The Ishtar board game is a family/gateway game that lasts less than an hour. It’s for two to four players, with an age range around 10+ (not 14+ as it says on the box).
It’s a tile-laying game, with the usual focus this entails: competitively creating areas to score points. But it’s less combative than a game such as Carcassonne, as once you claim an area it cannot be taken by an opponent.
The theme could quite literally be anything, as this is largely an abstract game. But the production and box insert are up to Iello’s usual high standards. Inside you’ll find 11 small boards, 26 cards, 56 cardboard tokens, 37 wooden pieces, 120 plastic pieces and a scoring pad. You can find the game for around £35; reasonably cheap for a nicely produced big-box board game.
Teaching the Ishtar board game
Gamers should find the game simple pick up, but new/gateway gamers may have more of a challenge. The concepts are simple, but the way they add up can seem confusing at first. Players take turns clockwise. On each you’ll start by taking a ‘vegetation tile’ and placing it on the main board. Hopefully you’ll like the look of the next tile in the circle of six, as taking a later one will cost you precious gems.
The main board contains a number of fountains (player count dependent). Each new tile placed has to either connect directly to a fountain, or an already placed tile. You can’t cover ‘sacred tablet’ spaces; nor can you place in a way that would connect tiles from two different fountains. Many spaces have gems on them: take any your tile covers up.
Vegetation tiles are made up of three spaces, each containing either grass or a flowerbed. Tiles with flowerbeds may also contain one of three symbols: assistant, skill or wild (allowing you to choose). If you have an available assistant (you start with two), you can put one on this space as you place the tile. This claims the flowerbed as your own. Unlike more aggressive games such as Carcassonne, once claimed a flowerbed is yours. however, you can expect other players to try and restrict how much you grow it.
skills to pay the bills
Your player board has eight skill spaces (four columns of two). Broadly speaking, the lower part of each column has an in-game effect – while the higher part has a way to score points at the end of the game. You can only claim a higher part of a column if you’ve already claimed its lower half. If a tile you place has a skill (or wild) icon, you may pay any two gems to claim one of these skills.
The last thing you can do on a turn is plant (0-5) trees. These see you spend gems to claim tree cards, giving you end game points (the more/rarer the gems they cost, the more points you get). You also get to plant a tree on any available grass space, which can potentially score you even more points (if you’ve opened up the right skill).
When two of the six vegetation tile stacks run out, the game end is triggered. You finish the current round, then total up your points. Everyone scores a point for each flower in their flower beds, plus the points on their tree cards. The player who controls the most flowerbed tiles connected to a fountain scores a few bonus points for that fountain. Finally, add on any extra points from opened skills. Most points wins.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: Ishtar has a nice game arc. It starts with these wide open spaces, where you can think long-term. You then alter direction as you see other players’ motives emerge (from both skills and tile placement); before the tight endgame, where you’re desperately looking for any spots to gain final advantages. But it’s a little short for me as a gamer, as these phases move a little fast. It’s like a race to get things in place, where not quite enough is in your control to find it satisfying.
- The thinker: I liked the sound of this when the rules were explained, but it wasn’t for me. The synergies between skills don’t follow logically, because the action you may want to take rarely marries up nicely with the scoring opportunity you want to exploit. This is frustrating, not satisfying. I’d rather open any second tier skill after opening any lower tier one (especially as the pairings felt arbitrary) – and they cost so many gems. Similarly, getting a tile you want seemed too expensive. I didn’t dislike my plays, but I wouldn’t seek to give it any more of my time.
- The trasher: Despite – in fact because of – the lack of obvious direct conflict, I found Ishtar quite intriguing. When you dominate a fountain majority, the natural thought is to expand – but making it’s reachable area smaller makes the majority easier to claim. Spreading yourself thinly across several restricted fountains can gain you quite a few bonuses, which similarly feels counter-intuitive. But its that lack of direct conflict creating these differing types of tension that makes it work.
- The dabbler: This is a super pretty game and nice to play – once you get the hang of it. There is just too much terminology – gardens, flower beds, grass, vegetation. They’re simply not words than make sense in a gaming context, so it’s hard to grock as you can’t really visualise things such as ownership. Why is it my flowerbed but not my garden? But it doesn’t take long – maybe one game. It’s also nice that you can try new strategies each play. You can ignore the skill scoring on your player at first, as there’s plenty of points to be made in basic ways.
Some complain the restrictions of the game feel underdeveloped. The randomness of how the tiles come up, for example – and the expense to get one you want – is a common gamer complaint. I can see this levels the playing field a bit, which makes it a good family game mechanism. But having no choice of tile (just take the next one) because you ran out of gems (which you need for everything) is battering ram subtle. Even letting you take one of the next two for free would’ve made a big difference.
On the family game side, the way links and restrictions work is far from obvious or intuitive – made worse by the choice of theme. You almost need to come out of the theme to get your head around how the dynamics work, which only goes to underline the abstract nature of the design. But the overwhelming feel of less positive comments is this is another reworking of ideas we’ve seen before, with nothing making it stand out.
But the game has a lot of fans; the words quoted over and again being ‘simple’, ‘pretty’, ‘quick’ and ‘light’. Many who love it treat it as a filler, with just enough extra meat to make it feel more substantial. That’s fine too. But if you’re going to put it in a big box (with a bigger price tag) and shower it with lovely components, I expect a little more. And yes, I realise this a ‘me’ complaint – I’m just not fussed by bling and prefer a game to fit its place in the hierarchy (ie, filler game equals £15-ish).
Conclusion: The Ishtar board game
Ishtar offers a solid tile-laying experience. It is well designed, well produced and does exactly what it says on the tin. It would be a fine purchase for a board-gaming family looking for a slightly meatier experience, as it gently introduces concepts such as skills and choices in how to score: staples of more complex designs. For newer gamers, who I presume are the target audience, I feel confident in recommending this.
But for experienced gamers, does it stand out from the crowd? In my opinion, the answer is no. My gamer friends have walked away feeling a little short-changed. The skills and scoring suggest strategies, but the game’s short length and luck of the tiles undermine them. This leaves the basics to stand on their own, which they don’t really do. Instead I’m left yearning for more interesting tile-layers (Fertility, or Orbital) which will ultimately keep this out of my collection.