Photo credits to those who posted on BGG. Many thanks for the high-quality images!
With its colorful artwork, and simple, but engaging mechanics, Istanbul has arguably been one of the most spectacular games of the decade. Well-deserving of its 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres crown, Istanbul made history placing it in the company of board game giants like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, and 7 Wonders (all of which hold Spiele des Jahres titles themselves).
When news of its first expansion came out, many welcomed the idea to increase the real estate of the market and to explore the possibilities that dealing with a new commodity (coffee) would bring. Mocha & Baksheesh proved to be an essential expansion, adding another path to victory (through coffee), as well as other minor but potentially game-changing features (like the barrier and the Encounter tile).
When Brief & Siegel, or Letters & Seals was first announced, there was no doubt a bit of uneasiness as to whether this expansion would overflow the cup of Istanbul goodness into complicating the game too much. A 4x5 grid with Mocha & Baksheesh already made the game a bit much to take in, and especially daunting for first-timers. Would Letters & Seals balance well with coffee, goods, and Lira? Or would it be too overpowered? Would it actually bring something desirable to the table? Or would its benefits pale in comparison to the existing mechanics?
Rudiger Dorn hadn't failed us thus far, so what could we hope for from Letters & Seals?
Full disclosure: Most of my Istanbul games consist typically of two players: my wife and I. While we do play the occasional 3 and 4 player games with others, I have never played with 5 players, so please know that these opinions reflect that history.
Letters & Seals is the final expansion to the Istanbul series. You can play with just it and the base game, or also include Mocha & Baksheesh in the "Great Bazaar" variant.
The expansion comes with five new tiles (the fifth one is only used if you have Mocha & Baksheesh) potentially lengthening the board to a massive 5x5 size. There are a number of new cardboard and wooden components which will be discussed at length in this review. There are also new bonus cards and a master bonus card reference sheet giving the explanations for every bonus card across the three games (I laminated my copy as we reference it frequently).
There are more or less four noteworthy contributions that this expansion brings to the world of Istanbul. This review will present analysis about each of the four additions in what they offer you in your quest to become the most successful Merchant of Istanbul!
1. Mobility (Companion + Catacombs)
Obviously with a 5x5 board, mobility begins to become an issue. Sure you have the Movement tile from the Tavern letting you move like a Chess Rook horizontally and vertically. And there are also a few bonus cards like the one which lets you move 3-4 spaces or move to a corner of the board. But with 5 new spaces, Letters & Seals had to add some means of compensating for movement. It did so in a number of ways:
The most notable addition to mobility is the Companion. He is an extra wooden piece that comes in each player’s color. You choose between moving him or moving your merchant. While he can only move one space, he does not need assistants.
What is unique about the Companion is the method of how you get to place him on the board. You acquire him using the Fountain action, and then he is added to your supply (you know, wherever you keep your Lira and coffee?) At that point he becomes a sort of “deployable asset” that on any future turn you place him next to wherever your merchant is currently at, and he stays there until you move him later on (even though your merchant may venture elsewhere).
One idea is to deploy him in a corner of the board that you know you’ll need later in the game, but probably can’t afford right now. You deploy your companion, and then run off to the other end of the board occasionally using your Companion (instead of your merchant) to utilize the few spaces that are in his region of the board. In that sense he’s like the Guild cards’ equivalent, providing you with a chance to do something valuable on your turn instead of being limited to solely moving your merchant. Opponents have to pay your companion just as they would your merchant, so you can also use him as a deterrent by putting him on your opponent’s favorite location earning some extra income at your opponent’s expense (or at least dissuading them from going to their favorite place). Finding your opponent’s family member is also more likely, as is having yours sent back to the Police Station (whichever you care about more).
The second notable addition to mobility is the Catacombs tile (#25). Only used if playing with Mocha & Baksheesh, this location lets you get any good (or coffee), and then move your merchant stack to any place in the game. You can’t use the place you end up (because you used the Catacombs, duh!), but at least you are in the area you want to be in for your subsequent turns. But hey, you get a free good or coffee, so there’s another way that you can accumulate blues. What is really exciting is to move your companion to the Catacombs, then teleport your merchant stack to anywhere and not having to leave an assistant at the Catacombs!
The final contribution to mobility are a few new Bonus cards that let you move in different ways including one card that lets you move to any other player’s merchant stack and not have to pay them!
2. Letters & Seals
As the title of the expansion indicates, Letters, or more accurately, Seals become a new type of currency that adds another path to victory to the existing Lira, goods, and coffee currencies that can get you gems.
When you get a Letter, you receive one Seal. On each of the letters is a number #1-16,23,24. These numbers refer to the numbered locations in the market. Note that numbers #21,22 are the places that give you the letters, so they don’t have a letter with their number as instant delivery wouldn't make any sense and be an unfair balance to those who got them. Numbers #17-20 are the coffee tiles and if you're not using that expansion it would probably have been an annoyance to have to take those letters out when not using that expansion, and hence there aren’t any letters that have those numbers either.
If you, your companion, or your family member are ever on space indicating the number on the letter, you turn the tile over and the letter becomes two Seals (because it is now delivered).
The seals have two functions:
1. Once per round, you can use 3 seals to take an extra turn. However, overpaid seals are forfeit. Meaning if you deliver two letters resulting in 4 seals (two on each letter) and want to take an extra turn, you pay both letters and end up losing the extra seal.
2. You can use the Secret Society (#24) by paying 6 seals to "Baksheesh" or take a gem from one of the three gem producers (#13,#16, or #20). This is equivalent to the Tavern action except you’re paying seals instead of coffee and goods. Additional gems come with this expansion to ensure that no one of these places ever runs out of gems (you replace the final one each time it runs out).
One of the natural side effects of such a mechanism is that you will now want to visit places that you may have not been planning to visit just to double a single letter's seal value. Sometimes you can get lucky since there are exactly two letters for every place and if you get your hands on the two letters to the same location, you can turn 2 seals into 4 seal in one move!
On that same note, you may decide that some letters you acquire will forever be one seal because there is no possible chance that you'll visit that location for the rest of this game. You may designate that seal to use as part of gaining a second turn so that you can pay exactly 3 seals (and hence don't have to risk the possibility of overpaying with 4 seals (2 letters with 2 seals) and thus forfeiting a seal!)
Turning gems into the Secret Society may be considered over-powered by some, but it really isn't. Six seals are not trivial to come by, and you'll spend an equivalent number of turns gaining them (on average) as it would take someone else to acquire a gem by a different means. I found that the bonus Lira you get if you are one of the first visitors to use the Secret Society was always icing on the cake and never something that I needed or counted on for a win. But it certainly helps to compensate when you unluckily had to travel the entire bazaar to deliver the 3 letters that you turned into 6 seals.
Finally, having at least 3 seals on hand going into the final turns is almost essential in the event that an opponent manages to acquire the 6th gem. You can now guarantee an extra turn when you know this turn will be your last. The extra turn gives many of us that extra boost that we always needed to either tie the game or push us ahead where we used to fall short saying "if only I had one more turn!" Furthermore, using these “second turns” throughout the game actually makes the game go a little faster. As a consequence, this expansion does not add virtually any more time than what the first expansion added!
This straining dilemma of choosing between turning your seals into gems or to use them as second turns is the perfect microcosm illustrating the brilliance of this expansion.
If you've ever played Bang! the Kiosk will bring to mind the warm memory of the General Store. The Kiosk is similar: you draw a selection of random, but entirely unique, specially-made Kiosk tiles equal to the number of players plus one extra, you get the first choice, your opponents in turn get a choice, and you get the last choice. You also are guaranteed a letter.
It should be noted that the Kiosk tiles are new small tiles that stack on the Kiosk space. Most importantly, the benefits on the Kiosk tiles are not created equal! For instance some are just one good of a certain color, some are two goods (there isn't one with two blues though). There are 24 Kiosk tiles and they all have something different on them!
There is a randomness and small luck factor that you'll have the exact benefits available to you when you use the Kiosk (giving it great anticipation and an incentive to visit!). Or better yet, your opponent uses the Kiosk and leaves you with the choice of something that you really need because it was garbage to them. To give a relative value, no single Kiosk tile is better than a bonus card. But in a given situation, you may draw exactly what you need from the Kiosk and then their value can be much better because of your circumstances.
The Kiosk becomes quite exciting with additional players as the selection pool increases. The Kiosk is usually a safe bet because while you don't know what you're getting, the selection of Kiosk tiles (at least 3 for two players) is good enough to basically guarantee you'll at least partially get something you want--with a chance that you may get much more.
4. Auction House
One of the inherent enjoyments of Istanbul is the almost entire absence of direct conflict. Sure you are competing for gems, but you're not stealing or sabotaging each other’s goods, Lira, coffee, etc. In fact, besides the barrier in Mocha & Baksheesh which may cause an extra turn of travel for your opponents, the only real source of conflict is being on a space that your opponents want to go to and therefore must decide whether paying you the two Lira is worth it.
The premise of the Auction House is that you each are bidding (with you starting and ending the bidding, and all of your opponents getting exactly one chance to bid) for two unknown bonus cards. If you win the bid, you pay the bank, but if an opponent wins, then they pay you the Lira. You also get one good of your choice (another chance for some blues!).
It turns out that one of the key strategies of the Auction House, (which is especially amplified with a fewer number of players), is another hidden source of conflict. This strategy capitalizes on a common behavior of Istanbul players to spend Lira shortly after they get it. Oftentimes they'll amass almost exactly the amount of coins necessary for a gem at the Gemstone dealer (or for the extension at the wainwright) and then be down to 0, 1, or 2 Lira after purchasing it. In these moments you can take advantage by going to the Auction house on the next turn and starting the bid at 2 Lira and then not one of your opponents can outbid you! (Assuming they all have 2 or less.) You walk home having scored a bargain at the Auction house getting 2 bonus cards for 2 or perhaps even for 1 Lira!
The Auction house forces your opponents to be wary of how much cash-on-hand they have to not risk you getting cheap but valuable Bonus cards (which can be very punishing!) Yet another subtle, but brilliant mechanic coming from the great Rudiger Dorn.
There are still more exciting discoveries that I didn't mentioned. Most of these are the new bonus cards which are incredibly useful and quite novel compared to the first two sets of bonus cards, though they are not necessarily more powerful, which is a nice balance. If you get the lousy x2 card to the place you never plan on visiting, the Kiosk is another means (in addition to the Caravansary and Roasting Plant) to exchange that bonus card (depending on the Kiosk tiles you draw) for something more valuable to you.
Another feature that I’ll briefly mention is the Courier, who is the Governor/Smuggler/Coffee Trader equivalent. The Encounter tile from Mocha & Baksheesh becomes all the more powerful since you can also get Letters for free from the Courier!
Novelty This expansion adds a completely brand new path to victory with seals. Seals also have a unique function of possibly granting you an extra turn. Couple these with the new places in the Bazaar, new bonus cards, and a more-helpful-than-you-would-think companion all the while at the same time not altering the core game-play of Istanbul, the combination of everything is an absolutely brilliant masterpiece!
Quality of Components You'll feel like you're getting a stand-alone game with the amount of punch-outs in the box. All of the cardboard from Pegasus Spiele is high quality. As long as the box says "Made in Germany", then you’re guranteed to be pleased.
Replayability This game is quite fun to play with just the base game. It is probably a more enjoyable solo expansion than Mocha & Baksheesh (although that could just be because it's new). Now imagine putting all three together! It is certain to keep you coming back again and again to the markets of Istanbul to try new and interesting strategies while others can competitively maintain their comfortable, more traditional approaches.
Easiness While it's a wonderful addition, it is a lot to take in and I would not recommend it for teaching someone Istanbul for the first time. Arguably, it is about as difficult as Mocha & Baksheesh was. Putting all three together is going to cause even the most veteran Istanbul player to pause in consideration of the plethora of options. Not to mention that the setup time increases even further with the shuffling of Letters and Kiosk tiles.
Overall While respecting the original framework of Istanbul yet enhancing the game in areas that you didn't even think needed it, the expansion Letters & Seals can summed up in one word: Masterful. You will see evidence of its mastery the first time you put all three games together to form The Great Bazaar; it will be one of the most beautiful experiences that you will have ever had with any board game.
- Last edited Sun Sep 11, 2016 12:54 pm (Total Number of Edits: 2)
- Posted Sat Sep 10, 2016 2:58 pm
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This is on my must-have wishlist! Thanks for such a detailed review!
Easily my favourite game, very excited about the release of this expansion. We also play 2P, and the Coffee expansion completely destroyed my efficient pathing strategies from the base game -- I'm excited to try out this new expansion.
Great structure to the review, very good read with some fantastic insight for us Istanbul fanatics.
Incidentally, Bang! was my first modern board/cardgame, over 10 years ago! Emporio!!!! Shopping time!!
I'll have to add this expansion to my wanted list. I've yet to try out Istanbul, but I really want to play it.
"Elves are very good at board games, and I'm NOT an elf!"
Numbers #17-20 are the coffee tiles and if you're not using that expansion it would probably have been an annoyance to have to take those letters out when not using that expansion, and hence there aren’t any letters that have those numbers either.
Fantastic opportunity for a small mini-expansion though... BGG Store?
Played this game 2P over the weekend, the Grand Bazaar with Neutral Assistant variant plus player-controled NPC merchants after merchant encounters (after encountering NPC merchant and paying for 2L, player can move them 2 spaces - can be used tactically against opponent; we find die roll a bit too random and often they end up out of play).
Fantastic expansion! Pretty much everything we had expected and hoped for.
General Impressions: Expanded 5x5 map is brain crushing. The sheer number of available options has exploded, and can cause minor AP, especially in the early and mid games. The increase in complexity isn't that much though, but there are a lot more options now. If Mokka increased complexity from a 2.5 to a 3.5, Brief might only increase it from 3.5 to 3.7. It's not a big a leap as the initial Mokka (from base). My partner made the observation that if all expansions were in the initial game, then maybe it would have felt too salad-y with too many different mechanisms, with gems being from so many different sources. however, with this phased expansion release, each increment feels 'just right' and you don't get that "too many ways to win" feeling.
Catacombs: The Catacombs were right next to the fountain in our two games, both in the center 9 tiles, so we didn't make much use of this - used it maybe twice in two games? The extra resource is handy but losing an activation of the destination was too big a trade off for frequent use.
Emporio: The shopping tile! probably our most frequently-used new tile, and probably also due to it being the central tile of our board. So great to flip 3 tiles, and get first pick. For those wondering, often the last remaining tile isn't that useful, so the 2:1 tile split isn't a bit deal.
AuctionHouse: we used this tile maybe 3 times in 2 games? it was in the upper-right corner of our center 9, and mostly out of the way. we used it at the beginning when funds were low, but didn't really visit it after. It was also right next to the caravansary, so maybe that felt like a better option sometimes (no need to pay lira).
Embassy: we used this maybe once the entire game. It was out of the way (top edge of board), and it didn't seem like a great deal, compared to the empirio (seal + shopping).
Seal House: we used this once.. the seals seemed to much more useful for double turns!
Seals/Letters: The seals were a lot of fun.. double turns to do actions before your opponent gets there is so fun! no longer have to worry abt paying them 2 Lira, if you know they're also headed to the same place.
Interaction with Mokka and Base: I found myself predominantly using Mokka and cash to claim gems in our two games. In one game I used the Mokka movement tile to great effect, but didn't use it at all the next game (with the same map). Definitely not OP or essential, but it is useful. With the number of locations w gems available, I didn't even both w the mosque gems and wainwright gems. I ended up doing coffee gems, cash gems, and goods gems instead. Guild Hall cards might be more useful since the larger board requires you to travel farther, but is negated by the use of Guild cards. Corner travel bonus card is a lot of fun to have now.
Can't wait to play this again!
Incidentally, I had an overwhelming win percentage over my partner in the base game, but couldn't win a single game after the Mokka expansion came out. With Brief, I'm back on the winning horse! Can't explain why, but I thought that would be interesting to share.