Review of Midsummer

Most of the games that take part in the board game competition at Fastaval are unpublished prototypes. A fair number of them end up being published later on (one of them was recently on Kickstarter). However, one of this year’s crop, Midsummer by Nathan Hook, was already available on the print-on-demand service by the time Fastaval rolled around. And if you like strategic hidden identity games, you might just want to give this one a look.

Disclaimer: The following is based on feedback I wrote to Nathan in my capacity as a judge in the board game competition at Fastaval, and put up by Nathan’s request. I’ve edited it to be more suitable as a review. Nathan has had no editorial control over the text.

This also means that the text is not written as a review originally, and so it’s a little clunky in places – it was a vessel for feedback and suggestions. I’ve rewritten it to be more accessible.

The game in a nutshell

A game of Midsummer is underway.

Midsummer is a hidden identity game with an auction mechanic. Each player takes on the role of a fairy in either the Summer court of Titania or the Winter Court of Oberon (or the Changeling, who belongs to neither court). The fairies hunt mortals in order to sell them to other fairies for favours. Each fairy values different mortals, and the court whose members has the highest total points at the end of the game wins. Players do not know who the other fairies are, but can try to deduce their identities throughout the game. And once you know the identity of another fairy, you can use their favours against them.

Setting up the game

The game consists of a number of different cards: nine different fairy character cards, one set of favours per fairy, a set of mortal cards, a set of trick cards for an expansion, and a set of numbered hunting cards.

You select characters based on the number of players in the game, shuffle them and deal one to each player. Then you mix together all the favours belonging to the characters in the game
and divide them evenly among the players.

The mortal deck is shuffled, and the the “Break of Day” card is shuffled in with the bottom two cards from the deck. Whenever the Break of Day card is drawn, the game immediately ends. This creates some uncertainty in the game, which is a good addition. I might even consider shuffling it in with the bottom three cards, though that might mess with the balance of the game.

Finally, you take a number of hunting cards equal to the number of players plus one (so numbers one through six in a five player game), putting number one in the middle of the table and one face up in front of each player. During play, whenever a player hunts a mortal, they will replace the number in front of them with the card in the middle of the table, putting theirs face up in the middle of the table, and the card from the middle of the table face down in front of themselves.

This keeps track of who has and who has not hunted a mortal, making sure each player get an opportunity to hunt roughly the same number of mortals during the game. Unfortunately, it seems to be a bit tricky for players to grasp which card goes face up, and which goes face down. We’ve had trouble with this in almost all the games I’ve played. A minor issue, but one to look out for.

Flow of the game

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both have Valor and cold emotions, making them especially valuable to the Troll.

Most of the game revolves around auctioning and scoring mortals, all of whom are characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Mortal cards show a picture of the mortal, and usually three symbols for scoring at the bottom: a gender, a virtue (valor or creativity) and whether they have primarily cold or warm emotions (benefiting the Winter and Summer Courts, respectively). The symbols are quite clear and easy to tell apart, and as the fairies mostly care about one or two symbols, it is easy to understand what each mortal does.

Each round, one mortal will be turned up, and players are offered the opportunity to “hunt” or auction off the mortal, starting with the one with the highest hunting card.

Whoever chooses to hunt the mortal will choose to sent the auction either clockwise or counterclockwise around the table. At the beginning of the game, this seems like an arbitrary choice, but as the game progresses, it becomes increasingly relevant – if you know the Troll and the Sidhee Knight both want this card, you’ll want to make sure whichever is your teammate is in an optimal position to bid.

The currency of the game are the favours you hold in your hand. When you bid, you put down a number of favours face down in front of you. After the auction, the winner will pass his bid to the hunter.

Each favour is one that is owed by one of the characters. This is relevant in two ways. First, each character has a rival in the other court. Their favours are worth one point each to you at the end. The Changeling is his own worst enemy, and scores his own cards.

Secondly, you can call in favours. Once per auction round, when a player has just made a bid, you can give that player a favour from your hand. If this is a favour of their character, they must then retract their bid. If not, they can still choose to retract their bid.

This is a very interesting part of the game, giving the bidding player a choice of whether to confuse the other player or keep his bid. Keeping your bid will tell the other player something about who you are, while retracting your bid will mean letting the mortal – and the points – go to someone else. Of course you might sometimes make a bid to trick people into bribing you.

This mechanic does come with a few issues. The timing of bribes is a bit tricky – how long should the next player wait to allow for bids? Also, it can be difficult to remember whether or not you have made a bribe this auction, causing some confusion around the table.

The Characters

Oberon, Titania and the Changeling are three of the most interesting characters in the game.

The dynamics of the game changes a lot depending on which characters are in the game. The set of characters depends on the number of players. With four players you have four relatively straightforward characters: The Satyr wants woman, the Huldra wants men, the Troll and the Sidhee Knight both want people with Valor.

Things get a bit more interesting from there. Firstly, when there is an odd number of people, you’ll add the changeling. He is a team of his own, and scores a set amount per mortal, depending on the number of players.

Then, at six or above, you add Oberon and Titania. Each of them scores two points instead of one for each mortal belonging with the right kind of emotions (warm or cold). But they are also the regents of their courts. At the beginning of a game including Titania and Oberon, all players close their eyes. Then Titania opens her eyes, and all members of the summer court will hold out their thumb to let her know who she can trust. Then she closes her eyes, and Oberon gets a chance to see the members of his court. The Changeling, trickster that he is, pretends to be part of both courts, introducing a bit of uncertainty.

If you play at eight or nine players, you add the Muse and the Siren. They both go for the same trait, Creativity, and don’t add any new mechanics to the game.

The characters seem well balanced against each other. Oberon, Titania and the Changeling all do good things for the game. In fact, I think I would generally prefer to play the game with an odd number of players – the Changeling does a lot of good for the game. Oberon and Titania make for a more strategic game, and give the Courts a way to act more cohesively.

I haven’t tried the game with four players, but I bet it is a very different game than it is with five or more. According to Nathan, it turns into a far more economic game – it’s fairly easy to deduce who’s who, so it becomes more about maximising points. At the same time, a point not going to your opponent is a point for you, meaning you might sometimes buy a card that doesn’t do anything for you, just to keep it away from your enemy.

Great, medium weight hidden identity game

The game is quite polished, and makes for a very engaging experience. The economy of the game works very well, and I like the fact that cards change value depending on where they are. You don’t really want to give people power over you, which means your own cards are dead weight in your hand. At the same time, cards belonging to your direct counterpart are worth points to you, making you likely to hang on to those.

I also like the meta-play between the characters. It is a surprisingly engaging and challenging experience to try to work out which player is which character. You will usually be kept guessing until the very end of the game.

The characters seem well balanced, and it seems like the game dynamic changes considerably with different player counts. I would recommend aiming for an odd number of players, and don’t play your first game with four, or with more than seven.

In short, I really like the game. It’s a meat, medium-heavy hidden identity game with a strong economic engine. It’s not for the casual crowd, but if you are a gamer who likes hidden identities, this game might be for you.

Pictures (C) Nathan Hook.

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