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Game Preview: Istanbul, or Surround Yourself with Your Rubies, Not Constantly in Opals

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game Designer
Board Game: Istanbul
When you think about winning conditions in games, in general only three such conditions exist: first, most, or last — that is, being the first to achieve some condition (i.e., a race game), having the most of something when the game ends (a points game), or being the last player still in the game (a survivor game). With something like 6 nimmt!, "most" can become "least" depending on whether bullheads are penalty points that you want to avoid or just negative points (which you still want to avoid), but in practice they're the same thing. Even for a co-op game like Pandemic, you're playing a survivor game in which either the team of players defeats all of the viruses and is the last one in the game, or one or more viruses get to Kermit flail their lipid envelopes in triumph over the humans.

Despite appearances to the contrary — the big piles of coins, the stacking wooden discs, the market charts for goods sold, the special action cards players acquire — Rüdiger Dorn's Istanbul, released in Germany in March 2014 by Pegasus Spiele and due out in the U.S. in June from AEG, is a race game. Yes, really, as the first player to collect five rubies (or six in a two-player game) breaks the tape and wins. Istanbul still has all the hallmarks of an efficiency-based points game, with players trying to squeeze as much as they can out of each action and not spend a coin, resource or move without getting more back in return, but in the end all that matters is who grabs his fifth ruby first.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The bazaar district in Istanbul is nicely rectangular, a well-organized 4x4 layout of tiles with each tile having a different action associated with it. Everyone plays a merchant who has four obsequious assistants that do his bidding — but only when he's in the same space as them as they don't like him very much. (No dental plan, you see.) Everyone starts the game at the fountain, shooting the breeze and talking about last night's camel wrestling bouts, then they get to business trying to collect rubies, despite starting with nothing more than a few coins and a holey wheelbarrow.

On a turn, you move your merchant 1-2 spaces orthogonally, then either (1) pick up your assistant already in this space, placing him under your merchant or (2) drop off an assistant, placing him next to your merchant. If you can't do either of these, your turn ends as apparently your merchant is directionless and incapable of independent action, forgetting in which pocket he holds his coins and unable to close a deal. If you can, though, you first pay all of the other merchants in your space two coins (interest on a loan, I suppose), then take the action on that tile:

-----• Acquiring as many spice, cloth or fruit as your wheelbarrow will hold
-----• Acquiring one of each of those goods and rolling the dice to see how many jewelry you pick up on the black market
-----• Showing (and spending) your wealth at the mosque to acquire special action tiles
-----• Selling goods on the markets for coins
-----• Gambling at the tea house for even more coins
-----• Dropping by the caravansary to see which bonus actions you can acquire from passersby
-----• Buying an extra shelf for your wheelbarrow
-----• Visiting the post office to see what packages have arrived for you
-----• Freeing your uncle from jail and sending him to take any one action for you
-----• Stopping at the sultan's palace to donate goods in exchange for a ruby
-----• Buying a ruby outright from a jeweler

Why do you want rubies anyway? Because they make you feel electric, duh. Oh, and they make you win. Let's just say you're a tad obsessed...

After you take an action, you can interact with the governor or the smuggler, should they be located on that space, and if you run across someone else's uncle, you can get him arrested and claim a reward. Yes, his criminality can be to your benefit, and often you're happy to run across some hoodlum in the Istanbul market, greeting him like an old friend before dropping a dime on him as soon as his back is turned. You're a cutthroat merchant, after all, and nothing — not even friendship — will keep you from your drive for rubies. It's electric!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
A busy board with bits for five

Players take turns one after the other, scattering assistants like bread crumbs, then picking them up like something far more desirable than bread crumbs. If you're desperate and can't remember where you left them all, you can return to the fountain and your assistants flock back to you to await fresh commands. Turns continue this way until someone reaches the five (or six) ruby threshold, then *boom* he wins. Game over. It is a race game, after all.

And as a race game, Istanbul does suffer from one of the flaws of the genre: At a certain point during the game, one person might clearly be in the lead and no one can do anything to stop her from obtaining the final rubies she needs for victory. She's sitting on a pile of money and just needs to visit the jeweler, or she has the funds for a third shelf in her barrow (as completing your barrow grants you a ruby, albeit from where I can't imagine), or she has acquires both action tiles from a mosque (which also grants a ruby, but at least this one seems less phantasmal and more of a thing that could actually happen). I've played Istanbul six times on a press copy from Pegasus (twice each with two and three players, once each with four and five), and I've seen this happen a few times. Admittedly you could see the end coming only 1-2 turns in advance — "Oh, she can go there, get her final goods, then reach the sultan next turn" — but it took the wind out of your sails because you knew that your final turn or two was meaningless. In the most recent game, I had a bonus card that let me move 3-4 spaces instead of 1-2, so all I needed was two turns to get one final good before jetting to the sultan — but folks didn't know I could do that, so the end wasn't forecast quite so much. (And another player did have a chance of visiting the sultan before I got there, thereby driving up the price and requiring me to get even more goods, but the dice failed him, despite him having the ability to reroll them.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Deep thought mode

In some ways I think this is merely a function of the game, which plays out much faster than you think when initially laying out all the bits. I've had some games in which players build for an endgame — stockpiling goods and money, scooping up action tiles and cards — that never comes. You have to learn the pace of the game and play accordingly. Having extra money, extra goods, extra anything is meaningless in the end; you want five rubies and nothing left but your turban to throw in the air in celebration — but until you play a couple of times, you don't have an idea of how much is too much and which actions turned out to be useless.

Moreover, as with many other games of this nature, at first you're looking only at your own pieces, examining your own barrow for what you can do in which order. Only with time do you start looking ahead to what everyone else can do, trying to anticipate them so that you don't, for example, load up on fruit to head to the mosque for the bonus tile only to have someone else get it first, thereby driving up the price so that you can't even get that tile unless you first got a shelf for your barrow to hold even more fruit, but which would first require you to get enough money, etc. Everything flows together, and if someone steps on the rung you were going to occupy, you might find yourself needing a long detour to reach the same destination.

With four and five players, naturally you have more jostling for actions, more "opportunities" to pay someone else for the pleasure of sharing their space. Prices start lower at the jeweler and palace, but rise faster since everyone's fighting to deliver quickly — or at least they should be because with every ruby claimed from these spaces, later visitors must pay more.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Unlawful uncles everywhere! Gotta catch 'em all...

With two players, the game is more open to you gaming out your next three or four turns and knowing precisely what you're going to get and do in each space, barring the randomness of the die rolls at the tea house and black market. This can be good or bad, depending on your style of play and experience with the game. In one 2P game, I rode a loop of actions on a limited set of tiles — get goods, sell, get goods, sell, stop in the tea house for more money, buy a ruby, repeat — and ran away with the game while my opponent was busying himself with more, but less efficient actions. Hmm. We discussed this a fair amount afterward — what could he have done to break my loop? — and while it initially seemed hopeless, after a bit of experimenting we figured out ways to disrupt the circuit, to jump in front of a looper to force payments and possibly insert yourself on that curve ahead of him.

All of this is, of course, a question of experience, of not claiming the game broken after a single playing in which someone rides a particular path to easy victory, but of (1) learning from that player, (2) not allowing him to do the same thing so easily next time, and (3) beating him to the punch by doing it better. Games are about the experience, sure, but also about the repeat experience, about learning and thinking and rethinking. And I haven't even mentioned that the rules include three layouts for the tiles — "short paths", "long paths", "in order" — as well as guidelines for a semi-random layout, allowing you to challenge yourself in new ways should you eventually feel that one layout is played out. With only 1-2 plays at each player count, I've got a long way to go to reach that point. They might even change the city's name again first...

In case you prefer video previews and have scrolled to this point in hope of one, enjoy!
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