11th Sep2019

‘Milito’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

milito-box

Martin Wallace is well known for his lean, card driven designs that combine several mechanics into a relatively modest set of components. One such example of of this is 2018′s Lincoln, which saw two players facing off in a recreation of the American Civil War, driven entirely by two asymmetrical decks of cards. By taking a similar approach but losing all components besides the cards, Milito delivers a portable yet strategically deep war game that should appeal to players of all skill levels and experience.

Milito comes in a small, unassuming box that is presented with some relatively detailed artwork depicting an ancient battle. With six decks of cards inside, each of which represents a different ancient race with its own units and combat style, the cover artwork could not be more apt when it comes to depicting the theme of the game. Whether you choose to pitch Imperial Rome against Ancient Britain, or Carthage against Persia, each battle is a tight one versus one affair that takes place on a simulated open battlefield in the classic style.

Each force is comprised of just thirty cards, several of which are leaders – both good and bad. When setting up, eight terrain cards will be shuffled randomly and then five will be dealt. Any terrain besides plains will be shifted to either flank, and with only three non plains cards in the deck, it’s rare to see more than just one or two hill, rough or forest cards. Even so, when they do appear, they add an interesting tactical twist that can have serious consequences for the forces that will face off across them.

And it is across these terrain cards that the armies do face off, with the focus of much of the game being on who can take control of and hold three sections of the battlefield for two whole turns. Terrain cards appear horizontally when ownership is contested or neutral, but once either force takes control, the card is turned to face them, indicating that they have the upper hand.

Actually taking a card is different to holding it, however, and Milito feels very balanced throughout, regardless of the two sides facing off. Whilst it is “only” a card game, the wealth of ways in which each card (representing a unit) is unique is quite impressive. For example, the British field a large number of chariot units and medium swordsmen, both of which are fairly powerful on offense, but they have very few defensive infantry or heavy cavalry, making them vulnerable in protracted fights.

The Macedonians, conversely, field the almost unstoppable pike units that formed the classic phalanx, but when flanked, their whole line can crumble. Add to this the fact that these elite units cost a huge amount to field and this possibility becomes more and more likely, simply because it may not be possible to get enough units onto the field beside them. There are, of course, several variants in between and many interesting units – from the light javelineers and slingers fielded by some forces to the elephants of Carthage, each unit has a part to play.

Whilst I am touching on cost, I should mention how units are fielded. The players each begin the game with a number of cards and will draw more each turn. These cards may then be placed based on the cost shown on them. Some can be placed for free, whilst others will require one or two other cards to be discarded. As a good example, the British can rapidly field a large number of units, whilst Macedon or Rome will field fewer, better quality units that are capable of standing for longer. This is classic Martin Wallace, with cards discarded forming a discard deck that will be reshuffled and cards destroyed (in combat) being permanently discarded.

Combat is slightly deterministic, but with its own twist. When an attack is declared (between two units on either side of the same terrain card) then the attack value of the attacking unit will be compared against the defence value of the defending unit. So far, so simple? Well, kind of. Firstly, each unit may have a supporting unit adding some strength to it, but again this is open information. Where things get tricky is that the attacker must always play a face down card to be a leader – this doesn’t mean that it actually will be one, but a card must always be burnt even if it is not.

The defender too has the option to either place a face down leader card or not, and can also bluff. What this essentially results in is an element of the unknown and a chance to potentially force your opponent to waste a card. If the fight looks even, then a leader that adds one or two points of combat value will likely swing the difference, but if you’re confident in your chances of winning the fight, you may simply throw away your weakest card. When defending, the same applies, but if you know you will lose the combat, it might be best to simply keep your cards in hand.

Another interesting feature is that of retreating. Any unit being attacked has the option to retreat, even though they may not be able to. A unit that retreats will always “lose” the battle, but by being present in the first instance, they prevent the opponent from taking control of that terrain card for at least one additional turn. Also, if a defending unit that is faster than the attacker retreats, it will be discarded instead of destroyed, meaning that it will return to the fight later. Using light units to feint, especially on the flanks, and then retreating when the opponent commits a heavier unit there is a key strategy.

When you boil down all the different factions, the variation from one unit to the next and the fact that the card play is so smart and versatile, it becomes clear why Martin Wallace is considered such a well regarded designer. Milito is not only small, balanced and enjoyable, it also smartly recreates some of the feeling of being in an ancient battle. I also commend Martin and PSC Games for including six full decks in the base game, when perhaps four might have been the norm, with a few more as exclusive stretch goals or expansions.

I have very little criticism for Milito, in fact, and perhaps the only thing I could say is that whilst the artwork is really good and very finely detailed, it does make the game look a little samey from one game to the next. If you can immerse yourself into the mechanics, this won’t stop you from playing game after game, but I would say that anyone just glancing through the cards without context might find themselves wondering what the fuss is all about. If, by any chance, that has been you so far, then I’d suggest you sit down and play a few games, because where Milito really shines is in its tight, clever design space.

**** 4/5

A review copy of Milito was supplied by PSC Games.

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