Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Game Shelf Reviews: Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon

Game: Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon

Publisher: Iello

Designer: Bruno Cathala, Evan Singh

Year: 2019

Ishtar is a game from well-known designer Bruno Cathala. With great games like Five Tribes, Kingdomino, 7 Wonders Duel and many, many more to his name. Bruno Cathala's games are ones that I will often be eager to check out. The Cathala games I've played are simple and elegant without exception, even though they vary in weight and I really enjoy how easy his games are to play.

Ishtar is certainly an abstract game, but the Gardens of Babylon theme is certainly used to great effect in the artwork, from Biboun, as well as in the production. Every tree card in the game is unique and some our humorous, and the wooden trees themselves are charming in shape.

Ishtar plays from 2-4 players and the board size and length of the game scales with player count. In Ishtar you'll be laying tiles, to obtain gems to upgrade your personal player board, take special actions and plant trees. At the same time you'll control gardens adjacent to the temples on the board and plant flowerbeds - filling them with as many flowers as you can.

Gameplay

Ishtar works with a combination of a rondel, a player board and a central map. On your turn you will move the watering can one space around the rondel (you can pay gems for additional movement if you want) and take the tile from the space you moved to. This tile can then be added to the central map, ideally to expand your influence. It also rewards you with any gems that you covered up by placing the tile. Tiles may then give you a bonus action if they have one printed on them, either placing a worker or gaining a skill. Finally, you may spend any spare gems you have on tree cards. Tree cards are worth points based on the gems you need to spend on them, and also get added to the map which may give you more scoring chances.


The majority of the gameplay revolves around the central map. Every time you place a tile it must be connected, either directly or via other tiles, to exactly one of the fountains. This whole connected area of greenery in the desert is referred to as a garden. No two gardens may ever be connected. Within gardens you will have flowerbeds, connected areas of flowers printed on the tiles. Flowerbeds can be claimed by adding one of your meeples to them, each flowerbed may only every have one meeple in it, so no two player's flowerbeds may ever connect (though unclaimed flowers are fair game)!

The game ends when there are two stacks on the rondel that have run out of tiles. At this points players will score in a few ways. For every flower in a flowerbed you control you earn a point. For each fountain on the board players score bonus points based on who owns the largest flowerbed in its garden. Every tree card you own earns the points printed on it and finally you can earn points from the skills you have unlocked. Skills are bought during the game for gems and do varied things like unlocking new meeple, giving you flowers to add onto the board, and granting you end game scoring mechanics.


Amy’s Final Thoughts

Gardening is a wonderful thing, it's a peaceful pastime full of the joys of nature that will result in you seeing just how wild a small plot of land can be. Gardening in a desert is a constant battle with the elements and a statement of mankind's unwillingness to bow to the forces of nature or, indeed, any bloody common sense! In Ishtar you are going to be a group of stubborn-as-a-mule gardeners trying to make sure that their garden is absolutely the best. The tools at your disposal: some fountains, a handful of seeds, and a surprisingly large number of precious gems.


Ishtar should be a super-simple game, and it certainly starts as one, you move the watering can, take your piece and play it. As you go you might spend gems to get new skills or build some feature trees. As the game carries on though you soon find that you can't place tiles where you want. Trying to maximise your garden size, gem income and still avoid connecting gardens together becomes surprisingly restrictive. The last few moves of the game may leave you with little choice on what to do. This actually works well for an introductory game as the really difficult decisions mostly come as the game is nearing the end.

The skill trees worked well to diversify player's needs, but in my eyes didn't make big enough differences. There were some that dramatically changed the way you play (treat gardener icons as skill icons being an example of a gamechanger), while others felt less useful. The game worked well for 2 players, but there were some clear drawbacks. Someone had to make a pretty big mistake to not end up with each player having control over 2 out of the 4 fountains since you can make rapid responses to your opponent's moves. The biggest drawback in Ishtar comes in explaining the rules clearly. The gameplay is rather light, but explaining the difference between gardens and flower patches, understanding that you can't join together two gardens, but can join together flower patches unless different players own them in which case you can't. It's hardly rocket science, but it's complex enough to detract from the entry-level weight of the game. Once you understand the rules Ishtar makes for a great light game, though I fear may lack some long term appeal.


Fi’s Final Thoughts

Ishtar really has the look of a great gateway game. It's colourful, has simple, but effective pieces, that are really high quality and the board just looks better and better as you play it. As a tile-laying game, it has the benefits of a game like Carcassonne, where the game is competitive, but you're all contributing to the same tile map and so what you end up producing together looks really good. The rules of Ishtar are very quick to learn, but I actually had quite a bit of trouble understanding and committing to memory some of the scoring. It really seems like an Achilles heel in an otherwise gateway or family level game. Adjacency is not one simple concept - adjacency works differently depending on the scenario. I found it really hard to understand when it mattered about where my meeple was standing versus when it only mattered if an area of flower beds, or even a garden was connected to a fountain. I really can't  imagine confidently explaining this to new players to give them a fighting chance in the game.


Besides the tricky scoring rules, the way you play is extremely simple, and yet there's surprising variety and depth in the game. Picking and placing tiles can be motivated by adjacencies, area control, or perhaps just by the mix of different coloured gems you need. Or, you might be desperately looking for an opportunity to place a meeple, or alternatively really wanting to activate certain powers or end game scoring elements on your player board. There's a lot of aspects to motivate a decision, and the only drawback is that you actually don't have many choices. Paying gems to jump around the rondel seems like a big sacrifice and isn't something you want to do too often in the game. Your personal player board also offers you lots of possibilities, between some tactical choices in the bottom row and some strategic end-game objectives in the upper row. The fact that you have to use the bottom row first means that you really have to tie your tactical decisions to your long term strategy too.

I've definitely enjoyed playing Ishtar, especially once Amy and I started to get very competitive over fountains. Perhaps it's misguided to get obsessed when the fountains contribute a decent, but not huge number of points to your final score, but it feels like the one really competitive part of the game and certainly added some interest for us. On the other hand, I don't want to have to prep the players at my table to play in a way that doesn't feel natural to them, to get the most interesting and enjoyable experience out of the game on the table. 

Ishtar is a really nice family game, which could serve as a small step up from a Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. There's plenty of different strategies and ways to score in the game that give you varied experiences in each game and keep gamers interested too. 


You Might Like...
  • Ishtar has a great look to at with fantastic production, making it really enticing.
  • The game can get really competitive, sometimes surprising you with the way you can block opponents.
  • The ability to upgrade yourself to score points in different ways to your opponents adds variety and replayability to the game.
  • It's a really small touch, but having a setup sheet separate to the main rulebook allows two people to participate in setting up and learning the game, to help speed things up.
You Might Not Like...
  • The difference between gardens and flowerbeds and the different ways that adjacency counts for scoring seems overly complicated for the weight of the game.
  • In a 2-player game you might not naturally compete over the temples - ending up with two each by default.

The Verdict
6.5/10 Ishtar is a great looking abstract game. Its quality and look give it a feel of a really good gateway, family game from a company like Days of Wonder. The only aspect that might turn you off it as a family game is the slightly fiddly scoring. Otherwise it's a delight and a really great combination of tile laying and resource management.


Ishtar was a review copy kindly provided to us by CoiledSpring Games.

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