23 November 2019
Make the desert bloom
Ishtar is a strategic game of choices. It is touted as a game to mix cooperation and competition, and it delivers in watering-cans-full.
It’s a tile-laying game which may put you in mind of Carcassonne. Take tiles in order, play them on to the board, and play an action from the tile, if there is one. These actions may be to place an assistant meeple to claim a flowerbed and garden, or upgrade a skill to gain a momentary or persistent advantage. When placing your funny shaped vegetation (triangle, straight, bananaish) ensure you’re connected to a fountain or other greenery, and collect any gems underneath. You can’t connect two fountains and you can’t connect to a garden already owned by a player (including yourself ). Spend your gems on trees, upgrades and so on, and plant trees if you have acquired one. Do this until the tiles begin to run out and tot up the points. Sounds simple? It is, but the gardens of Ishtar have deep roots.
Some of the draw of tile laying games is the collaborative aspect: together, you build a world that is both aesthetically interesting and playfully wonky. You are solving a board with your friends, even if, in the end, you’re trying to be the owners of the best garden in the desert. The game is lush in its design, making it a satisfying pleasure in turn the arid (if gem-strewn) land green and blooming. As is buying an attractive tree card and placing the lovingly hewn little green trees on an open vegetation tile. The tree cards are so interestingly verdant and varied that it’s very easy to assume this is the only way to win on your first play-through. In Ishtar, because the laying of the tiles isn’t directly competitive, it does feel like a co-authored experience.
The competition comes in whatever form you want it to – and it’s less combative for that. You might decide that you want to gather the most gems and also upgrade your skills so that your victory is in the form of leftover wealth. Or you could focus on collecting trees, or the adjacency of sacred stone tablets in your garden. You could decide you want to just grow the most flowers, and connect the biggest contiguous flower bed. You may decide on trying to own as many fountains as possible is your key to victory. But you do have to make a choice of how you want to play.
With this variety of options you tend to leave something on the table at the end of game. It’s one of those games where people sit back and discuss what they should have done differently, noticing the slight edges their opponents got on them and commending them for it. You want to play the game as soon as you finish it because there were so many strategies you did not manage to enact. You know next time, you can play differently, and you want that next time to be immediately.
CHRISTOPHER JOHN EGGETT
PLAY IT? YES
Designer: Bruno Cathala, Evan Singh
This review originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.