01st May2019

‘Istanbul’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


In Istanbul, two to five players each take on the role of a busy merchant hurrying through the bustling streets of the titular city. With a host of assistants trailing behind them, the merchants will collect valuable commodities, earn lira and visit various key locations in order to achieve their ultimate objective of earning enough gemstones to win the game. The Big Box version that I am reviewing includes the base game and the two main expansions for Istanbul, known respectively as Mocha and Baksheesh and Letters and Seals.

Even though it is now around five years old, Istanbul remains one of the classic modern board games that sit alongside the likes of Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride as staples of the genre. But where Settlers and TTR are designed as gateway games to hook and reel in new players, Istanbul is slightly more complex, making it ideal for players looking to take their next step in the expansive world of modern board games.

This slight increase in complexity comes primarily from processing the decisions needed to win a game of Istanbul, rather than from the actual mechanics. With both of the expansions, mechanical complexity does increase, but again, it’s really the number of decisions and the path to victory that become more complex. This is largely due to how Istanbul is laid out and because of its unique movement mechanism.

During setup, a number of location tiles will be placed on the table. The number varies between sixteen (four by four) and twenty five. The base game and both expansions offer recommended setups for new players, but experienced hands will probably want to randomly place all twenty five tiles and both expansions on most occasions. Full disclosure, I’ve never actually played Istanbul in its completely vanilla form, but I have played it with different subsets of the two expansions.

With the board set up, each player will take a wheelbarrow with three open slots in it, a tracker for each of four different resources (luxury, cloth, spices and fruits) and then a number of pieces. Assuming that both expansions are being used, then each player will place a merchant and four assistants onto the fountain space, plus a family member at the police station. A companion piece and a fifth worker will be placed off to the side.

On the board itself, there are various bits of additional setup to do. Mosque locations will have upgrade tiles placed on them, the tavern will have a barrier token placed onto it and then several tiles will have gems placed onto tracks which will vary depending on player count. Again, depending on which expansions are in play, up to four neutral pieces will be placed randomly into spaces, each offering a different interaction when met during the game.

With all of this and more (letters, coffee tokens, bonus cards and so on) done, the players will be ready to begin. On their turn, the player will pick up their merchant token, as well as any assistants sitting underneath it, and move all of them either one or two spaces. When this stack lands, the player will remove the bottommost assistant and place it on the tile, taking that tiles action in the process.

I’ll talk about what some of the tiles do in a moment, but based on this movement mechanism, the merchant will move around the board leaving assistants taking actions behind him. Once he leaves his last assistant behind, he’ll no longer be able to take actions and must either collect them one by one (by revisiting those tiles) and collecting them, or gather them all at once by returning to the fountain space.

In addition to the merchant and his assistants, the players also have access to a family member, who begins the game at the police station. When the merchant visits the police station, he may bail his family member out, sending them immediately to take the action on any other tile. The family member pawn stays at that location until another player visits that tile, at which point the shady character is caught and sent back to the police station, netting the capturing player three lira.

Should the players choose to use the companion module (which is part of the Letters and Seals expansion) then an additional piece (the companion) can be added into the game at the point when the merchant visits the fountain for the first time. The companion moves independently and can do everything that the merchant can, but he only moves one space at a time. Many players prefer to leave out the companion, as it makes the game dramatically easier to play and quite a lot faster.

As I mentioned earlier, each time an assistant, companion or family member are placed onto a tile, they’ll take the action associated with it. Each of the twenty five tiles does something slightly differently, although there are several that are similar to one another – for example, the small marker and the large market, or the two mosque tiles. The purpose, remember, is on gaining enough gems to win the game, which will be five or six depending on player count.

There are several ways to gain gems, most of which are clearly marked on the relevant tile. The gem trader, for example, asks for a fixed amount of lira per gem. The first gem purchased is cheapest, with each subsequent gem becoming a few coins more expensive. This means that chasing objectives early can be beneficial. The sultans palace works in the same way, except that players must trade goods instead of lira.

Both lira and goods must be earned before they can be traded for gems, of course, and there are numerous tiles that enable this. A tea house can be visited where the player will choose a number between three and twelve, then roll two dice – if the number is higher than their chosen number, they gain that much lira. If the number is low, they gain exactly two lira. All but luxury goods can be obtained via specific warehouses, whilst luxury goods can be obtained from the black market, or one or two other locations.

Whenever a goods warehouse is used to add goods to the merchants’ wheelbarrow, players will always take the maximum number that they can carry. At the beginning of the game, that’s two of each resource, but by visiting the wainwright and paying seven lira, the player can add additional capacity to their barrow. This can be done three times (in three separate visits) for a cost of twenty one lira, with players that complete their barrow also gaining a gem.

The players can also upgrade their overall capability with some passive effects, including adding the fifth assistant to their stack. These upgrades are obtained from the two mosque tiles and again, as each pair of upgrades at the two mosques are completed, the players will take a gem. As you can see even from this brief description, there are many ways to obtain gems, several of which are a by-product of achieving some other useful effect.

One of my favourite things about Istanbul is how each every move feels rewarding. Walking into a warehouse and immediately maxing out your linen store, or moving to the market and selling five goods for twenty odd lira just feels powerful. Despite the myriad of options, the game feels balanced as well, and even with inexperienced players, it’s rare for the game to finish with more than a couple of gems between first and last placed players.

Overall, Istanbul is a smart, thinking players game that offers some really interesting experiences that vary from one game to the next. Despite the random setup, it never feels unbalanced, and the end game can be quite nailbiting, with two or more players usually mapping out exactly how their last one, two or three turns will look in order to win, whilst also considering what their opponents might be doing to achieve the same.

Despite the many routes to victory and the variability, Istanbul offers a relatively straightforward learning experience, presenting new players with simple mechanics and a relatively gentle difficulty curve. Because every turn (with the possible exception of wandering back to the fountain) feels rewarding, it’s a game you can lose and still feel satisfied with. Overall, I think Istanbul belongs in almost any board game collection, and it is truly a modern classic.

****½  4.5/5

Istanbul is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.


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