You navigate the Turkish bazaar, gathering fabrics, fruit, spices, and jewelry. Sell these for coins or trade them directly for precious rubies. In Istanbul, each player is a merchant vying to be the first to acquire five rubies. But players must be shrewd, and occasionally trade with the smuggler, if they want to succeed.
Istanbul is a fantastic game that works for gamers and families alike. The core concept is relatively simple: you try to get rubies as fast as possible. But the strategy unfolds from there. You see, your merchant isn’t just one guy, but has four apprentices with him. In fact, your merchant merely drops off and picks up apprentices at the various market stalls.
If you want to sell goods, you have to drop off an apprentice at the small market. If you don’t drop one off, you can’t take that stall’s action. But, if you left an apprentice there previously, you can also stop by and pick him up – and get to do the action again. As a result, you are constantly planning for the future. Knowing where you plan to revisit is critical to ensuring that every turn is productive.
And the stalls are just terrific. Some generically give you goods or allow you to buy gems. But others are more intriguing. The black market and tea house allow you to roll the dice to get money or jewelry. And the police station allows you to spring your good-for-nothing brother-in-law and, in exchange, he’ll run an errand for you and visit any stall. And what if you run out of apprentices? Well, you can always go to the fountain to pick them all up. “OK guys, if we get separated we all meet back at the fountain.”
Istanbul does a good job of reinforcing the theme. Even though it has a hectic pace as you race toward your fifth ruby, the setting feels consistently present. It makes sense that you can go gambling in the tea house, or try your luck at the black market. It helps keep even new players engaged and aware of potential actions.
You also can interact with the governor or smuggler, two pawns visiting the market that also move among the various stalls. And because the board is modular, you can set it up randomly and look for new routes toward victory. Sometimes, exchanging goods for rubies will be the best option. Other times, you’ll want to buy them with coins. And the game is self-balancing – the more popular avenue toward rubies generally becomes more expensive quickly.
Istanbul is a fantastic game on its own and worth dozens of plays. But if you really want to open it up, you can always nab the expansion: Mocha & Baksheesh. It adds a new resource to the game: coffee. It also creates wholly new strategies and ways to obtain rubies.
Sure, you can exchange coffee for rubies directly. But you can also pay the baksheesh – an indicated selection of goods – and grab a ruby. The expansion comes with new Guild cards which have outlandishly powerful abilities, but they take up your whole turn when you use them. Coffee can also directly interfere with the other players by placing barriers to restrict movement. And new coffee special bonuses can move your merchant farther or allow you to interact with the governor or smuggler for free.
The expansion blows the strategic space wide open. In the base game, you were tied to goods and money, money and goods. You essentially pursued one option or the other, or sometimes both as you converted them for the resources needed for rubies. With Mocha & Baksheesh, a third way exists which allows for a wider variety of strategies. And yet, if anything, players are more likely to get in one another’s way.
For instance, you may have parked your merchant on a valuable space. Another player is waiting for you to move on your turn so they can snake in there and take that action. Then you play a Guild card. Since that takes your turn, you don’t move and just stay in the same space continuing to block your opponent (unless he chooses to pay you). Depending on how badly they needed that market stall, it could be quite disruptive.
Istanbul is a fabulous title that works for just about any audience. It’s fun, thematic, and never outstays its welcome since players are racing toward the end. And, if you are looking for a deeper experience, the expansion has you covered. This is definitely something every gamer should check out.
Have you played Istanbul? Tell us about it in the comments.
Featured Image Credit: Alderac Entertainment Group/boardgamegeek