Full disclosure: A preview copy of Gardens of Babylon was provided by Cackleberry Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Kickstarter month continues in style with Gardens of Babylon! I think I have Kickstarters for the next few weeks, anyways, so keep up with those on my site; there are always more Kickstarter games, from Button Shy to Quality Beast to Weird Giraffes. It’s a great time to break into the hobby and try some new games.
Either way, in Gardens of Babylon, the king has decreed that the most beautiful garden in the world will be constructed for his wife (which is a thing you can do when you’re a king, so, go monarchy). You are a member of a prestigious … /checks notes/ gardening guild, who seeks to curry favor with the king by making sure that the gardens are rich and beautiful, but mostly because of your flowers. However, you’re not the only one trying to plant that idea in the king’s mind, as other guilds have sent their finest to compete against you, as well. Will the possibility of your victory be able to take root? Or is it going to re-seed back into impossibility?
So, for setup, a few things. First, decide if you’re playing the short game or the long game, and set up the tile base:
13 tile base for the long game, 10 tile base for the short game.
Give players the appropriate gardener meeples to match:
- 1 player: 12 meeples for the long game, 6 for the short game.
- 2 players: 12 meeples each for the long game, 6 for the short game.
- 3 players: 8 meeples each for the long game, 4 for the short game.
- 4 players: 6 meeples each for the long game, 3 for the short game.
Once you’ve done that, give everyone the seed tokens in their color:
Also set aside the scoring tiles — we’ll use those later for things.
Take the tiles and shuffle them:
You’ll want to add four face-up below the start tiles to create the tile pool. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start!
So, you’re gardeners competing to plant the most beautiful flowers and fill Babylon with your guild’s flowers of choice. Makes sense. As you plant, however, the seeds flow down the waterfalls and cascade, which may allow you to bump out other players. The higher up you are, the more points you score, and the player with the most points wins. To that end, be strategic, but don’t forget to account for uh, downstream effects.
On your turn, you must Place and Draw, but between those you may Move and Plant. Let’s talk about each in turn.
- Place: Play one of the four tiles in the tile book anywhere in the Pyramid. Note that you may only play a tile in a spot with two tiles underneath of it, and it must be right-side up.
- Move: Choose a gardener. If none of yours are on the board, you may place one of yours on any of the base tiles of your choice. You may move up to three spaces before you get exhausted from the heat. Note that a space is moving up or down a staircase or through a doorway. If you ever pass a terrace with no plant on it, you must stop. As a nice bonus, though, your gardeners will help each other out, so if you move to a space with your own gardener, you will get a bonus 3 movement.
- Plant: This is kind of the crux of the game. If the pool on the tile that your gardener moved to has no seed, you may place one of your seeds in it. The seeds follow the water and cascade down following the path of the water. If that unbroken path leads to another pool, add a seed there, too. Incidentally, if an opponent’s seed is there, bump it out and replace it with your seed. This is the only way to replace seeds in the game. If you choose not to move a gardener, just choose a gardener on a tile and add a seed to the empty pool.
- Draw: Draw a new tile and add it to the tile pool. There’s not much to say about this one.
In a three player short game (or in a long game), the game ends when the last tile is placed on the pyramid. In all other quick games, the game ends when the second to last tile is placed. Score as follows:
- Each seed is worth a number of points equal to its level. A seed on Level 8 is worth 8 points; a seed on Level 4 is worth 4.
- A seed in a pool next to a panel with flowers on it is worth bonus points equal to the number of flowers. A panel can have 1 – 4 flowers on it.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
So, like many games of this style, I tend to prefer it at two players. I think, personally, the strategy is interesting at any player count, but it’s very possible to gang up on one player (pretty easily, imo) and make the game kind of a mess for them, which isn’t always super fun for me. If your group doesn’t really play like that, then, well, no problems ahead, but I’m cognizant of the temptation to do so and the game doesn’t exactly disincentivize that kind of behavior (nor can it, realistically). Also, this game has a penchant for some analysis paralysis, so, with four players you might start running into some serious downtime, so, buyer beware.
- Focusing on the lower levels only gets you so much. It’s unlikely that you’ll get all of them, and overfocusing on them just leaves you vulnerable to cascades from above. That said, there are fewer opportunities to claim tiles at the top, so if you wait too long to claim, your opponent might have already closed off certain cascade paths or made the chains less valuable.
- Certain movements are protected. If you’re building on the edge and you don’t want someone to steal your seed, place tiles with waterways going off the board. This increases the number of tiles you can play, but nobody can play off of those spots, so they can’t cascade into your business and steal stuff. It’s pretty ideal, if I do say so myself.
- You can absolutely dunk on workers. Making it difficult for other players’ workers to climb the pyramid is an absolutely good strategy. Watch how you’re placing stairs and doors; you can usually trap at least one or two of your opponents’ workers on lower levels, which basically knocks them out of the game and limits your opponents’ options. It’s cruel, yes, but it’s not necessarily the worst move to make.
- If you can’t take a spot, it might be worth letting someone else have it. If you can make it undesirable, nobody will take it. If you can make it vulnerable, even if someone takes it, you have a chance to take it back later in the game. I think the latter strategy is more tenable (especially as the game gets close to its end; players will take anything at that point), but you’ll have to see how players respond to it to be sure.
- Don’t send all your workers up one pyramid. That lets your opponent potentially set themselves up for combos. You really want to be hanging out on every sub-pyramid that’s available. It doesn’t necessarily spread you thin, unless you’re not building scalably.
- Certain tiles are best placed early in the game, in my opinion. A particular example of this is a 4-flower pool with two incoming waterways. This tile will change hands countless times over the course of the game, but if you place it early you can start that back and forth, which is kind of amusing. Problematically, it offers no way to climb up, so if you wait to place it until the midgame you’re risking closing off important paths for your workers.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Neat theme. I haven’t seen the phrase “the cutthroat world of competitive gardening” in a game in a while. I’m mostly thinking of Uwe’s trilogy or Herbaceous, though I think The Last Garden was there, too? This is temporally a bit earlier, though, so that’s still pretty unique.
- The cascading effect is really cool. It’s a nice strategic piece that forces you to always be vigilant. At any time you could lose a fairly large chunk of your available seeds if you’ve set your paths up for failure. That’s pretty tough, but makes the game pretty challenging.
- Having a short game is appealing for people like me who don’t play long games. There’s not much of an engine-building component, so having it just end sooner isn’t that much of a drag on the game, in my opinion. Plus, the short game makes it easier for new players to learn without being punished too heavily in their first game.
- Fairly simple ruleset. It’s not a terribly complicated game to explain to people, which is a huge help.
- Having diminishing options as the game goes along helps speed up turns. It’s a nice way to try to combat AP, but I don’t think it’s always explicitly successful. More on that in cons.
- It looks pretty rad once it’s all done. It’s a giant pyramid with beautiful flowing waterfalls all crossing and interacting and stopping and starting and stopping again. It’s a really good look and it’s got a solid table presence. I played it at OrcaCon and got asked about it several times, which was fun. It’s always nice to tell people about upcoming games.
- I can’t figure out why this is the case, but players always get confused about the correct orientation of the tiles. I think that’s in part because there’s no good indication on the back of the tiles as to which side is up, and so when they flip over the tiles they’re somewhat disoriented. Either way, I’m hoping it’s more clear in the final product.
- I wish the flower panels were clearer. Again, likely going to be fixed in their full version, I hope.
- Game’s pretty rough for analysis paralysis-prone folks. Not only are you trying to optimize for a particular tile placement, but you have pretty explicit network effects in play, as you try to minimize or maximize flow to other tiles. This caused even me to spiral one game, and I’m not generally prone to much AP. For players that like to analyze all potential ramifications of their moves, this game can take a while. Maybe avoid the long game with those friends, too.
- The potential to gang up on players is dissatisfying. It happens in a lot of games with more than 2-player support, but it’s always a bit disappointing, in my opinion. To be fair to the designer, it is more of a player problem than a game problem, but it is legitimately in players’ best interest to collectively gang up on a player from time to time.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I enjoy Gardens of Babylon. I think, for me, tile-placement games need to innovate in some way to really earn a spot on my shelf, and this is a decent innovation, what with the waterfalls and the cascades. Thinking about the literal downstream effects of my actions can slow the game down a bit, but it’s a nice thought exercise and it’s an absolutely great game to look at. Having variable options to make the game shorter or longer that don’t seem to particularly change the game seems like the obvious right move, so I’m glad they so wholeheartedly went for it in their game. To be fair, Kickstarter games need to set themselves apart to have any chance of funding successfully, so its attempt to cover a lot of bases is probably (cynically) somewhat of an attempt to capitalize on two different audiences, but honestly I’m fine with that, so whatever. This game’s definitely going to appeal to fans of tile-laying, pyramids, or a bit of take-that, so if that describes you at all I’d recommend checking out Gardens of Babylon when it launches on Kickstarter! I’ve had fun with it.