- David McMillanUnited States
Once upon a time, there was a fruit vendor named Haseem. Growing up, fruit farming was all he’d ever known. When he wasn’t busy expanding his family’s small orchard or maintaining it, he was busy running around the market with the other children having fun while his parents performed the very boring (in his estimation) task of tending the market stall. Of course, as all children do, he eventually got older and, as he did, more and more of the duties associated with maintaining the family enterprise began to fall to him. Before long (and much too soon) his parents were too old and too frail to carry on and it fell squarely upon him to keep it all together and he did his best… but is was soooo boring.
Haseem dreamed of a life filled with excitement and travel and wealth and luxury… a life where he didn’t have to waste away in a tiny little stall earning just enough to get by… and one day it struck him. He KNEW this market. He knew it inside out… all of its intricacies and all of its intrigues. He knew which merchants hated which other merchants. He knew which merchants would undersell their product just so that they could pack it all up and get home at an earlier time. He knew which merchants would overpay for goods because they couldn’t bother to do the research. This market and all of the wealth that flowed through it could be his for the taking if he wanted to. And he definitely wanted to.
And so it was that Haseem found himself selling off the old market stall, buying a few camels, and hiring a few assistants to help him along the way. All he needed now was some startup capital and word had it that Ali a few streets over had some silk he was desperate to get rid of. Haseem smiled to himself and called one of his assistants over to go talk to Ali. There was no better time than the present to get started. It was going to be a good day.
In the game of Istanbul players will take on the roles of merchants trying to marshal their resources to become the first merchant to acquire a certain number of rubies. This is accomplished by means of moving the merchants, along with their assistants, from tile to tile and taking whatever actions are available to them at their destination. But it’s not going to be easy. To take an action, an assistant must be left behind and once the pool of assistants is depleted, players will have to figure out a way to get them back without losing too much time. The race is on! Will you be the first one to acquire the gems?
Istanbul comes in a colorful box that is illustrated with the image of a grinning merchant in the foreground. He’s holding out his hand to the viewer and in his hands he holds several very large rubies. Behind him is a bustling market. Several vendors call out their wares while the merchant’s assistants follow behind with a large wooden cart. The image is very clean (for lack of a better word) and lends the market scene a sense of wealth and opulence.
Opening the box, we discover a veritable treasure trove of bits and pieces. First and foremost are the 16 large Market tiles that, when laid out in a 4 x 4 column, will comprise the game board area. In the upper left hand corner of these tiles are three different numbers. The first two numbers represent two suggested layouts. The leftmost is a more difficult layout while the one in the middle is an easier layout for beginners. Along the top border of the tile is the name of the market area that the tile represents (i.e. - The Fountain) and to the right of this, on some of the tiles, is an icon that is used by several of the other components in the game to determine the effectiveness of their abilities. The rest of the tile is taken up by an illustration of the tile’s name as well as some iconography that describes what the player can do should they end their turn upon the tile. I’ll go into more depth about this later.
The other type of large tile represents the player’s wheelbarrow. Depicted on the tile is an overhead view of a wheelbarrow. There are three columns of icons that are divided up into four rows. Each row represents a type of good (jewelry, fruit, spices, fabric) and these are used to track how much of each good each player has collected so far. At the beginning of the game, each player’s wheelbarrow can only accommodate three of each type of good, but they can increase the storage size of their wheelbarrows by adding wheelbarrow extensions (a different type of tile) which will add one extra column per extension. Along the bottom of the tile is a row of ruby icons and these are used to track how many rubies each player has collected.
Aside from the wheelbarrow extension tile that was already mentioned, there are several other smaller tiles. First are the large and small demand tiles. One has a white background and the other a black background. Each of these tiles bears the image of five different goods on them. These images represent the goods that are in demand within the market at any given time. The second type of tile is the mosque tile. At the top of each of these tiles is a row of icons of the same resource and the length of this row varies from tile to tile (the reason for this will be explained shortly). Beneath this row of icons is some other iconography that describes the benefits a player receives if they have one of these tiles in their control.
Also included in the box is a bag full of plastic red gems, a small deck of bonus cards, and a bevy of wooden pieces. Two of the wooden pieces resemble cylinders. One of these is purple and the other is black. These represent the Governor and Smuggler respectively. In addition to these are a collection of wooden pieces in each of the player colors (red, white, green, yellow, and blue). These collections consist of - 1 merchant token, 5 apprentice tokens, 4 resource cubes, and 1 family member token. There are also five wooden cubes that are used on the Post Office market tile. The only other things in the box are coin tokens in varying denominations and a very well illustrated and well written rule book.
First, the players will all agree on one of the tile layout setups. The tiles can either be arranged in a 4 x 4 grid using the numbers in the upper right hand corner (being sure to use the same set of numbers on each tile) or they can be laid out randomly. Once the tiles have been laid out, each player is given a wheelbarrow and all of the pieces of whichever color they choose to play as well as one bonus card each and an amount of starting capital which is determined by the number of people that are playing.
Now to set up the board. Each player places four of their assistants into a stack on top of the Fountain tile and then their merchant is placed on top of this stack. Each player’s Family member token is placed into the jail. Then the dice are rolled twice and the results of these rolls will determine where the Governor and Smuggler will start out. Finally, all of the mosque tiles, rubies, and Post Office cubes are placed into their appropriate positions and the board is all set. The remaining bonus cards are shuffled into a deck and placed face down within easy reach of all players along with the rest of the money tokens. This completes the setup and the game can begin.
Each round, beginning with the starting player, the players will take turns moving their merchants to a tile and then, if able, taking the action(s) printed on the tile. A player’s turn is broken into the following steps and each of these steps will be discussed separately:
- Encounters with other merchants
- Other encounters
So let’s discuss these a bit further so that you can get a better feel for the way the game works.
On a player’s turn they move their entire stack of workers (merchant and assistants) up to two spaces from where they began (never moving diagonally) and then they will do one of three things.
1. If there are no assistants there, then one is removed from the bottom of the stack and left there
2. If there is already an assistant there, then it will be added to the bottom of the stack
3. If there is no assistant in the stack and no assistant present on the target tile, then the player’s turn will come to an end
When a player ends their turn on a tile, there may already be another player’s merchant already present on the tile. If this is the case then the player must pay 2 coin to each player whose merchant is present. If they cannot or will not, then their turn comes to an end. Then (assuming the turn has not ended) if the player chooses to do so, they may take the tile’s action. We’ll talk about these in a moment, but first one additional thing. AFTER the player has taken the action (or not taken it) if either the governor, the smuggler, or another player’s family member is present on the tile, the player may then interact with them as well.
THE GOVERNOR, SMUGGLER, and FAMILY MEMBERS
These three encounters provide the players with some unique benefits, but these benefits come at a cost. Whether or not the player chooses to interact with these units, the player will roll the dice to determine new locations for them (with the exception of family members). Here are the benefits:
The Governor: you may draw 1 Bonus card from the face-down stack and put it into your hand. If you do, either pay 2 Lira or discard 1 Bonus card from your hand.
The Smuggler: You may gain 1 good of your choice. If you do, either pay 2 Lira or 1 good.
The Family Member: the family member is sent to jail. The player sending them there may collect either 3 coin or 1 bonus card for each family member that is captured. This step is not optional. It MUST be done.
Bonus cards will either allow you to collect a number of resources instantly or, in some cases, to bend the rules slightly by providing you with extra movement or allowing you to stay in one place. Played at the right time, these bonus cards can be of great benefit and are a portion of the game that a player should not ignore.
Rather than giving a lengthy, detailed breakdown of all of the different tiles, I will try to vaguely describe them by type. First, there are tiles where you will collect a single resource up to the maximum amount. There are tiles where rubies can be acquired directly either by purchasing them with coin or by trading in goods. There are two different kinds of mosque tiles where smaller tiles can be purchased that will provide the purchaser unique benefits for the remainder of the game.
There’s a tile that allows you to draw bonus cards. There’s a tile where wheelbarrow extensions can be purchased and a tile that allows you to collect a variety of different goods. There are also two tiles where you can toss the dice to try to collect resources. Finally, there are the less useful tiles like the Jail and the Fountain which allow you to send your family members out to other tiles and allow you to recall all of your assistants, respectively.
It is through the combined usage of these various tiles that you accomplish the primary goal of this game - collecting enough rubies to win. So, let’s talk about rubies.
COLLECTING RUBIES - the END GAME
Rubies can be acquired in several ways:
Purchased directly from some of the tiles.
After collecting one of each of the two small tiles from a single mosque tile.
After upgrading your wheelbarrow to its maximum capacity.
When a ruby is acquired, it is stored at the bottom of the player’s wheelbarrow. The first player to fill up their ruby row triggers the end of the game. The current round is completed and then a winner is determined.
I really like Istanbul. It’s pretty easy to set up and it doesn’t take long to learn to play it. The rules are pretty straightforward and the game play’s not too complex either. It’s the type of game that pretty much anyone can pick up and enjoy regardless of their previous board game experience. These are all positives that the game has going for it.
My issue with Istanbul, though, is it’s simplicity. While I really like playing the game, there is never a point during the flow of the game that I feel myself pondering which decision is the best one to make or agonizing over what I should do next. It all feels a little TOO easy to me. The decisions are never very difficult to make. It’s a simple question of “Where can I go from here and how would it benefit me to go there?” The limitation of needing your assistants to do your bidding, while adding some complexity sometimes, actually has the opposite effect most of the time of effectively reining you in to one or two options per turn. The real challenge is in trying to figure out what you want to do next and trying to position yourself in such a way at the end of this turn that you’ll be able to accomplish whatever it is you’re wanting to do at the beginning of the next one. And while that may sound difficult on paper, it’s really not too hard to do in practice.
For instance, have you run out of cloth? Yes? Then it’s a good time to go get some cloth. But, wait. Your merchant is on the other side of the board. Well, then move him closer, but try to end your movement on some space that will benefit you in some way so that your turn isn’t entirely wasted. There’s nothing overly strategic in that kind of thinking. It’s all common sense. And as for opportunities to make life difficult for your opponents… well, there’s really no way of doing that either unless you collude with everyone else that’s playing to try to make taking an action very expensive for them by placing all of your merchants there. So, while there is a strategic element to the game, it’s not on the same level as a game like Ora et Labora or Five Tribes. I would call this a medium weight game. Not overly complex, but still interesting and fun enough to please even your most hard core gamers.
Overall, though, Istanbul’s a really good game. It plays well. It looks great. The game mechanics are unique without being gimmicky and it’s just a lot of fun to play. If you’re looking for a game that will tie your brain into knots trying to carefully plan out every little detail, then this isn’t going to scratch that itch. But, if you’re looking for something light and casual that you can play with your family, then you should definitely consider giving Istanbul a try.
- [+] Dice rolls