Legend tells of a homesick queen in a sand-locked capital and a doting king that commissioned the most stunning gardens to ease her woes. No one talks about the hardworking horticulturists that made it happen though do they? In Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon players assume the roles of 2-4 of these green fingered geniuses as they compete for the king's favour. Will you delight the big man and his arboreally challenged missus or will your fellow gardeners leave you in the dust?
How does your garden grow?
In Ishtar you will lay greenery tiles of various shapes from the rondel onto the main desert board. Each tile must connect, either directly or via adjacent tiles, to one of the colourful fountains. Any crystal displaced by laying a tile enters that player's supply. A group of touching tiles is called a garden. Gardens are made of grass areas and flowerbeds.
Now, some tiles have white symbols and, when laid, these allow you to perform a special action. Either place one of your assistants on the flowerbed, controlling it and potentially the fountain it’s connected to. Alternatively, purchase a skill from the skill tree. After any special actions, you have the opportunity to spend crystals in your supply on trees. Trees can be worth decent points and also allow you to block other players or score even more points at endgame. Players will score for flowers in flower beds they control, as well as fountains they control. They’ll score for tree cards they’ve collected, and a slew of different ways depending on the skills they’ve unlocked.
The desert board in Ishtar is modular and can be scaled for player count as well as varied in shape. Setup can be lengthy when setting out crystals on the board, but leaving them in the general supply and taking from there when you cover a crystal symbol negates that entirely if you’re a lazy wotnot!
The component quality in this game is phenomenal! The art by the uber-talented Biboun is rare but beautiful, the gems are sparkly delights and the assistant and tree meeples are unique and intricate. I love the way Ishtar looks and I especially love the way the desert springs to life as the game progresses. From the beige dunes of the Babylonian desert verdant pastures appear dotted with yellow flowers, majestic trees and brightly coloured meeples completely inline with historical accuracy (I’m guessing).
The insert is brilliant. A place for everything, and everything in its place. It even has a little lid to keep the garden tiles in place and tabs to secure the player boards. The only thing that lets the game down aesthetically, I feel, is the box art. It’s well drawn, but the single flower on beige background is a little bland compared to other Iello cover art. It also tells you absolutely nothing about the game at a glance and this may possibly affect its shelf appeal. Thank goodness you’re here so that I can extoll the virtues of the gameplay!
The Chaldean Flower Show
Bruno Cathala co-designed Ishtar with Evan Singh. If you’re unfamiliar with monsieur Cathala, you must check out Tom's Brilliant Bruno blog extolling the virtues of this award winning designer. If you have heard of him then you’ll be familiar with Ishtar's thoroughbred lineage. Bruno has a reputation for making light, accessible games with a surprising amount of strategy. Ishtar sits comfortably in that category. It’s a fairly simple tile placement puzzle game, but by incorporating an area control element and skill tree it becomes an unexpectedly thought-provoking, light euro game.
With each top tier skill giving different scoring parameters, you’re not just building a garden, you’re preparing a point salad! Resources are tight enough that no one’s going to unlock all their top tier skills; you have to decide which ones will benefit you the most. After all, skills cost crystals, and so do trees! Add in the ever-changing map and the little battles to control fountains and block each other’s flower beds and you have a crunchy puzzle with serious depth of strategy and multiple paths to victory! If the base mechanics weren’t so simple it could be pretty AP inducing. Each move though boils down to: pick a tile, pace that tile, spend crystals. This core simplicity keeps the game moving along at a decent clip.
Although the game scales for player count by using more modular board sections, there is definitely increased interaction at higher counts. That interaction is mainly blocking and competition for area control. If you enjoy this sort of tight tug of war interplay you’ll enjoy Ishtar at higher player counts. If you’re more keen on getting on with your own thing, then 2 player will be more your jam. Either way, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your competition, as you can really mess each other up in this game.
Because you can’t attach multiple flower beds with assistants or join gardens of different fountains, one nastily placed tile can stop you dead. That’s not a terrible thing; it’ll never leave you without good options. It just means your plans need to be dynamic and change with the board. Personally, I enjoy the flowering desert theme, but the gameplay itself is pretty abstracted. I don’t think that’s a problem in a game this pretty, competitive and engaging throughout, but it must be noted.
Ishtar is a fun, lightish tile placement number that is deeper than you might expect for this genre of game. Its single resource, crystals, can and should be spent in several ways which actually makes it fairly tight economically. The fact that your victory points come from a wide variety of scoring opportunities makes for a richer game strategically than many similar tile placement games too. Ishtar offers a lot of bang for your buck with its gorgeous components, multiple paths to victory, and crunchy decision making.
To squeeze all this into a 30-45 minute game about gardening in antiquity is impressive to say the least. So, roll up your sleeves, green-fingered gamers, Bruno Cathala and Iello have created something pretty special here. With its bright and lively Iello aesthetic and classic Cathala simple but deep gameplay, Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon is a game fit for a queen!
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