Designer: Rudiger Dorn | Players: 2-5 | Playtime: 40-60 minutes
Welcome to the Istanbul bazaar, good merchant. I hope you brought your best assistants and biggest wheelbarrow with you today. Is your expertise spices or silks? Maybe you buy low and sell high in the markets. Or do you take your chances at the Tea House to win some quick money? The bazaar is especially busy today so pick your path wisely otherwise you and your assistants will get separated. In any case, good luck. You will need it if you are to make yourself wealthy.
Istanbul is a game I bought on faith when it won the Kennerspeil des Jahres. I knew enough to peak my interest but, when it won the award I pulled the trigger. I’m glad I did as evidenced by its placement at the top of the 2015 edition of our top games. Read on to find out why.
Istanbul takes you – a shrewd merchant along with your assistants – to a middle eastern bazaar full of goods to buy and sell, a bit of gambling, a black market, and ultimately, rubies to obtain. On each turn, players will move their merchants and assistants to a location in the bazaar and, if they choose, leave an assistant behind or pick one up to take the action available there. Merchants must also manage their wheelbarrows well since they can only carry so many goods at a time. Rubies are your goal in the game and there are multiple ways to obtain them – by buying them with money, by trading goods for them, or by achieving a goal like fully upgrading your wheelbarrow. The merchant who obtains a certain number of rubies first is declared the best merchant in Istanbul.
The artwork in Istanbul is very vibrant and colorful. But that’s all I can really say for it. Not that it’s a bad thing. While it didn’t make a big impression on me it does a great job of expressing the theme while playing the game.
I do have an issue with the numbers on the tiles. They are meant for setup purposes and to allow for randomly placing some pieces during the game. I have played this game quite a bit and I still have to check and make sure I am looking at the right numbers for setup. Not a huge issue but annoying nonetheless.
I love the chunky red pieces of plastic used to represent the rubies in the game. Rubies are the goal of the game so making them big and pretty is nice. Much better than if they had been cardboard chits or something. (I’m looking at you Mission Red Planet)
To make money in Istanbul you need to be able to carry goods either to trade or to sell so the size of your wheelbarrow really does matter. Each player starts with a small wheelbarrow that can only carry a few of each good. Fortunately, your wheelbarrow can be upgraded throughout your journey through the bazaar. This is done by snapping wheelbarrow expansion pieces into your player board – a really neat idea. Why a merchant wouldn’t just come with a big enough wheelbarrow or how this addition works in the real world are real eyebrow-raisers. But I think I can forgive this for how expanding your wheelbarrow works in the context of the game.
GRID-BASED WORKER PLACEMENT
Istanbul has a very interesting combination of worker placement and grid movement. When the game is set up players will lay out a grid of tiles – each one representing a location in the bazaar. Each location has an action associated with it. For example, if you go to the Tea House you can gamble a bit to make some extra money. Or, you go to a warehouse and load up your wheelbarrow with goods. Each player has a stack of wooden discs representing their merchant and assistants.
In most worker placement games you would just place your merchant on a space and take that action. In Istanbul, you must move your merchant to a location (you can move up to 2 spaces per turn) and have an assistant with you to take its action. If you have no more assistants you must either move back to a space with one of your assistants to pick it up, adding it back to your stack, or move to the Fountain location to recall all of your assistants.
“When it comes down to it, Istanbul is all about efficiency.”
The worker placement aspect comes in the fact that you are limited to a certain number of assistants and during the game but you can add to that number. You cannot just move to a space and take an action. You must have an assistant (worker) with you to do it. Since you are limited by your number of assistants, you only have a certain number of actions you can take before you must either pick them up or recall them all at the fountain.
This system is all about efficiency. You can take an action when you either drop off or pick up an assistant so you need to plan your path wisely to make the most of each turn. Istanbul doesn’t follow the usual worker placement model of getting your workers back at the end of each round. Instead, you have to manage when you drop off and pick up efficiently or you will find yourself taking non-optimal turns or making your way to the fountain.
GOODS, MONEY, MARKETS, AND RUBIES
The heart of Istanbul is all about trade. You need to get goods to sell for money to buy lots of different things including upgrades for your wheelbarrow and the all-important rubies. You can also use certain combinations of goods to trade straight up for rubies. The longer the game goes, the more money and goods it will take to get those rubies.
The market demand in Istanbul is represented by a stack of tiles. Each tile tells you what goods are in demand at the moment. If you can get those goods to the market space you can trade them in for the money they pay out.
As has already been said, rubies are the goal of the game. The first player to get a certain number wins. Rubies are gained in several different ways: through trade of goods, purchasing with money, or achieving certain goals in the game. I’ve already discussed the trading and buying aspect so let’s talk quickly about achieving goals.
There are several spaces in the game that, if you complete them a certain number of times, you get a ruby. If you completely upgrade your wheelbarrow (which costs money), you get a ruby. If you can deliver enough goods to a mosque you can also get a ruby.
Try this game if you like:
- Lords of Waterdeep
- Five Tribes
- Xia: Legends of a Drift System
Istanbul is a game about being as efficient as possible with the options you are presented. This leads to one of my favorite aspects of the game: planning. You need to look at what resources you have currently, where you are on the board, where the other players are and where your assistants are to see how to get that next coveted ruby. All of the mechanisms in the game come together brilliantly to support this game about efficiently using your resources and movement.
The theme in Istanbul is interesting but not completely coherent. As much as I enjoy upgrading the wheelbarrow it doesn’t make much sense. Neither does your jailed family member that you can free (break out of jail?) to go and do something for you. Then they just sit there until they are caught again. And apparently, your merchant is incapable of doing anything without help since you must have an assistant to take an action. All of these feel very mechanical in nature and don’t really fit the theme very well, but they do not keep me from enjoying the game as a whole.
Another thing I enjoy about Istanbul is its quick yet satisfying gameplay. Many games that only take an hour or so feel cut off. I don’t like it when I finally get my engine going only to see the game end. Istanbul doesn’t suffer from this. A finished game feels like a complete and satisfying experience. Add to this the variable setup and the grid based movement/worker placement and you have a wonderful game that is satisfying and leaves enough time to play it again if you choose. And I think you will – it’s that good.
THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB
I was a little late coming to Istanbul. As I don’t follow euro-games too closely, I’m at the mercy of my gaming counterparts to introduce me to the crème de la crème. “Of course I’ll play this game,” I tell Gary as I try to hide my doubts at the fun I’ll have over the next hour. I couldn’t get this back to the table soon enough.
Istanbul breaks some of the classic mechanics it simultaneously champions and really freshens up aspects like worker placement and resource management. Including the simple grid movement as part of the action drafting system really speaks to the abstract gamer in me and one of my absolutely favorite parts of the game. It’s simple enough that you don’t need to worry about complex strategy, but its mere presence provides for a piece of the planning and strategy that I tend to miss when playing the typical euro. I particularly enjoy a variant mode of play with 4 or fewer players where the 5th color tokens are used as neutral assistants which anyone can use. It creates a nice bonus for everyone and adds a bit of thought to leaving actions available to others.
Overall, the game feels seamless. Instead of “rounds” of placement, the game continues to cycle, every turn where it left off. The tension shifts from being the first one to stake a claim during a round to being the best at managing the available actions over a series of rounds. After playing a few times, I have noticed a general run at certain tiles and bonuses, but I’ve also seen where there is room for differing strategies.
I highly recommend this game and think it works well in groups of various levels of gaming experience.