Publisher: Pegasus Spiele / AEG
Istanbul is Rudiger Dorn’s 2014 award-winning hit that has spawned multiple expansions. You know a game is popular when a “Big Box” format is released by the publisher to compile all the promos and expansions for the base game. A quick scan of BGG reveals that Istanbul was nominated for multiple awards in 2014 including IGA, Swiss Gamers, BGG’s Golden Geek but the big Kahuna is winning the 2014 Kennerspiele des Jahres from Germany. While I do not recall the competition for KdJ that year, I think Dorn richly deserves the award. His previous game Goa which came out a decade ago was underrated in a way that it wasn’t particularly successful in the awards circuit. Istanbul is a much simpler game compared to Goa and it flashes all the hallmarks of an interactive Euro that is the bread and butter for these designers. Whether you enjoy playing Istanbul will really depend on whether you are fan of the old school Euros.
In Istanbul, players race around a 4 x 4 modular board to collect gems. Depending on the number of players, the first person to collect 5 or 6 gems in total wins the game. In the base game, there are only a total of 16 tiles to form the board and one can either use the recommended tile arrangements or randomly distribute the tiles. The tile locations are critical because they can really determine the length of the game as well as the strategy behind meeple movement and action selection. Different board setups have been proposed for the game, including a beginner version as well as several more challenging arrangments.
In Istanbul, the action selection mechanism involves moving your merchant to different tiles to perform different actions. Your merchant is accompanied by a cadre of assistants, 4 to start the game. These assistants are discs that stack beneath your merchant. To trigger an action on a tile, your merchant can move up to 2 spaces orthogonally on the board and either leave an assistant behind on the tile or pick up a previously left-behind assistant. If you are unwilling or do not have the ability to drop off or pick up assistants, you cannot perform the tile action. This spatial requirement subtly constraints the available actions you can take and forces you to plan your movements a little better as you can only visit so many sites before you run out of assistants. Because picking up assistants can also trigger actions, it encourages you to revisit certain tiles you previously stopped by. In this way, the game is clever in forcing players to maximize movement and to figure out certain profitable “loops” to exploit. If you can find an efficient way to move between certain tiles to pick up resources, convert and purchase gems, then you will win the game.
Between the two mosques and wainwright, you can pick up 3 gems. You don’t necessarily have to pick the gems from these 3 locations, instead, you can head to the gem stone dealer to purchase gems directly from the market. There is a fixed track on the gemstone dealer’s tile with specific number of gems laid out depending on player count. As each gem is sold to players, the price of the gems increase from 12 coin for the first gem and 24 coin for the final gem. There is no limit to how many gems you can purchase from the dealer so long as you have the cash. However, since there is a fixed number of gems, it’s a race to see who can pick up gems at a cheaper price. Similarly, you can also offer goods at the Sultan’s Palace. A quick visit to the palace allows you to offer resources to the Sultan. Like the gem dealer, there are a fixed amount of gems available and with each gem removed, the additional costs for the next gem is uncovered and one needs to pay more resources just to pick up the next gem. Again, there is no limit to how many times you can exchange your resources for gems so long as you have the right combination of resources to offer.
Apart from tiles that offer up gems or resources for pick up, Mr. Dorn has decided to introduce some variable elements to the game by introducing dice. The game includes a handful of tiles (black market and tea house) where die rolls allow you to pick up more coin or resources (especially the jewelry resource that appear only on secondary markets). In grand Euro fashion, the mosque tiles or special power action cards can mitigate some of the bad die rolls, so overall, it is not a big deal. That said, it’s not entirely clear to me why the need to introduce dice to the game. Clearly, this game can be a pure calculation and efficiency engine-builder that does not need require the injection of randomness. Perhaps the game might come across as too dry without some controlled chaos?
To further spice things up, Mr. Dorn also introduced additional neutral pieces such as the Governor, Smuggler and Family members. Landing on tiles with these neutral pieces trigger additional benefits. Once triggered, these neutral figures will be relocated to a different tile depending on the dice roll. The Governor allows you to pick up power cards while the Smuggler will enable you to pick up one additional resource type, for a price of course. The family members are interesting additions. If you land on a tile with other family members, you can send them to jail and pick up a reward (power cards or money). Others can do the same to your family member. You can subsequently visit the police station tile to spring your relatives from prison and send them to any tile you like on the modular board to perform an action that does not trigger any further neutral pieces. In a way, capturing family members actually benefits your opponent as well as they can then send their family member to other tiles upon visiting the police station. This aspect of the game feels like an afterthought to balance distribution of location visits. I get the feeling that some tiles won’t be visited as often because due to die roll, it is loaded with too many neutral pieces and can get quite expensive to visit (visiting a tile with other player merchants automatically triggers payment of 2 Lira, before you can perform an action). Sending a family member over is essentially a free action as it does not trigger all these other neutral pieces on the location. Apart from the tiles described above, a few other tiles I have yet to mention include the Caravanserai which allows you to pick up power cards, the Post office which is another place for picking up resources from a rotating selection of goods, the Big and Small marketplaces where you can sell goods for coin and finally, the fountain where your merchant meeple can visit to recall all your assistants.
I recently reviewed Il Vecchio and commented on Mr. Dorn’s continued excellence in producing light-to-medium weight Euros that is heavy on player interactions. I think Istanbul continues this trend. This is a simple race game to collect resources and converting them to gems even though it requires some subtle strategies and short-term tactics to maximize movement and to grab opportunities as they come by. For one thing, the markets which allows you to sell goods can fluctuate. As goods are sold and tiles are flipped over, the newer tiles maybe more lucrative for you depending on the distribution of goods in demand. Being able to position and move the meeple merchant to the markets on the fly could end up being the game winner. Similarly, the post-office has different selections of resources and it is worth keeping an eye on what is being offered. The person who wins is likely the one that figures out the optimal loop between the different tiles on the board to perform the necessary actions for getting gems.
Istanbul is not groundbreaking even by 2014 standards, but rarely does a game do that these days. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some gamers find the game “dry” or “repetitive”. There is probably some truth to that as well. If you are predisposed to liking Euros, then this game fits in the mold well and is relatively fun. Whether it has longevity remains to be seen. My guess is that it probably depends on how extensive your gaming collection is and whether you are a fan of Rudiger Dorn. There are several expansions out there for Istanbul, which may or may not change the game too much since I haven’t tried. Personally, I ignore most expansions. However, Istanbul may actually benefit from expansions because swapping the modular location tiles feels simple enough and can really alter game play. Just like my impressions for Il Vecchio, another of Mr. Dorn’s design, Istanbul is a very solid Euro with simple objectives but layered with hard decisions that become emergent with player interactions. I think part of the fun in Istanbul is figuring out the path optimization puzzle and to be always one step ahead of your opponents.
Initial impressions: Good