed here in the first place.

Bang for your buck

(Once again I need to emphasize I played the games for free on Tabletop simulator’s officially approved mods)

Gloomhaven easily offers 100h+ of gameplay in the box, and is often discounted at around $100-$150. Jaws of The Lion is however what I would recommend for people who want to get into the Gloomhaven world without ending up with a massive box. It’s the same game rules, the same universe, but a slightly shorter scenario (25 missions instead of 100) and less characters (4 instead of…16?). Other than that, it is not a “watered down” version of the game as far as rules and difficulty are concerned.

Middara, while a popular game, does not have the unreal success that Gloomhaven did, and as such is a bit more difficult to find, more expensive, but easily offers 100h of gameplay as well. If you really like the game, Acts 2 and 3 are coming, which promise to basically triple the amount of content you’ll get.

Middara, just like gloomhaven, offers a *lot* of content. Photo by @middaraofficial on BGG

I can’t speak for the quality of the figurines as I’ve played digitally, but both games are heavy on figurines, and I can say that “opening packages” felt like a mini Christmas in both cases for the digital version, which I must assume is even better with the physical products. Check other reviews for the quality of the figurines, though, as I can’t speak for that.

Bottom line: both games are expensive in absolute, but each offers a lot of content for that price. If you end up liking the game, it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s expensive.

Gameplay

Dice or no Dice / Strategy

Gloomhaven has sometimes been referenced as a “Euro game under the disguise of a dungeon crawler”. Some missions almost feel like a puzzle to solve, and it certainly has a “euro” feeling with the hand size going down. It feels crunchy, and remains the perfect balance of action and strategy for me

In our play sessions, Middara felt more like a random dice fest with a lot of mitigation, more similar to other Dungeon Crawlers such as Descent. It wasn’t bad, but there was some initial disappointment in how “typical” this felt, after coming from the elegant world of Gloomhaven’s cards.

Picture by StormKnight on BGG

Introduction to the game

Middara’s first missions felt easier than Gloomhaven’s infamously punishing first mission. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: our gloomhaven group was actually 4 players initially, but 2 of them gave up after the first mission (Jaws of the Lion fixes that with nice introduction missions, by the way).

Conversely, Middara starts with “tutorial” missions that integrate very well with the story. I wouldn’t say it does a great job at introducing the rules though (which I still find overcomplicated after 20 hours of play), but you’d have to try really hard to fail the first couple of missions.

To be honest, my best “introduction” to the game was Jaws of the Lion. Middara probably comes in second, and Gloomhaven third. However, I can say that our first Gloomhaven session left me a lasting impression, and the will to “become better” at the game, while after Middara’s first session, all I wanted was to understand the rules better and move on to “more interesting” stuff. Your mileage might vary.

Optimizing your character vs optimizing your ingame actions

Middara focuses a lot on how you’re going to evolve your character. You can quickly and easily specialize all 4 members of the team to get a very powerful party. having the right balance of healing, magic, distance and melee fights, we found that even strong bosses had no chance against us. How you specialize your characters with spells and items (that you acquire in between missions, similar to what Gloomhaven does) seemed to be critical to success.

Lots of Items and spells help define your character in Middara

Conversely, with its retirement system, your characters evolution matter “less” in the long run with Gloomhaven, than your ingame strategy. In my experience, succeeding in Gloomhaven was much less related to the items we had, than how we played our cards ingame (and that can be very different from character to character, since they have vastly different cards). In other words, the strategy inside the mission felt more important than preparation before the mission (with rare exceptions for some missions that required to select specific cards -e.g. lots of movement, or loot – beforehand). The opposite feels true in Middara.

This is in part due to the fact that Gloomhaven’s levels adapt to the characters levels, which is the not the case in Middara. In Middara, you can go do some side quests and level up, so that when you get back to the main mission it will be considerably easier. Gloomhaven’s levels increase with your characters, so that it doesn’t matter if you’re level1 or level 9, the map will be adapted to your strength.

Scenario adapted to character levels, or not

I personally vastly prefer Gloomhaven’s model, which ensures I have a challenge in every mission, but I’ve seen on BGG that it’s a pretty polarizing issue, with some people clearly preferring the idea that they can level up somewhere else, then come back to a mission and make it easier, like in some video games. This, to some people, is what makes the charm of a campaign game, per opposition to single scenarios.

There are gameplay decisions that both games have made to accommodate for this huge difference. Gloomhaven scenarios are on average more difficult than Middara’s, and they’re intended to be: The huge difference is that if you fail a Gloomhaven scenario, you can (actually, you have to) redo it, while in Middara, in many cases (not all) the adventure continues, and you face consequences of your failure. I do like the idea of having to continue no matter what (a bit similar to what Arkham Horror’s campaign mode does), but from a difficulty perspective, I think this means Middara designers had to take the difficulty down a bit. At best, this means a reasonable challenge assuming you have the right items/spells in Middara, at its worst, it means a given scenario might be completely boring because there never seems to be any real danger of failing.

Single Scenario mode

Speaking of difficulty, both games offer single scenarios for those who only wish to have a challenging game without going deep into the story. Given the amount of campaign content in both games, we have not tried these modes, so I cannot speak for those.

Items unlock/Content and campaign

I’ve touched on the content of the boxes in the “bang for your buck” section, but wanted to emphasize that both games offer a lot of content and surprises. There are envelopes to open, new items, new enemies, new figurines to unpack throughout the campaign in both games. Both are massive games that you will not finish in one session. (or 10).

And it does not stop there. If you really love the game (either Middara or Gloomhaven), there’s content beyond the first game to keep you excited: Middara promises two new more acts, as well as upcoming side quests (a.k.a. “bounties”, difficult missions with high rewards, that integrate fairly well with the rest of the world and the story, really good job here). Gloomhaven has Jaws of the Lions, the Forgotten Circles expansion, and the upcoming Frosthaven (Gloomhaven 2).

There is a lot of campaign content and unlock for both games, so on that aspect I think they offer similar value throughout the game.

Hex vs Square

I loved the hex tiles in Gloomhaven. And because it was one of my first dungeon crawlers ever, I assumed most dungeon crawlers used that. And I was very wrong. Middara is much more “classic” on that aspect with square tiles, and for the love of everything that is holy I just can’t see why they made that decision.

Ugh, Squares. I hate you, squares!

Some rules in Middara are in my opinion complexified simply because they chose to go with square tiles. Everything related to movement, line of sight, adjacency, sphere of influence, attacks of opportunity…would have been made a million times simpler to understand if they had gone with hex tiles. This is to me one of the worst aspects of Middara compared to Gloomhaven, because it makes the rules so much more complex, and I’m baffled this didn’t surface during playtest. Why do game designers choose square tiles nowadays??? Gah.

Middara is Rule-heavy and I really dislike that

Speaking of Rules, I used to feel Gloomhaven’s rules were complex, but I now feel it’s nothing compared to Middara.

After a few hours of Gloomhaven gameplay, the rules click into place and make sense to our gaming group. We have made the occasional mistake, but as a whole, rules on movement, AI, items, attack, etc… are straightfoward enough while remaining thematic.

Middara’s designer have decided to go full throttle on feeling like a video game. This means trying to stick as much as possible to the theme, with limited concern for how complex the rules end up being. I feel a lot of things could have been simplified, at the cost of less “theme” but for less fiddly gameplay.

I’ve touched on the square tiles above. Moving in a diagonal costs two movement, but an enemy in a diagonal is considered adjacent to you (which means for example they can attack with a melee weapon, and do an attack of opportunity). And that’s probably the simplest example related to the square tiles issue. Here’s another one: if you attack an enemy in a diagonal tile, but the two tiles on its side have potential negative effects during an attack, you have to choose one of those negative effects to apply to your attack. Still too easy? How about when an enemy pushes you with an ability, but they are in a diagonal tile, you have to choose whether you go e.g. down or left, depending on which one is the worst for you… ALL of these rules would not need to exist with hexagons.

Items in Middara all have keywords (a.k.a. tags) on them. What these keywords do, how they interact with each other, is detailed in the rulebook, but I swear you’ll constantly forget what they do. An item that is “heavy” will reduce your agility and your movement, except the first one you own for one of the 4 main characters. Enemies and heroes acquire some of those keywords that can be negative (e.g poison) or positive. You have to constantly remember which one is which, and there are about 60 of them (give or take), to compare to the 10+ effects in Gloomhaven. Do I feel like I get 6 times more strategy and enjoyment from my Middara sessions because it has 6 times more keywords? Certainly not, but I do spend 6 times more in the rulebook.

Yo Dawg I heard you liked keywords

What’s more, all of these keywords interact with each other, leading to some rules confusion. With Middara having a smaller pool of fans, we’ve found it harder to find answers to some of our ruling questions.

Shut Up and Sit Down have said in their Review of Gloomhaven that Gloomhaven is “elegant”, and I couldn’t agree more, especially compared to the rules in Middara.

Speaking of elegance, I’ll segue into the AI, which in Middara suffers from the same kind of “overcomplexity” compared to gloomhaven. In Gloomhaven, each round you’ll draw a card that gives you each opponent’s initiative and action(s) for the round. It’s a bit random, once in a while this will result in a “missed round” for the AI, but part of the strategy is to play around that, and in general it’s thematic enough and works well enough.

By comparison, Middara has a bullet point list of checks you have to do for each AI opponent, and chooses its actions based on that. Here again, the intent is clearly to replicate what some computer AI would do in a tactical game. For example “Am I adjacent to a hero? If yes, attack them, then jump as far as possible to be out of reach. If not, do a range attack if I can”. That kind of stuff.

The Cave sickle, one of the first opponents you’ll meet in the game. Already, so many rules you’ll have to remember, so many steps you’ll have to check each turn.

It quickly becomes tedious when each AI card has roughly 5 conditions to check in order, and there are 5 to 10 enemies on the map. This would be acceptable if it gave us the feeling that the AI is more clever, or more thematic than with Gloomhaven’s simple card system, but here’s the problem: it does not. On the “clever” aspect, there are so many cases where you can “game” the AI conditions, that the rulebook adds a rule that says “don’t make the AI do something that would be obviously negative for it, such as jumping into a precipice and kill itself”. On the theme aspect, it works in that enemy AIs really behave differently depending on the type of enemy and its attributes, but then again, so did Gloomhaven’s simpler card system.

After a few sessions, all of this of course becomes less of a problem. But I feel there was a missed opportunity to streamline the rules here, reduce the number of keywords and simplify the AI without removing too much theme or gameplay. I see where the designers are coming from, wanting to mimic the variety of a video game, but I feel like Middara has passed the level where it would actually have worked better as a video game. (And I almost cried when I saw that the bounty introduced an entire new layer of enemy types that complexifies the system even more). It’s cool to see that the water elementals change the terrain into water wherever they attack, but was it necessary to change that depending on the type of attack they make?

I’ll add that Middara’s rules are still evolving to this day, and although in theory it’s really nice that the game adapts to its new content and players feedback, in practice, when looking for rules clarifications it makes it hard to understand if we have a misplay or if we are simply playing with an older set of rules.

Some people might really find the appeal in that amount of keywords and specific rules, because it surely gives the feeling of playing a video game, getting items that add new possibilities, etc… in practice I didn’t feel it added enough fun to our sessions to justify the mental exercise, but your mileage might vary.

Story Telling and art

Both Gloomhaven and Middara are trying to distance themselves from usual heroic fantasy tropes. And I like that.

Gloomhaven has a world full of interesting races, and the lore is quite interesting, but the campaign story itself feels very generic and forgettable. One can say the story doesn’t get in the way of the adventure. A bit of steampunk, a bit of gore are sprinkled in there. Gloomhaven tells an uninteresting, generic heroic fantasy story, in a pretty original world.

Gloomhaven

On the other hand, the Japanese anime look and feel of Middara is completely intentional and assumed. And, to be bold, it goes well with the writing style of the story which focuses on 4 teenager heroes fresh out of school. If you like the anime style, you’ll probably have no issue diving into Middara. If anime’s not your thing but you’re willing to look past it, the gameplay should be enough for you to enjoy the game. If you really despise anime and teenager stories, be warned: the anime style keeps going inside the story book, and sometimes feels over the top. Everybody in Middara is hot and underclothed.

Middara has a distinctly anime look and feel. If that kind of picture doesn’t work at all for you, the game is not for you.

Story wise, the anime style in Middara can also be felt in the long (very long) story chapters between scenarios. My partner didn’t like the reading at all, and felt the story was ridiculous.

Spark notes (a booklet included with Middara that summarizes the big points of the story, in between scenarios, for people who don’t want to read the whole story) might work better for some groups. I personally enjoy the story for what it is, but my partner in this game really despises it. There’s up to 30 minutes of reading in between scenarios sometimes.

Middara tries really hard to have an interesting story, and whether it will work for you or not depends on how permissive you are with the “manga feel” and sometimes fanfiction level of the story. Many times, I felt the story would have been told better in actual manga form rather than novel, seeing how hard the writers are trying to translate manga slapstick humor or feelings into written form. It doesn’t go as low as “Luffy’s and Nami’s head both become three times their normal size and occupy the whole screen as they yell at each other”, but it really feels like I’m reading the script for a manga or an anime sometimes, and not an actual novel.

I need to emphasize once again that 1) I personally did like the story, and especially appreciate the huge effort to create something original with a deep lore, and 2) groups that really don’t like it can read the spark notes instead to get a rough summary of what’s going on without having to “suffer”.

Some of the “interlude” story parts stretch over dozens of pages and take up to 30 minutes to read. Some might find it tedious, for others it will definitely help with world building and getting attached to the characters and their stories.

And Middara’s story really helps with attachment to the characters: My first couple of characters in Gloomhaven I have fond memories of. But after that everything is a blur. Because of the retirement system, it’s difficult to grow attached to a character we know we’ll have to change in a handful of missions (in particular since retirement tends to happen faster as the game progresses). But the 4 characters in Middara have very specific personalities, and it’s easy to get attached to them, or, at least, grow used to them (once again, assuming you’re ok with the “we’re cool anime teenagers” atmosphere that permeates the game)

Bottom line: both are trying to be very different from usual fantasy tropes, Middara is often described as “Final Fantasy: the board game”. Gloomhaven has more of a “dark fantasy” theme. In both cases, we found the writing to be average at best, certainly not good enough to keep all of our group’s players attention. In Gloomhaven this wasn’t a problem because the story parts are short enough. I personally prefer Middara’s story telling, and the included spark notes is probably what some groups will want to read, instead of the dozens of pages of story in between scenario (those who really want the story can read it ahead of time, or after the fact, on their own).

Community support

A final word on this because it’s really worth mentioning.

Response to community’s feedback is stellar in both cases. There are huge communities for both games (Gloomhaven bigger fanbase probably), and both companies fully embrace their communities: there’s a lot of homebrew content for Gloomhaven, the Discord/BGG forums for Middara are full of feedback and positive replies from the developers (e.g. evolving the rules to adapt to feedback, make the game more challenging, etc), and, as I’ve mentioned above, both companies fully support a free TTS version of their full games. I’m still baffled at how cool this is, in these days of social distancing.

In a world where companies like Nintendo threaten to sue fanmade, non profit projects, it’s hard to emphasize enough that some gaming companies (in this case, board games) are completely open to fanmade content, feedback, etc…

Conclusion

Gloomhaven and Middara share similarities, both being massive co-op dungeon crawler campaigns, with a lot of of content to unlock and hundreds of hours of gameplay. They both benefit from large communities on BGG and other sites, and great support from the designers.

When it comes to gameplay though, Middara is closer to more “standard” dungeon crawlers, with typical dice rolls, and feels more action oriented. Although battles can sometimes be strategic, it seems preparation matters more than your ingame strategy to ensure victory: if you have the right equipment and ensure you have your typical party (melee fighter, rogue, wizard, healer) to handle most situations, you’ll probably win the scenario. Gloomhaven, on the other hand, cares a bit less about your equipment (there’s less of it, and items are often used only once or twice per scenario), and much more about how you’re going to solve the puzzle of each mission ingame, depending on your hero’s specific cards.

As a fan of gloomhaven, should you get Middara?

If what you liked about Gloomhaven was the massive campaign, the nice figurines, the unlocking of stuff, and generally exploring dungeons to get loot and kill bad guys, there are many worse choices than Middara for your next dungeon crawler, as long as you’re ok with the anime theme. Middara could be right your alley, already offers hundreds of hours of gameplay and promises a lot more to come with two more acts on the way.

On the other hand, do not expect the “brain burn” of each scenario that the shrinking hand of cards and the class variety gave you in Gloomhaven. The “euro style” of Gloomhaven is not something you’ll find in Middara, and experienced Gloomhaven players might find that Middara is a bit light on difficulty and strategy. Frosthaven is probably what you’re really waiting for.

Games mentioned in this article

Gloomhaven
Check on Amazon (affiliate link)
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Check on Amazon (affiliate link)
Middara: Unintentional Malum – Act 1

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