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Review: Indian Summer

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Indian Summer - Box

Whoop! Another tile laying game to review! It seems like lately the gaming universe has been cranking out a lot of fun, mechanically solid, beautiful tile laying games. Barenpark, King– and Queendomino, Isle of Skye, Karuba… The list goes on. It’s a good time to be a tile laying fan. When the ‘Dragon was offered Indian Summer, which is both beautiful and from the famed designer Uwe Rosenberg, I jumped at the chance to try it.

Oddly, despite my love of tiles, I have yet to play Indian Summer’s forbearers. Patchwork and Cottage Garden have eluded me so far, so don’t expect this to be a comparative review among those titles. Indian Summer must stand on its own for me. The question is: Does it stand proudly, or compost into mulch on the forest floor?

How It Plays

Indian Summer is a tile laying game with a racing element. You are hiking through a lovely autumn forest, encountering treasures (in the form of forest products like berries and mushrooms) and filling in your section of forest with leaves and animals. But this is no relaxing hike for daydreamers and dawdlers. This is a race to fill your section of forest first.

Each player has a forest board which is divided into six sections. Scattered within each section are printed treasures: Mushrooms, berries, nuts, and feathers. Treasures give you the opportunity to change the rules of the game a bit and take extra actions. More on them in a minute.

You’ll be covering your board with the Tetris-like leaf tiles. Your goal is to completely fill in the board, but it’s not as simple as slapping down tiles anywhere. Each leaf tile has a hole in it. If you manage to place that hole so it covers a treasure icon, you will place the matching treasure token over that hole. When that section of your board is completely filled with leaf tiles and/or squirrels, you’ll “harvest” all of your treasure tokens from that section and use them on future turns.

When the game is set up, each player is given five leaf tiles. You do not get new ones until those have been placed (or stolen), unless a treasure token allows you to do so. When you need to refill, you take tiles from the common path. The path is set up so that when you take a tile, the bush marker moves over next to the next tile in line. You always take the tile next to the bush marker and lay it along your personal path/supply in the order in which it was taken, with the first tile taken placed next to your backpack token and the others placed in order from there.

On each turn you can take one main action. You can either place a leaf tile from your supply following the placement rules, or you can take a squirrel from the common supply and place it on your board. Squirrels are 1×1 tiles, so they’re useful for filling in the odd gaps on your board.

Indian Summer - Tiles
Leaf tiles. (Note the holes as they are important.)

If you have any treasure tokens, you can spend some of them to do another action or, in some cases, use them in place of your main action. The four treasures work like this:

Berries: Return one berry to the supply to refill your leaf supply to five tiles. If you already have five, you may take a sixth tile. You can do this in addition to your main action.

Nuts: Return one nut to the supply to take a squirrel from the supply and place it on your board. Remember, squirrels are free if you take them as your main action, but nuts give you a way to get more squirrels per turn. You can do this in addition to your main action.

Mushrooms: Return a ‘shroom to the common supply and take a tile from two different players. You have to take the one closest to their backpack. In a 2-player game, you take the one nearest your opponent’s backpack, and then the tile on the common path which is closest to the bush. You can only do this as an alternative to your main action.

Feathers. Return one feather to the supply to place two leaf tiles of your choice from your supply onto your board. You can only do this as an alternative to your main action.

Treasures can also be exchanged. You can trade one treasure for a treasure of a lower value, or trade two of the same treasures for one treasure of the next higher value. The values from least to most are: Berries—>Nuts—>Mushrooms—>Feathers.

No forest would be complete without cute animals. In addition to the aforementioned squirrels, there are seven other animal tiles in the game. You can take them at any point during your turn, but there’s a catch: Animal tiles can only be placed over a continuous outline of empty holes on your board. The shape of the animal tile must match the shape created by the open holes. It can be smaller than the shape created by the available holes, but never bigger. (So you could use a straight piece on an L-shaped hole. You’d simply leave the horizontal part of the L uncovered.) If there were treasure tokens awarded for that hole when you placed the tile, you must have already harvested them by completing that section, or the holes must be empty and showing bare ground.

If you place an animal tile over a hole that shows a treasure, you get to take another treasure of that type. You get this even though you would have already earned a treasure when you placed the leaf tile. Also, some of the animal tiles are given treasure tokens at the beginning of the game. If you place one of those, you get those tokens in addition to any you earn through the placement. Treasure bonanza!

The endgame is triggered as soon as one player completely covers their board with leaf tiles and/or squirrels. Everyone else gets one more regular turn. You can also trade in treasure tokens for nuts to get squirrels and place them in any empty spaces on your board. If any areas are completed, any treasure tokens on those areas may once again be traded for nuts and converted to squirrels. Keep going until everyone has had their final turn and made all of their possible conversions.

The player with a completely filled board wins. If more than one player ends up with a completely covered board, add up the nuts in your supplies to resolve any ties. The winner is then the player with the most nuts.

Did Someone Say Squirrel?

Tangent incoming, so bear with me. I’ve become the squirrel lady on the iSlaytheDragon team. We use Slack for communication and there is an emoji of a squirrel wearing a fedora. This has become my symbol and I joke that the “Godfather Squirrel” is my patronus. Any game that has squirrels, therefore, is immediately “my thing.”

And Indian Summer has squirrels! Granted, they don’t wear fedoras so they’re not very stylish, but they’re still awesome because they’re so useful at filling in the one-square gaps on your board. Having very useful squirrels in a game is an obvious boost, but is it enough? Let’s move beyond the tree dwelling rodents and find out.

Indian Summer was a game I badly wanted to try, but was a bit afraid of. I’ve had a hit or miss relationship with some of Uwe Rosenberg’s designs over the years, so he’s never a blind buy for me. But this was tile laying, so despite having missed his other efforts in this genre (Patchwork and Cottage Garden), I dove in.

And this game was great fun for me. I love the idea of a tile laying game that is also a race game. Usually tile-layers devolve into point grabbers. Place this tile, get so many points. Combine it with another tile, get more points. Stick a meeple or a token on it, more points. That’s fun, but it was nice to see a game that’s just a race. There are still plenty of decisions and options to think about as you “race.” You’re not playing some tile-based game of Tetris where you’re just taking tiles and sticking them in slots as fast as possible. It’s more nuanced than that. But the fact that there was no fiddly scoring was a huge draw for me.

Indian Summer - Treasures
There’s treasure in that forest! Use it wisely.

The treasures are the main decision point of the game. You need some treasures during the game. They do help you move faster. You can gain more tiles (and squirrels), steal useful tiles from your opponents, or place more than one tile on a turn. But given that some of these benefits come at the expense of getting another tile out on your board, you have to carefully evaluate your need for treasures. And treasures are only useful when, well, used. Hoarding them won’t help you at the end of the game.

Plus, since you can’t claim treasures until you finish a section of forest floor, you must evaluate when it’s better to finish a section and “harvest” your treasures, and when it might be better to keep plugging away at other sections of your board.

To succeed you’ll have to keep an eye on your tile supply and stay aware of the shapes you have vs. the shapes you need. Where are the shapes you need on the community path? If you hurry up and use your tiles you’ll get to refill your supply, but is there anything you need coming up on that path or will you get stuck with junk? Is there so much useful there that you need to be trading in berries to get extra tiles? Does your opponent have the perfect tile for you sitting right next to her backpack, meaning that if you use a mushroom you can nab it? Do you have two perfect tiles already in your supply and a feather would get them out faster, giving you the win? When is the right time to give up a main action in favor of a treasure action?

Treasures are aides or tools, they are not the whole game. They force you to think, though. You have to strike that balance between using them efficiently and getting too focused on them to the exclusion of the one thing that does matter: Speed.

The animal tiles throw an interesting wrench into the proceedings. Placing them smartly will likely give you more treasures. Yay! But… You need to guard against using too many turns to set yourself up for that animal tile. Since the open holes have to line up just so to use an animal tile, it’s easy to get caught up in placing leaf tiles to claim that animal tile. There are two dangers in this. First, the time you spend setting yourself up can go to waste if an opponent gets the tile you want before you can get there. Second, it might be better to skip the animals and quickly fill up other spaces on your board. Like treasures, animals are simply a tool. They do nothing else for you at the end of the game (other than give you a cute animal on your board). 

Indian Summer - Animals
No forest is complete without adorable animals.

And this is the thing with Indian Summer (especially if you play a lot of tile laying games). The temptation is to focus on treasures and animal tiles. After all, in most games these will be the source of victory points. We’ve been conditioned to think in terms of, “Lay tile, claim points, maximize those points through optimal placements.” But Indian Summer doesn’t reward that behavior. It only rewards your ability to fill your board the fastest and that requires careful management of your tools, not over-hoarding them or wasting time to get them.

I said I wouldn’t compare Indian Summer with Rosenberg’s other tile laying offerings, but I will throw out a comparison to Barenpark, another game which often comes up in conversations about “which to get.” Indian Summer does indeed share some similarities with my beloved Barenpark. Both have you placing tiles to cover icons which then give you some special ability. Barenpark’s icons are a bit more forgiving, however, because you gain the abilities immediately, instead of having to wait until a board section is complete as you do in Indian Summer.

Both are also something of a race to cover your board(s) the fastest. Unlike Indian Summer, however, Barenpark is not a “pure” race. The first person to fill their boards triggers the end game, but the winner is the player with the most points, even if their board is incomplete. You can’t win Indian Summer without a finished board.

Both are excellent games. I would say that Barenpark leans slightly (and I mean slightly) more toward the family end of the spectrum. The cute theme is a draw, and the fact that most turns result in gaining points and tiles for future use means that most people can easily be competitive at the game, even if they aren’t regular gamers. Plus, there’s no tile stealing in Barenpark, which makes it better for novice or sensitive players.

Indian Summer - Tokens
The bush, player backpacks (which double as player aids), and the start player’s boots.

Both games operate as puzzles on two levels: There’s the spatial element of completing your board, plus the other puzzle of maximizing points (in Barenpark) or using treasures to speed you along to completion in Indian Summer. If you like puzzly games, both will scratch that itch, although I feel like Indian Summer’s puzzle is a little brain-burnier.

Two things I would say push Indian Summer slightly above Barenpark in terms of complexity. (And again, I mean slightly.) The first are the treasures. They require a higher level of forward thinking than Barenpark. Since you might not be able to harvest them for several more turns (by which time the game state will have changed), you have to remain aware of what you might have later and how you might best use it. Barenpark gives you your special abilities right off, meaning you can get away with only thinking one turn ahead if more than that is taxing for you.

The second is the way tiles come out. In Barenpark, everything (shape-wise) is on the board and available from the first turn for anyone to take. In Indian Summer, tiles are replenished from the community path and what is available changes as others take tiles. In Barenpark, if someone beats you to a tile, it usually means you can still get that shape, but at a lower point value (unless it was the last one of that type). In Indian Summer, if someone takes the tile you wanted, it may not come around again for several more turns and depending on what your opponents do and turn order, you may never get a crack at it. Ouch. (Look to the squirrels to bail you out.) It’s more difficult to plan well in Indian Summer. Not impossible, but difficult.

Indian Summer is, like Barenpark, a low luck game. The only randomness is the replenishment of the community path of tiles. When it gets low, you refill it with randomly drawn tiles meaning in those turns preceding the replenishment, you’ll be making decisions with imperfect knowledge about what might be available later. Everything else, though, is open knowledge. You can clearly see your opponent’s boards to track how close they’re getting to the end, and you can see their available tiles you might want to steal. Those who like control in their games will probably be happy with the luck level here.

Indian Summer - Boards
Empty forest boards. Your job is to fill ’em up fast.

I think the replayability of Indian Summer is above average. All of the boards are double sided and the placement of treasures is different on each board/side. Tiles are placed out randomly at the beginning of the game and during the replenishment of the community path. All of this means that you can’t expect every game to play out exactly the same. The general feeling, though, remains the same. There are no variants that change it up to make it meaner or nicer, harder or easier. This is fine as Indian Summer is really an abstract game at heart, but if you’re looking for something with more variants or elements you can add in or subtract to change up the game, you won’t find it here.

Are there any negatives? Well, sure, but most depend on your point of view. I was worried about the stealing element but it turned out not to be so bad. There were many games where we never used it at all. Two things keep it from being terrible: First, you have to be able to afford a steal by using mushrooms. You can’t just steal because you want to. Second, there’s not always something worth stealing. Since you’re limited to the tile closest to your opponent’s backpack, that reduces your choices. (And smart players will know which tiles others might need and work to keep useful ones away from the stealing position.) Still, if you play with people who hate any kind of take that, this might be a consideration for you.

Indian Summer can bring out a bit of AP in some people, although it’s not too extreme. However, the fact that you have to think through treasure usage, possible tile stealing, how to set yourself up to get more good tiles, plus just finishing your board causes some people’s brains to grind to a halt. The game is best if everyone plays fairly briskly. While there are a lot of things to think about, wasting ten minutes figuring out the optimal move is likely to raise the ire of your fellow players.

Next, the game is a bit of a mess storage-wise. There is no insert so unless you build your own or use baggies, tiles will be all over the place in the box. And the box really could have been smaller. It’s a shelf hog for what’s in there.

Indian Summer - Storage
Storage is a bit of a mess.

The game is also a table hog. When you lay out all the player boards, each person’s tile supply, the animal tiles and the community path, you have quite a lot of stuff on the table. If you try to cram tiles closer together, they get harder to distinguish. This is not a travel game!

All in all, I really liked Indian Summer. It’s easy enough to learn that anyone can play it and it plays fast enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s versatile and replayable, suitable for many gaming audiences and skill levels. Even though it’s a bit more complex than Barenpark, I would still call it a gateway game, although maybe not one I would play with younger kids. (Indian Summer’s minimum age is 10+, while Barenpark is 8+ and that’s about right.) The theme is accessible and the artwork is pretty on the table. When you’re finished you have a forest floor filled with leaves and animals. (Including squirrels!)

I found it to play well at all counts (I only played the solo variant once and it was a fun puzzle to kill some time with.) The more people you have, the more churn you’ll get on the community path meaning desirable tiles may be harder to come by and it’s harder to plan too far ahead. There’s also more stealing simply because you have more options with more players. The two player game is very enjoyable. It’s thinky, yet smooth and quick. It’s also a little easier to plan ahead since the community path doesn’t churn quite as much.

The lack of fiddly scoring and simple rules make it super easy to teach. It’s a game that people “get” after one explanation and after one play-through are comfortable enough to really start strategizing. I love that Indian Summer turns tile laying into a true race, forcing players to discard preconceived notions of chasing or hoarding treasure for victory points. Indian Summer requires a different thought process than most tile games and for that reason alone it will be a staple in my collection.

iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Stronghold Games for giving us a copy of Indian Summer to review.

  • Rating 8.5
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Summary

Pros

Lovely autumnal artwork.
Race element eliminates any fiddly scoring.
Racing is something different in the tile laying genre.
Easy to learn, family-friendly theme, quick play time.
Thinky, puzzly gameplay keeps you mentally on your toes.

Cons

Stealing adds a bit of meanness.
Storage is messy; huge box needs an insert.
Setup can be fiddly and it's a table hog.

8.5 Very Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Review Roundup – Tabletop Gaming News

  2. Jennifer,

    Wonderful article! Admittedly, it’s a beautiful piece of work, but for my money when I play or teach a polyomino game, I’ll stick with BarenPark.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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