Board Game Review: Istanbul – We’ve Got Errands to Run! | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Istanbul – We’ve Got Errands to Run!

The Kennerspiel des Jahres is a relatively new award, and so far it has a good track record. Istanbul is the most recent recipient and continues the tradition of winners that are accessible games with solid, even delightful, gameplay. Istanbul puts players in the role of master merchants trying to acquire valuable gems in a near eastern bazaar. Mechanically, it provides multiple strategies, player interaction, and pushes everyone in a race toward victory.

The Basics. Players begin by setting up the board. The board consists of twelve different bazaar stations laid out in a four by three grid. The stalls can be set up randomly, or there are two different prearranged versions that provide “short paths” where synergistic stalls are close together or “long paths” where they are further apart. Short paths tends to provide a shorter game as well.

Each player gets a merchant and four apprentices (a fifth starts off to the side). The merchant and apprentices start off in a stack with the merchant on top, naturally. Each player also gets a wheelbarrow which initially can hold two of each type of good and any number of gems.

The “short paths” setup of Istanbul’s Bazaar

From there, players take turns moving to various locations. Players can move up to two spaces orthogonally (and may not stay on the same spot they started) and then take the action. To take the action, the player has to leave an apprentice or pick up one that he left there before. If he does not or cannot leave or pickup an apprentice (perhaps because he’s left them all on other stalls), then his turn ends immediately and he cannot take any further action that turn.

There is also a Governor and a Smuggler located in the market as well. If you use the action of the stall where they are located, you can also meet with them and get a bonus. The Governor can allow you to draw a new bonus card. The Smuggler will sell you any type of good of two coins, but they are both quite busy and once they meet with you, the dice are rolled and they move to a different random stall.

The Gemstone Dealer and Sultan’s Palace are among the more important stalls

There are a number of actions in the bazaar. Different stalls might provide you with goods or allow you to exchange those goods for special power tiles. You can gamble to try to get more money or take your goods to a market to sell for set prices. You can visit the wainwright to increase the size of your wheelbarrow or go buy gems for goods or money.

The goal of the game is to get five gems. Gems are gained in several ways: fully expanding your wheelbarrow awards a gem, so does gaining both bonus tiles from a location, but the main areas are the Gemstone Dealer and Sultan’s Palace stalls. At the Gemstone Dealer, you can exchange money for gems, with the gems becoming increasingly expensive. At the Sultan’s Palace, you can spend goods, with each gem requiring increasing numbers of goods, to gain gems.

The final round is played when one player has gained five gems. If more than one player gets to five gems, the tie breaker is money.

Bail out your good for nothing cousin and he’ll run an errand for you.

The Feel. When I first sat down to play, the rules explainer went over everything. Frankly, after hearing the rules, I expected something a little on the light side and fairly straightforward. Mild and forgettable enjoyment. I was wrong. Istanbul is a delightful game that provides engagement, interaction, and demands a quick pace.

The merchant/apprentice aspect is implemented really well and layers a nice tension into the game. Whenever you go to a particular stall, you have to leave an apprentice there. So, Istanbul requires a significant amount of forethought and planning. If you go to one particular space, you are often committing to return to that stall so that you can pick up your apprentice again. Without apprentices, your ability to take action will be strictly limited.

“OK. If we get separated, lets all meet back at the fountain.”

But, what if you get too spread out and don’t want to spend turns going around picking everyone up? Well, that’s where the Fountain comes in. Taking an action at the Fountain allows you to pick up all of your apprentices from anywhere on the board, but that’s it. So you can get everyone back if you need it, but it costs you your whole turn to do so. This is a great way to avoid the game bogging down while still having an appropriate penalty for needing to use the Fountain (rather than another more useful stall).

Another aspect that is highly enjoyable is the interaction between opponents. If you want to take an action at a particular stall, but someone’s merchant is already there, you have to pay them two bucks, and you do that for each merchant already there. While it may seem like a small, throw-away penalty, it actually has significant impact on gameplay. For example, if I think you are going to the wainwright, I might zip over there first so that you have to pay me money – and that might mean you end up with too little to use it. If that’s the case, it might force you to go the long way around – taking less efficient actions.

The Governor and Smuggler enjoy the Tea House

Another fun aspect is the inclusion of the Governor and the Smuggler. The ability to get a needed good, or to draw a bonus card, makes their particular locations better. And, it means you might want to deviate from your path – which of course also costs you an apprentice that makes other actions tighter. Plus, the Smuggler is one of the very few ways to get a blue good. Unlike the other three colors, Blues are hard to come by and require either patience (at the post office) or luck (at the black market).

But, perhaps the best aspect of Istanbul is the subtle interplay between goods and money. In many games, you simply trade up resources. Goods become money, money becomes points, etc. But, that’s not how Istanbul operates. Instead, they are alternative, and at times complimentary, paths toward getting those all important gems.

The starting wheelbarrow holds few goods

At the Gemstone Dealer stall, you can simply exchange money for gems. Of course, every gem is more expensive than the last, and there will be competition. To increase your money supply, you can get goods and sell them at the markets. You can gamble at the tea house, and you can use money at the wainwright to complete your wheelbarrow and gain a gem there.

On the other hand, at the Sultan’s Palace stall you can exchange goods for gems. Of course, every gem requires more goods than the gem before and there will be competition. So, you get gems at the warehouses, or use money at the smuggler to buy needed gems. The black market can also gamble for goods. You can also complete your wheelbarrow for a gem and then use that to carry the needed goods for special tiles – which get more gems.

But, both paths require attention to both money and goods. As a result, the paths are not alternative. Because they are interrelated, even players with very disparate strategies will come into contact and have to contend and compete with one another. With four and five players, the board feels full and there are fights for stalls all over. Two and three players results in more expensive starting gems, but the board does feel a little barren. Istanbul is definitely best with four and five players.

A few wainwright visits later and you can store a lot more

Istanbul also has the advantage of very quick turns. On a particular player’s turn, they will move, get resources or perhaps roll the dice, and then it’s the next player’s turn. So even with a full compliment of five players, the game moves quickly and there is little downtime.

Istanbul also has an advanced variant for one to four players where the fifth color is used as a “neutral” assistant. Each player starts with one neutral, but players can pick up neutrals no matter who originally left them at the various locations. This makes the game more interactive and tactical. Not only can you steal apprentices, but leaving one in a location makes that location more attractive to opponents – something that can be manipulated to persuade opponents to take alternate paths. Plus, even if you just dropped off your last apprentice, a nearby neutral might allow you to stay in the game and continue taking actions.

The blue bonus gives you access to your fifth apprentice

What about downsides for Istanbul? Well, one downside is that the initial setup of the board can have a big impact on the length of the game. A “short path” setup tends to play quicker than a “long path.” Of course, part of the fun is in planning out your route and making the best use of your actions, but that does result in a somewhat variable game length.

The other downside isn’t really the fault of Istanbul. Sometimes people expect the Kennerspiel des Jahres (loosely translated as “enthusiast’s game of the year”) to mean that the game is excessively heavy or a particular brain burner. Istanbul isn’t either. It’s a solid, medium weight game that is a joy to play. If you come in hoping for a four hour epic, or a mentally exhausting brain burner, you won’ find it.

I recognize that the negatives I’ve pulled out here are relatively weak. But the truth is that Istanbul is simply a highly enjoyable medium weight game. The design is quite solid and there’s very little to be held against it.

The red bonus allows you to manipulate your die rolls

Components: 4.5 of 5. Istanbul comes with great bits. Merchants and Apprentices are solid wood and consistent in size. The bonus cards are adequate (typical thickness for euro-games which is a shade thinner than, say, AEG’s Thunderstone). And the stall tiles are of excellent quality and thickness. Despite the modular nature of the board, they have a substantial heft so that they don’t slide or move about during the game.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. The layout of the board is variable, but applies equally to all players. From there, the game is almost entirely player determinative — almost, because of the tea house and black market. In each case, players can roll the dice and, depending on the roll, may get an additional bonus. The tea house grants money (good for the Gem Dealer space) and the black market is one of just a few ways to get blue goods (good for the Sultan’s Palace space). While these rolls can have a real and substantive impact on the game, they tend to be fairly infrequent and provide an enjoyable level of randomness rather than feeling like a poor roll ruins the game. In fact, both money and goods can be had more reliably from other areas.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. Istanbul fits together flawlessly. The way that you have to leave apprentices requires planning, fosters interaction, and can be a source of difficult decisions. Interaction is high and there is almost a meta-game of trying to manipulate the incentives so that other players either pay you money or lose out on turns. Plus, since Istanbul is essentially a race to five gems, every detour takes up valuable time and provides excellent and meaningful decisions through the game.

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. Istanbul is highly replayable for two reasons. First, the variable setup will allow players to re-evaluate favorite strategies. Depending on the location of the stalls, some strategies may seem more advantageous than others. But even in those cases, competition there might quickly raise the price and suddenly other gems seem more ascertainable. The only note is that some setups may increase playtime to the outer edges of comfort. Secondly, the game is quite enjoyable in its own right. I want to play Istanbul again not because the setup of the bazaar makes the game so different, but because the game is a joy to play. However, a variable setup is likely necessary after a few games players might “solve” or at least adapt to certain preferred movement orders and strategies with a static field.

Spite: 1 of 5. Spite is exceedingly low in this game. There are no direct attacks or “take that” actions. At most, players can get in the way of their opponents and cost them money, but it doesn’t feel directed or especially antagonistic.

Bonus cards can be a wonderful aid

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Istanbul is a wonderful game. The interlocking pieces fit together in a way that is easy to explain and seems straightforward, but belies a strong undercurrent of strategy and planning. Istanbul is a worthy winner of the KdJ and adds to the impression that the award stands for solid, replayable, and interesting medium-weight games. If you are at all a fan of medium weight, euro style games, then Istanbul should be near the top of your “to play” list.

(A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Istanbul)

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