Bruno Cathala and Evan Singh with Artwork by Biboun join with French Games Company Iello to bring us ISHTAR: GARDENS of BABYLON
This is a 2-4 player (14+) 45 minutes - 60 minutes game of tile laying, area control and worker placement. RRP is £43.99 / $49.99
There are many games available of this genre so for me to recommend one above another there has to be something uniquely or mechanically different; ISHTAR is a game I am happy to recommend.
There are 6 hexagonal Terrain boards that butt together to form the playing area. You only need one board per player and how you position these (shape) is up to you. It is of consequence though as the more stretched out you lay them (as in placing them a line) can drastically change the way the game is played. It is suggested, by the designers and by myself, that your first game features a fairly solid block, ensuring that each tile touches at least two other tiles (Note: this is only a suggestion but it makes for a good strategic challenge).
There is another game board, the 'Carpet' which is laid next to the 'island' of tiles you have created. On the carpet there are 6 oval spaces onto which you place the six oval-shaped tiles, shuffled and face down to begin with. Once all oval tiles are placed flip them face up and give the Watering Can to the chosen first player who then places it on their choice of oval tile.
There are five types of tiles (Blooming Tokens and Vegetation Tiles) the majority of which fall into three shapes, each of three spaces. These shapes are 'L' (or 'V' depending on how you look at them), Straight, 3 spaces in a straight line and Triangular (one space atop two spaces), they can be placed in any rotation. The other two types of tile - the Blooming Tokens - are either Doubles or Singles and are all Flower Spaces as opposed to Grass Spaces.
There are many other components, the most significant being wooden Trees and player Assistants and 6 plastic 3-tiered Fountains, these being in three colours Purple (3) Red (2) and White. Cards; Gems, a scoring pad and a Set-Up Sheet completing the list of pieces. It should be noted that the 'Setting Up the Game Sheet' is separate from the Rules Booklet and that the information on it, on both sides, doesn't appear in said Rules Booklet; the flip side info shows the Skills and description of them found on the Player Boards
So we have a box with intriguing cover art, a good many quality produced game pieces and a plastic insert that has been dutifully designed to comfortably hold all of those pieces - though to be honest even with such a well made insert I personally still put the small pieces (Trees and Assistants) into zip-loc bags first - the Fountains are safer in separate indents in the insert - in fact there is a specific space for every separate component type.
The game is about planting trees in the Gardens of Babylon and the currency of ISHTAR is Gems which are found amongst the rocks of the Sand, Rock and Stone terrain of the hexagonal terrain boards. These gems/resources are placed in appropriate spaces at the beginning of the game, on the rock spaces where there are gems printed. You obtain these by placing Vegetation Tiles over them. Some of the Vegetation Tiles have symbols on them, specifically a White 'assistant' shape, a White Question Mark or a White Star (the icon used for Skill). If you place one of these tiles you may place an Assistant (it is not mandatory), you may unlock a Skill on your player board, or the Question Mark is 'Wild' being thus either an Assistant or a Skill.
The Skills, each specifically explained on the flip side of the Set-Up sheet, are in two Rows on the Player Boards, 5 Skills in each row, one skill above the other; these are considered to be locked. When a Skill icon (or Wild) is on the Vegetation tile you may use any of the Skills in the lower row by playing any two of your accrued Gems on it. This unlocks it and allows access to the Skill above it, making it available to be unlocked on a later turn. The Rules say that only one Skill can be unlocked each turn and that each Skill can only be unlocked once - the Gems remain on it. The Skills on the lower row may only be used once (unlock = use) the Skills in the top row have to be unlocked to activate them. They are all End of Game scoring bonuses, with the exception that one of them also gives the advantage during play of allowing you to consider Assistant icons on Vegetation tiles as Skill icons if you wish, thus allowing you to open more Skills - the more top row skills you can open the better chance you have of adding to your score at the end of the game. It should be noted though that these Top row Skills are dependent on you having the necessary associated requirements.
Trees are required to make your land holdings Victory Point viable. You get trees by spending Gems according to the value of the Tree card that you want, paying the correct Gems (colour and number) into the Supply and taking the Tree card (you can only buy one at a time but you can buy more than one in your turn) from the face up display. Put the bought card face down in front of you and place a Tree on any free Grass space on the playing area - note it doesn't have to be placed on the tile you just played. The Tree cards also have VP values which add on to your score at the end of the game. You also score points for the number of Flowers in areas you control.
I have mentioned Vegetation Tiles several times but not how you get them. This is another of the clever rules Bruno and Evan have created. The player going first has put the Watering Can on one of the Oval (aka Cup) tiles and from there they can move one step to the next tile and activate the effect of that tile. If they want to use the effect of another tile instead they have to spend Gems to move over the tiles inbetween where the Watering Can begins and where you want it to land. This 'Carpet' can be used tactically. The next player always moves the Watering Can on one step and has the effect of the tile landed on. If you can see that this tile would be very useful to the next opponent player then landing on it yourself means the next player will have to spend six Gems to be able to land back on it - spending six Gems is an awful lot of Gems to give up.
As I noted earlier, there are numerous games on the market of a similar genre and ISHTAR is indeed a game with enough to offer that is different from those others. It is a game I am happy to play fairly regularly - like all games, great, good or average, overplay them and they get put aside and 'forgotten'. ISHTAR is not a game I want to 'forget' any time soon.