Gardens of Babylon Board Game Review


Gardens of Babylon board game box cover

Year Published: 2019

Players: 1-4

Playing Time: 60 Minutes

Everyone has a weakness. In fact, most of us have several. There’s some theme, or idea, or mechanic that simply lights up our synapses and brings our creativity faculties to full attention. It’s in these moments that we’re engaged and entertained.

One of my weaknesses is mazes.

When I was in school, other kids would doodle, or write notes to other kids in class (this was before cell phones were ubiquitous). Me? I drew mazes. Magnificently intricate ones, too. The beasts I would create looked like brains had grown into the sheets of my notebooks, with complicated nooks and crannies pointing every which way.

I developed a love of mazes and labyrinths as a result, and any work of art or puzzle that resembles one almost instantly has my curiosity.

Gardens of Babylon is a maze that you create and navigate. I also think it’s a good game. At least a small portion of my love of it is likely that childhood obsession with mazes, but I’ve encountered enough other gamers without that obsession who also really enjoy Gardens of Babylon that I’m convinced there’s something worth talking about here.

So let’s talk about it.

Climbing the Tower

The game is very simple to learn. You’re building a ziggurat with interlocking gardens throughout the structure. The tiles are linked variously by stairways and tunnels that allow you to move around.

On your turn, you place a tile near the base (touching two others) from a face-up pool of tiles, then either place one of your workers along the base or move one of them up to three spaces. Once you have multiple workers crawling around the ziggurat, you can “slingshot” them by meeting up with another meeple in your three allotted moves. If you do, you’re “refreshed” and have another three movement available. So savvy placement and movement can yield large jumps around the board.

You must stop at any unplanted gardens (represented by open pools of water). The pools often connect downward to other pools. When you plant a garden, your seeds will cascade down to every pool linked beneath it. At the end of the game, your points are based on the pools you control with planted seeds, with higher levels being worth progressively more points. Since this is a ziggurat, there are less at the top, so you may be lucky to get a single 10-point garden, but will likely have half a dozen 1-point gardens.

The ziggurat itself will become formidable in its size. You won’t be able to control all of it, especially since everyone is moving around the same structure and vying for the same pools.

The Beauty of Abstraction

This is an abstract puzzle, albeit a beautiful one. Like any abstract, the interesting bits are twofold:

  • The number and nuance to the decisions you’ll have to make.
  • The maneuverings of your opponent(s) trying to do the same.

For an example of the first, NOT connecting one pool to another can be as important as connecting them, because you might be able to create a terminus for a particular chain of pools. If you can reach the highest of those pools first, everything beneath is not only yours, but cannot be stolen back on a later turn.

So the game becomes a bit of a risk/reward proposition. Getting points or pools isn’t hard. Keeping them certainly is. And knowing when to link pools or not depending on your ability to reach them and the proximity of opponents is a dance with very few clear answers.

The other dance comes with your meeples. You’ll actually get more of them than you’ll likely want to use. Controlling everything, everywhere, is a pipe dream, so a focus on, say, half of your meeples might be better. Someone with eight meeples on the board could easily lose to someone with three, if those three are intelligently positioned and moved.

So when and where you introduce them, and how and when you move them, becomes an important decision. Some of the most impactful moves in the game won’t involve anyone claiming any pools, but rather will position meeples for long-term opportunities.

Jostling for Position

And of course, you’re doing this together. This isn’t Sudoku. This is a battle. It’s just fought over moves that have the same calculated nature as a Chess move.

Granted, this isn’t at a level of depth to match Chess. Not nearly. But that’s no sin.

However, it’s not as scripted as some abstracts because of the semi-random tiles draws and multiple opponents. You’re elbowing all the way up the pyramid. And if you’re not, someone is probably getting a whole lot of uncontested points.

Strategy Vs. Tactics

This feels like a tactical game, but I definitely see elements of longer-term strategy to it. I’ve won a fair amount of the time because I’ve done things like move my meeples into positions that can take advantage of future tile placements. I don’t know what those tiles will be yet, but I’m creating options for myself.

Seeing the board state slowly shift, and adjusting accordingly to whomever is “winning” at the time is another idea that has reaped rewards for me. It never looks like I’m specifically targeting anyone (or vice versa). Turn to turn, it’s just an in-the-moment decision. But – like the gardens themselves in the stonework of the game’s art – you can hang overarching ideas onto your strategy that make the tactical decisions more cohesive.

The Assyrian Expansion & Solo Play

There’s a Kickstarter-exclusive expansion (in the Deluxe edition, which looks to still be available in limited quantities on the publisher’s website) available for the game that introduces die rolls and poisoned pools. I haven’t played with it. It’s entirely optional, but I say this to make clear what this review covers.

From my understanding, it adds some luck and “take that” mechanics in the form of the poisoned gardens.

The game also offers solo play. I’m not a huge solo gamer, so I’m not the intended audience. To my eye, it’s not nearly as fun, since the interplay between live opponents makes or breaks this game. Beating the “AI” opponent in solo mode shouldn’t be a huge challenge for most experienced players, but I could see “beat my high score” being a viable goal.

Still, the puzzle itself is lovely. If you are a solo gamer, there’s probably more fun to be had than I will get out of it.

Who Won’t Like This

The theme is essentially pointless. The gardens could be anything. It could be a black & white true abstract with no theme. So those who love deeply thematic games can pass.

This is a tactical spatial puzzle, not an engine builder that permits long-term stratagems. Those unused to this particular type of puzzle may be turned off from it, the opposite of how its maze-like art entranced me.

Also, those with smaller tables. This one is a table hog, and because the tiles need to interlock in a specific way, there’s no good way to spread it out in a way where a small-ish table could conceivably hold it.

Availability of Gardens of Babylon

This game didn’t really catch on. As far as I can tell, it had a single print run from its Kickstarter. Copies are available on the publisher’s website, but they look to be leftovers from that same Kickstarter print run.

This is a shame, but it happens. The good news is, as of my writing this, the game is still available on the aforementioned site. The bad news is, at some point I’m guessing it won’t be, after which it will be hard to find a copy. It’s also likely never going to generate a ton of buzz. The art and presentation can go a long way toward convincing people to play, but no one will be seeking it out if you don’t first recommend playing it.


Did I mention the game’s over in under an hour? Well, it is, despite the 60 minute time on the box. There’s also a shortened version that can be played in about half an hour. Any game that can provide a “deeper than filler” experience and is legitimately over in under an hour is well on its way to gaining my praise.

The labyrinthine passages you’ll create, and how you’ll be able to work within them, allows players to feel really clever. I like feeling clever, and I like seeing others make clever moves, even if it’s to my detriment in a game. This game is rife with opportunities for being clever.

Its limited availability and popularity also means it instantly goes into my short list of “hidden gems.” We throw that phrase around a lot, but if a game is popular, receiving multiple print runs, and/or has a lot of praise, it’s frankly not that hidden. Gardens, though, is both eminently hidden (unfortunately) and a gem (fortunately).

The fact that it isn’t deeply narrative and isn’t a long game means that it will never carry the weight (literal and figurative) of meatier games of the hobby. But frankly, when I’m done with the “big” game on a game night, and want something that will actually engage me in that last hour, instead of simply pleasantly passing the time, this is a great choice.

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