Updated: Oct 24, 2020
The publishers IELLO and distributors Coiledspring Games have placed a sticker on the shrinkwrap of Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon proudly proclaiming that it's 'A Game by Bruno Cathala'. Bruno Cathala's design credits are shared with Evan Singh. Tho' there's no mention in the rules, I do feel Stefan Dorra ought also to get a mention because, whether consciously or coincidentally, Ishtar bears a degree of similarity to his game, Medina (Stronghold/White Goblin/Gigamic) - tho' that's no bad thing as Medina is a good game.
In Ishtar, the players are creating the legendary Gardens of Babylon by planting gardens adjacent to fountains to create and extend flowerbeds; doing so usually rewards them with gems; said gems are mostly used to plant trees or trigger one-off special actions and end-game scoring bonuses. Almost everything a player does generates points but there are limited paths to wander in this garden so the game does not feel like you're cultivating a points salad.
After taking the time to setup, players will likely admire the twinkly board and art by Biboun - a play at my regular game group was interrupted several times with, 'Ooh, that looks nice!' - then run through a turn sequence of acquiring a garden tile, placing said tile, collecting gems, possibly taking a special action and/or planting a tree. The gems are the game's currency: each board yields many purples, some red and a few white ones; with tree cards priced according to rarity. The gems can also be used to move extra spaces on the garden tile selection board, which can be crucial if you just can't get an Assistant into play. Here, though, the price is simply 'per gem', so the common purples are probably best spent on this; similarly the special actions cost any two gems, so spending a red or white is usually unwise, although one end-game bonus intriguingly inverts this.
Aside from the desert setting, Ishtar's similarity to Medina comes through most strongly with the planting and control of gardens: starting next to a fountain, they cannot touch each other when extended (like Medina's buildings) and are not controlled by any player until an Assistant is placed in a flowerbed (like placing a roof in Medina). Although here the flowerbeds can still be grown once owned, there remains the similar feeling of not wanting to make an area so attractive that another player will take it on their turn but good enough that you will want it by your next one. Greed might get the better of you, though: taking three sparkly gems can be worth such a loss. Bear in mind that denying others space to grow can be better for you in the long term: a craftily dug garden might simultaneously block another player from expanding theirs. A common player-count issue arises here: while blocking your opponent on a reduced two-player board is a zero-sum gain, at three or four players, your suboptimal move also profits others.
While Medina offered a fixed number of roofs, the opportunity to play your Assistants in Ishtar is not guaranteed: you are at the whim of the available garden tiles and your ability to move around the selection board. Even so, the special actions are powerful enough that you might choose that bonus instead, ranging from taking two gems of your choice to scoring extra points at the game's end. There is a fixed seven points option, but also two variable adjacency bonuses: one for sacred tablets, shown on the modular game boards; the other for trees, which you can plant each turn if you can afford it. Knowing that a player is going for one of those bonuses can strongly inform the round-to-round play and placement.
I am aware that I have mentioned Medina several times in this review: that's because the similarity in the area control aspect is so striking. However, while those tactical considerations are replicated on the game board, Ishtar offers a greater diversity of strategic options through the player boards, with those ten special actions letting each player tailor a different 'build'. The 'push-your-luck' element is not as strong in Ishtar, which was a little disappointing after anticipating it, but players have more agency in manipulating game length, whether they want it or not.
Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon is a solid area control game with excellent production values and a great insert. If you don't own the weighty other game I keep mentioning and haven't played it, Ishtar offers a similar area control experience in a comparable timeframe. It is probably more family friendly than its predecessor, although players can choose to be quite thorny with their garden growing if they want to...
(Review by David Fox)