Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon
From the award-winning designer Bruno Cathala, Ishtar is a game in which you play the role of a gardener aiming to transform the dry desert into the Lost Hanging Gardens of Babylon. To accomplish your mission, you will have to plant flowers, which, if you place them well, can help you gather precious gems and activate actions. Whether to buy Trees (which will block the link between two Flower spots, as well as earning you points) or to purchase upgrades (such as getting two more points per Tree card at the end of the game), collecting gems will be a crucial part of the game. Get them before your opponents, recruit apprentices, send them to earn points in the copses of flowers you have created, block others and think carefully of the upgrades to purchase if you want to become the best gardener at the end of the game!
—description from the publisher
In Ishtar, players are tasked with creating lush gardens out of the rough desert. On their turn, players will place tiles and vie for control over fountains, which will earn them a bonus at the end of the game. As players acquire gems, they can spend them to purchase upgrades or trees, which give more points and can strategically block opponents. It’s not easy being a gardner in the desert, but read on to see if it’s any fun!
Thematically, the fountains in the game (or at least one of them) came from when a gardner broke down crying at his inability to grow anything in the desert. The goddess Ishtar was so moved that she sent his tear back as a never-ending fountain, allowing the gardner to make a lush garden. The goddess doesn’t come up in gameplay, just a brief mention in the rule book.
Ishtar is another game in the vein of Bosk, Photosynthesis, or Takenoko where you’re trying to grow plants and control areas of the board. Not only does Ishtar shine in the components department, but it also has a modular setup in every sense of the word and it offers interesting choices and strategies throughout the game.
The artwork and components really caught my eye from the beginning with this game. It reminded me of a Dreamworks animated film, with bright colors and vibrant-looking characters. The gems, while somewhat tedious to set up, really pop on the game board and make it much easier to see what you’ll get placing a tile than if the publisher had just gone “the easy way” and used chits to represent the gems. Tiles in the game are a nice, thick board, and feel like they’ll last through many plays.
Not only are the main game play boards modular and double-sided, so are the cup tiles you place on the carpet board, which determine what shape of garden tile is placed there. The garden tiles all have a starting tile denoted by a water droplet, but the tiles underneath can be shuffled and randomized each game. Which I would definitely suggest players do, since garden tiles can have one to three flowers on them, as well as a Skill, Worker, or Random upgrade icon on them.
So it’s pretty and modular, but is it any fun to play? If you like tile-placement area control games, yes! On their turn, a player will move the watering can around the carpet board to the next stack of garden tiles, taking the top one. If they don’t want it, they can pay to skip ahead, one gem per tile skipped. These tiles are also how the endgame is triggered; when two piles are depleted, the round is finished so everyone gets the same number of turns. Once a player has their garden tile, they must place it. It’s important to define a couple things as the game explains them: a garden is a section of connected tiles, whereas a flowerbed is a section of neighboring flowers, which may be on multiple tiles. You cannot place a garden tile that would connect two fountains or two assistants together, even if they are the same color. The player that has their assistant on the flowerbed with the most flowers next to a fountain is in control of that fountain – if there is a tie, then both players are in control.
After placing a tile, players get any gems that were on the desert spaces underneath their tile. If the tile the placed has an icon on it, they may do the associated action. The skill icon lets you unlock a skill if you have two gems of any kind. The Assistant icon lets you place an assistant if you have one in front of you (not on the carpet board). Lastly, the question mark lets you choose either action. If you have any gems remaining and you want to, you can purchase a tree from the five available for their gem cost. Players can purchase as many trees as they have the gems for on their turn, but in my experience, it was only one or none.
Between struggling for control of the fountains, collecting gems, and buying upgrades/trees, players are afforded many different options in Ishtar. In my first game, one player went all-in on the white fountain, bought several upgrades, and saved up to buy the biggest trees; the other player had smaller gardens around the other fountains and bought as many trees as they could. Despite their different strategies, their scores were only two points apart!
Ishtar is a beautiful game with great components and mechanics; even non-green-thumbed gamers would do well to check this one out. Players who suffer from Analysis Paralysis may suffer slightly, but having multiple paths to victory is a definite plus.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
+ Beautiful artwork and components
+ Modular setup
+ High player choice
- Some players may have AP