Three Flawed Cooperative Campaigns: How Friction in External Components Can Harm Fun Game Design
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
It’s been a while everyone. I’ve had a really tough time sitting down to write some reviews. I play board games to interact with people in real life, after all, and it’s hard to promote that aspect of the hobby when it’s really best for people to . . . not do that just yet.
Still, sometimes inspiration strikes! This isn’t going to be a standard review where I pick a game and run through rules and components. Instead, I’m comparing three massive games, epic in scale and presentation but flawed in execution. I bring to you the three games I spent the most time playing in 2020: Middara: Unintentional Malum (Act 1), Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon, and Arkham Horror: The Card Game.
A quick note before we start: I haven’t actually “completed” any of these games. I’ve played enough to understand their mechanics, style, and underlying strategy (more or less), but I’ll be avoiding an in-depth look at the story. Maybe I’ll save that for a future article. Let me know if you’d be interested in reading that someday!
Middara: Unintentional Malum (Act 1)
Inspired by classic Japanese Role-playing Games like Final Fantasy, Persona, and Tales, Middara takes place in a parallel world in the present day. The characters all spent their childhoods on Earth before traveling to their true home world of Middara. Middara is filled with monsters, magic, and danger. Early in the game, one of the player characters contracts a deadly curse. She and her friends must search for a cure. Along the way, they’ll meet new friends, battle terrifying enemies, and uncover centuries-old secrets.
The core of the game is a massive, spiral-bound book. The story unfolds within those pages, interspersed with setup directions and instructions to play through the scenarios. Most scenarios are tactical combat simulations, featuring specialized enemy AI, turn-based combat, and scenario-specific rules that make each encounter fresh and exciting. It resembles dungeon-crawler games like Mice & Mystics or Descent.
And every character is highly customizable. While each character’s personality and appearance are set by the story, you have complete control over their weapons, armor, spells, abilities, and other equipment. You can make your character an armored tank, a powerful mage, a sneaky rogue, or anything else. Middara supports 1-4 players, though 4 player games can result in significant downtime for some players. Each act contains a roughly 80-120 hour campaign, depending on the number of players.
Middara: Act 1 comes is jam-packed with stuff. You’ll get hundreds of cards, dozens of miniatures, beautiful tiles, rulebooks for campaign and standalone play, and tons of tokens, bits, and dice for every possible scenario.
If you jumped on board during their first Kickstarter back in 2015, all of this would be yours for the astonishingly low price of $100 plus shipping. Unfortunately, the Kickstarter money ended up being insufficient to actually publish the game. Despite this, Succubus Publishing got the first copies out the door to backers in early 2019, and they ran a second Kickstarter to fund Acts 2 and 3, which are scheduled to ship in 2021. If you want to pick up this game now, you can purchase Act 1 for the still remarkably low price of $115. For $275, you can get all three Acts.
Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon
Tainted Grail is a grim survival-exploration game based on the King Arthur legend. After the Red Death, a vicious plague, spread across the land, King Arthur and his knights led the survivors to an island unsullied by the plague: Avalon. But Avalon features a new environmental terror called The Wyrdness. This miasma covers the land and distorts everything inside, chaotically transforming plants, beasts, and people who stray inside. Arthur and his court wizard, Merlin, discovered a means to keep the Wyrdness at bay by erecting magical Menhirs. As long as the Menhirs remain lit, Arthur’s subjects are safe.
Tainted Grail’s base campaign begins 400 years later. The knights of Kamelot have grown weak and corrupt, rumors of the Red Death’s return are spreading, and conflicts between lesser lords threaten to engulf the entire island in war. And yet, one threat looms larger than all the others: the Menhirs are dimming.
Tainted Grail focuses on survival and exploration. The game uses cards laid out in a grid to depict Avalon, but only those cards adjacent to a lit Menhir are visible to the players as accessible locations. The players must find enough resources to not only survive, but also light the Menhirs along their path while they investigate Avalon’s secrets and try to save their village. At every turn, the players will have to make tough decisions with no truly good outcomes, and often with minimal direction from the game as to their ultimate goal. Tainted Grail supports 1-4 players, but the difficulty spikes rapidly in a 4-player game, which can be very frustrating. Each Tainted Grail campaign lasts 80-120 hours, depending on the number of players.
Tainted Grail relies heavily on cards to fit a massive story into a compact box. Each character has a unique combat and diplomacy deck, plus a stack of upgrade cards for these decks, and a unique player board to keep track of their resources, stats, and health. The game also comes with several miniatures, a dozens of encounter, event, item, and secret cards, and a massive book that reads like an arcane “choose your own adventure” story.
If you jumped on Tainted Grail’s initial Kickstarter, you could have picked up the base game with no add-ons or extras for 70 UK Pounds, or $88 USD (plus shipping) at the time. That included all of the game’s stretch goals, like an expansion two additional full-length campaigns, alternate miniature sculpts, and more. Other expansions were available as add-ons once the campaign completed, such as an extra pack of miniatures depicting some of the other monsters, or an incredibly difficult extra campaign for experienced players. The full package, with all the extra minis, campaigns, and other expansions, came to 153 Pounds, or $195 USD (plus shipping) at the time.
Beneath the glamour of the roaring ‘20s, sinister forces gather in secret. The strangely mystical city of Arkham, MA, sits at the epicenter of an eldritch maelstrom. An unlikely group of investigators discover imminent threat, and must work together to save us all. Based on the Call of C’Thulhu role-playing game, which itself is heavily inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories and novels, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a Living Card Game. Collectible Card Games are sold in randomized packs so that part of the fun and challenge is finding copies of the cards you need. Living Card Games package a full playset of every card in the box. So when a new set comes out, you just buy the box to get enough copies of every card.
Arkham’s cards come in two main varieties: player cards, and scenario cards. The player cards are the items, assets, talents, weapons, spells, and allies that make up a character’s deck. Each character has unique deck-building restrictions that keep them distinct while also enabling player customization. The scenario cards make up the locations, monsters, events, and overarching story that the players will experience in the eldritch world of Arkham Horror.
Arkham Horror offers multiple standalone campaigns instead of a single massive story. Each scenario in the campaign has multiple outcomes that can affect future scenarios. And all of the cards are compatible with each other, so you can replay a campaign as many times as you want with your new cards and new investigators. The base game is designed for 1-2 players, but after you purchase several expansions, or a second copy of the base game, you can accommodate 3 or 4 players easily. Each campaign lasts roughly 12-20 hours.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game’s starter box contains enough cards for one or two players to build moderately functional decks. 90% of the game’s components are cards, with a few tokens to track resources. The starter box also contains all of the cards needed to play through a three-scenario introductory campaign. If you enjoy it, you can jump into any of the six stand-alone campaigns. Each campaign begins with an expansion box containing new investigators and the cards for the first two campaign scenarios.
But if you want the full story, you’ll need to purchase each of the six Mythos Packs for that campaign. Each Mythos Pack contains a handful of new player cards, plus an additional set of scenario cards to continue the story. The base game will run you $45, and is available at most game stores or online. The opening set for a campaign costs $30, and each Mythos Pack is $15. Some players might be satisfied with just the introductory campaign, but if you want the full experience, each full campaign will run you about $120.
Weighing your options
The reality is that we all have a limited amount of time to play games, and each of these games constitutes a massive investment in time and money. Which should you play? The short answer is that they’re all great. But at their core, each of these games takes advantage of their players. Middara’s creators were overambitious in their design and were unable to properly playtest their game before its release, despite years of delays. They erred on the side of making player characters too powerful, so the game is still playable, but they were unable to balance the difficulty curve to compensate. Scenarios swing wildly from trivial to impossible with little rhyme or reason. Since release, Middara’s creators have had to release reams of errata and reprints, and the latest Kickstarter includes a version 1.1 patch kit to fix the rules and cards from the initial launch.
Tainted Grail is well-polished (just one page of errata and balance corrections!), but falls victim to a far greater sin: FOMO (fear of missing out) as a marketing strategy. Tainted Grail was published as a Kickstarter exclusive. Awaken Realms raised the money to print the game, printed all the copies, and delivered them to their backers. They have no stated plans to ever reprint the game. There was a backer tier for retailers to purchase a half-dozen copies of the game for resale, but that’s it. This is a limited edition game, and you had to back it to guarantee a copy for yourself.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game has a very different problem. The premise of a Living Card Game is that you each set contains all of the cards, eliminating the need to constantly buy more and more packs just to find enough copies of a specific card for your deck. But there is one critical place where Fantasy Flight fails to hold up their end of the deal. The starter box contains enough cards for one or two players to build functional decks, but it doesn’t actually contain the maximum copies of each card that a player could include in their deck. This isn’t too egregious; Arkham Horror’s deckbuilding rules limit each player to just 2 copies of a single card. But the base set only has 1 copy of many of the better cards in that set. The only way to get a second copy of those cards is to buy a second starter box. Their affordable $45 introductory box just became a $90 investment.
To Play or Not To Play?
This is a much harder question than normal. Campaign-style games ask for a much higher investment than most other games. I can teach you to play Wingspan in 15 minutes, and then the game will last an hour. If you don’t like it, we can put it away and try something else. But campaigns last far longer. I’ve invested over 40 hours in each of these games, and I still have plenty more to go. In an ideal world, the same group of players who started the campaign will finish it. It should be a shared experience that you and your friends will reminisce about for years to come.
In other words, you and your friends pour time, money, and energy into these games, and you want to be sure that that you have an awesome time in return. But the flaws introduce friction. Middara’s misprints, patches, and errata can interfere with the rhythm of the gameplay. And the version 1.1 rules patch makes so many changes that players who started with 1.0 might have to completely rebuild their characters or even restart the campaign.
Tainted Grail, and other games of its ilk, asks backers to commit to the game before seeing a finished product. Worse, it demands that players decide how far they are willing to commit since none of the add-ons, expansions, or bonuses will be available for retail afterwards. At time of writing, if you want to purchase a copy of Tainted Grail, the cheapest copy is $189. I paid $88 + shipping for that exact product on Kickstarter. As much as I’d love to do a full review of Tainted Grail, I’m not sure if there’s even a point.
Arkham Horror avoids these Kickstarter dilemmas, but introduces its own problems. It guarantees that players will not need to buy randomized booster packs by labeling the game as an LCG, but then fails to deliver on that promise with the box that brings new players into the game. It feels like a cheap marketing ploy to drive players to buy more cards, either through the campaign expansions or just by getting a second copy of the base set.
And yet, all three games overcome that friction. Middara’s light-hearted yet epic romp offers both an epic story and extensive character customization. Tainted Grail’s grim tale of survival and exploration in an incredibly dangerous world is both satisfying and challenging. And Arkham Horror’s short campaigns and accessible modularity make this the easiest game in the bunch to try out for yourself. So should you play these games? For all the issues, flaws, and complexities that get in the way, yes, all three games are worth playing.