Militia

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The turn-based strategy genre allows for a ridiculous amount of variety and creativity, but there is a lot that can, and often does, go wrong as a result. Imbalanced units, difficulty spikes, poor pacing, overly complicated and mostly useless mechanics, and fights which rely far too heavily upon luck are painfully common issues for the genre. Thankfully, for all the frequent faults of the genre, every now and then you get a game like Militia where the mechanics are simple without lacking depth and where victory in battle is determined purely by your skill.

Militia is a fairly light package, more closely resembling a game such as Chess than something like Fire Emblem, though it still has plenty to offer. Gameplay takes place on an 8×8 grid with the goal of killing every enemy unit marked with a star within a strict turn limit. You always start with three units (or two units and a ‘prisoner’ which turns into a unit when you hit it) and both your units and enemies go down in a single hit. However, spawner tiles will create new enemies every single turn as long as they are unoccupied and, since you generally only have around eight turns in which to kill every marked enemy, every move you make counts and overly defensive play will inevitably lead to the board becoming hopelessly overrun with a barricade of enemies. There isn’t a campaign, but procedurally generated maps, a balanced ranking system, two distinct main gameplay modes, and a few additional features go a long way towards keeping Militia from getting stale.

The game modes and especially the ranking system put Militia a step or two above most games which rely entirely on procedural generation. The two main modes are Light World and Dark World, each with its own rank tracker. The basic rules and setup of these modes are identical, you must traverse an 8×8 grid to kill every enemy marked with a star in a limited number of turns with your three units, but the units which you control and the enemies which you fight are entirely different. The ranking system is not a measure of your standing compared to other players and instead of what determines the overall difficulty for a mode. At low ranks you will only face off against the most basic enemy units and will in turn only ever control groups composed of simplistic units, but as your rank increases you will soon be controlling parties consisting of various combinations of the five available units in each mode against increasingly large swarms made from all five types of enemy units.

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In order to increase in rank, you must win three games in a row spread across three ‘floors’. To help keep things balanced to within your current skill level, winning consecutive sets grants increasingly larger amounts of experience points to make your ranks go up faster and, likewise, you lose experience with every defeat and losing multiple times in a row increases the experience penalty to quickly find the right balance. There are also practice matches where you can set the rank anywhere from one to ten and you can either let the game generate a random group of units for you or pick your own units, even ones which otherwise would not be available in the chosen mode. If you don’t want to go through multiple games for the rank to properly adjust itself, you can also choose to take on a ‘Placement Match’, which will keep generating maps until you are defeated and instantly set your rank based upon how far you got; choosing to try a Placement Match will immediately reset your current rank data for that mode, so make sure not to use this if you feel comfortable at your current rank. Lastly, two bonus modes exist which don’t play into the ranking system; Endless Mode will generate maps until you lose and Timed Mode doesn’t have a turn counter, but you only have a limited amount of time to clear each map. I would have liked a few handcrafted challenges, but as it stands the ranking system does a great job of preventing the game from ever feeling too hard or too easy, the procedural generation never created a map which seemed impossible to win, and clearly a full set of maps only takes about ten minutes, making Militia perfect both for quick bursts and long sessions.

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Of the two main modes, the Light World maps aren’t easier than those of the Dark World, I would even say that they may very well tend to be harder to complete, but the units are simpler in nature. You always have at least one Warrior or one Cavalry unit; these are your main offensive units and if you ever don’t have any one of your remaining units will immediately transform into either a Warrior or a Cavalry. Warriors can move up to two spaces in a cardinal direction or one space diagonally and then can attack three spaces near them with a horizontal slash if hitting a vertically-lined space or a vertical slash for horizontally-aligned spaces. Unlike Warriors, Cavalry units must move every turn and leap two spaces forward in a cardinal direction or one space diagonally and then attack two spaces in a straight line in any direction, including diagonals. Though their movement options sound limited, Cavalry can leap over enemy units and can even move onto a space occupied by an enemy, killing the enemy in the process. Other units consist of a Paladin with high movement and a single-tile melee attack which grants an additional turn to friendly units near it, a Mage which can kill multiple far away enemies in an ‘X’-shaped blast as long as it remains still or only moves one space in a cardinal direction,  and a Wizard. The Wizard is easily the most complicated and difficult Light World unit to use, but it is also highly versatile and can be extremely powerful in certain situation. Wizards do not directly attack and instead target a single tile in a 5×5 area around themselves (including their own). Any unit on this tile becomes swapped with whatever is on its ‘mirror’ tile (ex: a unit in the upper-right corner would move to the lower-left corner). Swapping an empty tile and a tile with an enemy will simply move the enemy, but swapping two tiles containing enemies will kill both enemies instead of swapping them and swapping an exhausted friendly unit with anything will give it another turn.

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Unlike playable units, which move and then attack, the movement for an enemy unit in either mode is its attack; you can right click on any enemy unit to see the spaces which are valid options for it and your units will always be safe if they are not in range. Enemies in the Light World are fairly simple, but they work well together. Orcs move one space in a cardinal direction each turn while Imps move up to two spaces diagonally; Orcs and Imps are the only units which spawner tiles can generate. Slimes also only move one space in a cardinal direction each turn, but they will turn purple after a few turns and then split into up to four new slimes if not deal with. Archers are an exception to the rule of movement being directly linked to attack as they can either shoot a unit which is any number of tiles away in a cardinal direction or they can move one space; Archers will always attack if they are able to, but other enemy units block their line of sight and they won’t attack if one or more enemies are between the Archer and one of your own units at the end of your turn, even if the blocking enemy moves out of the way in the middle of the enemy’s turn. Dwarves are the most dangerous units of all, though not for their attack. Dwarves can move a single tile in any direction and they make any enemies on the eight tiles around them, excluding other dwarves, completely immune to damage; even using a Wizard to swap a shielded enemy with another will only kill the unshielded enemy while harmlessly swapping the shielded one. More than any other Light World unit, Dwarves change up the flow of play and demand you to use your abilities to their fullest because you need to find ways to circumvent invincible walls of enemies without sacrificing your own handful of units, or at least while making sure that the loss of your unit is worth the cost.

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Dark World units are generally similar to those of the Light World, but with some substantial changes, most of which involve attacks and movements which wrap around the board. Barbarians move like Warriors, but they can wrap around the board with their movement and attack four tiles at once around them, either the four cardinally-aligned tiles or the four diagonally-aligned ones. Weavers can place a ‘totem’ on a tile next to them, including tiles on the opposite side of the board if they are on an edge. This totem kills enemies when placed and also can serve as a barrier or a useful way to plug up an enemy spawner, but its true power comes from the fact that it explodes when attacked. Only friendly units can attack totems and, once attacked, totems explode to destroy everything in a 3×3 grid around them; a Weaver is immune to this blast if it is the one to detonate the totem, but any other friendly units get lost if the explosion if they are in range. Lancers move like Barbarians and are extremely powerful because they charge forth in a straight, three-tile line in any direction after their initial movement, destroying any enemies on these tiles; their charge can, unsurprisingly, wrap around the board and as an added bonus they kill one enemy directly next to them  when they stop, not including diagonals. Reapers are both powerful and risky as they hit a massive five-tile line, but they can only kill up to two enemies; the best way to use a Reaper is to make sure the area you are aiming for only contains one or two enemies to ensure that you hit whatever you’re aiming for. Lastly, Force Mages are even stranger than the Light World’s Wizards. Force Mages target a single tile and any units in the eight tiles around the targeted area get pushed outward. If a unit collides with another unit after being pushed, the unit it was pushed into is destroyed and any friendly units which are pushed get another turn if they already took their own action. Force Mages can even make units wrap around the board with their push, allowing friendly movements to cover a large amount of ground and serving as a way to get dangerous enemies far away.

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Dark World enemies also have plenty of weird gimmicks. Cultists move just like Orcs, but their movement allows them to wrap around the board. Instead of Imps we now have Ghosts, which can move two spaces in any cardinal direction or one space diagonally, making them the most mobile enemy unit in the game. Slime Cubes only move one space, but they can never really be removed; killing a Slime Cube only splits it into two more cubes, making this one unit which you only want to ever attack if it has a star or if it is otherwise absolutely necessary. Beholders replace Archers and tend to be less common than their Light World counterparts, but for good reason – Beholders attack every single tile cardinally aligned with them every turn and will hit friendly units even if other units are between them. Overlords are the replacement for Dwarves and, though they don’t have shielding capabilities, they can be disastrous if left alone. Overlords move one space in any direction each turn and grant a star to an enemy next to them; the number of enemies you need to defeat to win can easily spiral out of control if Overlords are not eliminated in the first few turns.

Militia is simple yet extraordinarily refined, providing an original experience which is easy to learn, hard to master, and endlessly replayable.

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