Bruno Cathala and Evan Singh
I have to be honest, I haven’t heard of this game prior to playing it. This is not the first time a Bruno Cathala game slipped under my radar. Mr. Cathala has been extremely productive, perhaps even too productive because many of his designs have slipped through the cracks. I think there is a general sentiment, from reading the web, that many games from French designers are solid, albeit uninspiring. Yes, this is a gross generalization and a stereotype for sure but to be fair, many such games that have come out off late barely registered a blip of excitement and sometimes, not even well-publicized. However, I want to reiterate that a majority of these games are solid, staple Euros from experienced designers with outstanding production values. They are great games for almost everyone, with the exception of lifestyle gamers with sky high expectations or members of the Cult of the New. After all, Mr. Cathala is not an unknown quantity. His hits include Kingdomino, 5 Tribes, Shadows over Camelot and Abyss, all of which are outstanding games.
Ishtar is a tile-laying game closer to Carcassonne than it is to other polyominos game like Patchwork or My City. Garden tiles basically come in 3 configurations and players are tasked to assemble these tiles into gardens centered around fountains. Each tile consists of 3 segments which may or may not contain flower beds. By placing adjacent tiles, one tries to string together a series of touching flower beds to gain control of the fountain. An assistant must be placed on the garden to claim ownership. The goal is to construct the largest garden with the most number of flower beds to win control of the fountain. That is but one path for scoring victory points. In fact, Ishtar is unique for a tile laying game because it has many ways to score VPs. For example, apart from controlling of the fountain, each flower bed spots 1-4 flowers, scoring 1 VP per flower at end game.
Every time a garden tile is placed, there is a good chance you will also get to collect gems placed on the terrain. Gems come in three colors and are scattered generously throughout the board locations. These gems can either be used to purchase trees for planting or can also be used to unlock skills. To plant trees, gems of different colors and combinations are required with some trees requiring more gems and worth more VPs. Besides picking up a trees, scoring the VPs, one gets to place a tree meeple on one of your own empty garden spots. Normally, these planted trees do not mean much as they don’t score extra VPs’ unless you have further unlocked certain skills.
The other function of gems is to unlock skills on individual player boards. In general, there are two skill levels. Unlocking tier 1 skills yield instantaneous, one-off benefits while tier 2 skills are associated with scoring end game VPs’. Unlocking tier 1 skills is a prerequisite for unlocking tier 2 skills. For example, one of the tier 2 skills will earn you 2 VPs per tree planted in your own garden. So, gems can be used not only for planting trees, but also to unlock skills. These are all viable paths for accruing VPs’
Ishtar isn’t particular complex game and neither is it particularly long. Yet, there is much to do during the game and some meaningful choices to make. The scoring paths are more than what you would expect from a typical tile laying game. At least for a base game. We are not talking about the Mega Carcassonne bundle here. Because the game isn’t drawn out, some amount of specialization is expected. You may get to unlock only a few skills each game, so choosing your path early may guide your tactical approach for the remainder of the game. For example, one tier 2 skill allows you to hoard gems for scoring. Normally gems are worth zilch at the end of the game. However with this skill, hoarding gems to earn VPs’ is presumably a way to win. The question is if this single skill alone is sufficient to win since it comes at a cost: You can collect gems, but would have to forgo unlocking more skills or planting trees because these two actions require gems.
Many tile laying games are on the lighter spectrum of complexity in the world of Euros. The base game of Carcassonne, Alhambra or Kingdom Builder comes to mind. These games also have a massive set of expansions. In that sense, Ishtar doesn’t feel similar. It feels slightly heavier and complete in that an expansion is not needed. I also don’t see an easy way to expand the game without more bloat. Unlike Carcassonne which can just introduce more tiles or Kingdom Builder with more ways to calculate VPs, Ishtar feels like a complete package. The multiple paths to accrue VPs is a nice touch and not too overbearing that it becomes a point salad affair. I think the scoring really does make the game way more replayable if not at least provide tactical variation each game. The double-sided modular game boards that can be arranged in multiple configurations also improve replayability. The question is whether all routes to victory are viable or some combinations of scoring are required. The only way to tell that is to play more.
Ishtar is no doubt a solid tile laying Euro. However, I suspect many gamers will play it but won’t clamor to own it. A new comer to the game will probably appreciate it more after whetting their appetites on gateway games. I don’t think this is the type of game where users will pine for reprints 10 years down the road. There are just too many game of this category out in the market and there is not hook or twist that distinguishes Ishtar from others. This will probably just be another game du jour and unfortunately, like many other games of this weight category, it will be played, enjoyed and then quickly swamped by a deluge of new publications.
Initial impressions: Good