10th Apr2018

‘Indian Summer’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

indy-summer-box

Walking through picturesque countryside and playing board games has always gone hand in hand for me. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it might well be because I link both activities to an idealistic daydream of sitting in a warm pub in front of an open fire. Another thought is that the link might be from happy memories of childhood holidays that exist only in my subconscious.

Either way, the existence of Indian Summer proves that I am not the only person who recognises this link, although designer Uwe Rosenberg’s focus on outdoor living extends beyond basic walking alone. Indian Summer is actually part of a trilogy of games and whilst the third is as yet unannounced, the first game, Cottage Garden, also explores using tiles to represent the titular theme.

In Indian Summer, players are asked to imagine walking through the beautiful, picturesque wilderness during an unseasonably warm spell just between summer and autumn. Berries are at their most ripe and animals forage among the patchwork of brown and red leaves that litter the forest floor. It’s a lovely, relaxing theme and as I’ll describe later, it is well reflected in the casual, straightforward way that the game plays.

At a mechanical level, Indian Summer is a tile placement game in which players each take one of the double sided player boards at random and then work to cover it completely with interlocking pieces. Along the way, holes in the leaf cover will allow various treasures (blueberries, nuts, mushrooms and feathers) to be revealed and when complete sections of the board are filled, they can be gathered.

The first player to completely fill their board effectively wins the game, although other players are able to complete their turn (to ensure everyone has the same number of turns) which can occasionally result in a draw. Nuts are then used as the tiebreaker, following a few clean-up activities that involve trading other treasures down into nuts and using squirrel tokens to fill single space gaps.

At a conceptual level, this makes Indian Summer a very easy game to teach. Giving players a board and simply advising them to fill it is something that is very hard to get wrong. The nuances, however, are more complex, so I’ll explore those in a little bit more detail. Firstly, there’s the player backpack – every player has one and at the beginning of the game, it contains five leaf tiles of specific sizes.

On each turn, the player may take one of two main actions available to them. The first (and most common) is to take one of the leaf tiles from their own backpack and place it onto their board, whilst the second is to draw a squirrel from the common supply and then place it immediately onto the board – usually in a gap that couldn’t be filled by an ordinary tile.

Once a player has used all the tiles in her backpack, she must immediately draw a new set of tiles from a random arrangement of them in the centre of the board. Whilst the tiles drawn are randomised at the time of placement around a common path (upon which animal tiles are stored), they must be drawn by players in a very specific way. Players may also pay a blueberry to draw leaf tiles into their backpack at any time, up to the maximum of five.

Because the layout of the common path is fixed, players will soon begin to learn to track the upcoming tiles either because they need them for their own board or because they want to deprive opponents of them. Trading berries for tiles at critical tiles becomes a more strategic play as the game goes on, particularly among more experienced players, although it is (even at its worst) a fairly light form of take that, which is in line with the relaxed feel of the game overall.

The only other form of direct interaction is the use of mushrooms, which allow players to pinch a single, specific leaf tile from two of their opponent’s backpacks to place immediately. This is definitely less friendly, but the supply of mushrooms is fairly limited and the usefulness of the tactic is primarily linked to the fact that it enables the player to place two tiles in one turn. The only other circumstance where this is permitted is when the rarest of treasures, the feather, is used.

I should also mention the animal tiles, which further add to the overall pleasantness of the theme. There are several kinds of animal tiles (racoons, badgers, foxes, birds and so on) that are different from the single space squirrel tiles. Whilst squirrels are placed on the forest floor to fill gaps, the other animals are placed on top of leaf tiles wherever a continuous (and matching) formation of holes exist.

For example, if leaf tiles have been placed that result in a square formed from four holes, then a racoon may be placed over the top of them. This is a fairly rare occurrence simply because of the layout of the leaf tiles, but when it happens it can be quite powerful because the player may redraw all of the treasures depicted through the holes beneath that animal.

As you can imagine, there is perhaps more going on with Indian Summer than initially meets the eye. Between the desire to chase after a few treasures (but not so many that your tile placement becomes inefficient) and the occasional ability to place an animal to double down on them, there is a lot to think about.
As I keep hinting, the focus is certainly on tile placement and filling up the board. Learning when to place tiles inefficiently in order to gain access to treasures is very critical to success, because the difference between the first to finish and the second can often be a matter of just one or two tiles, especially between experienced players.

Like all great games, Indian Summer is incredibly simple to learn at a basic level, but challenging to master. On the negative side, some of the difference between the basic and complex possibilities within the game relates to housekeeping of the board state – where tiles on the common path must be placed, what order they go into player backpacks etc. I’m not a fan of fiddly component management in games, but I want to be honest here, this is a nit-picking complaint and no more.

Thanks to its absolutely stunning components, it’s simple but deep game play (which I suspect will suit players of all ages) and its high level of variability, I think Indian Summer makes for a great abstract tile placement game. It is broadly very relaxing to play with few confrontational mechanics and the only negatives are a few fiddly aspects and a little bit of a lack of player interaction.

***½  3.5/5

You can buy Indian Summer online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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