Review: Istanbul

BGG Rank #89 – 3/3/2017

Imagine yourself a merchant operating a successful business buying and selling goods among the bustling streets of Istanbul. You’ve got a cadre of assistants, a cart full of fine goods, and a modest stash of coins. And you’d trade it all for the one thing you really care about… rubies.

That’s the basic plot of Istanbul, a game following in the rich tradition of Euro games named after places. This game has held a spot on my shelf since shortly after it came out in 2014, and we most recently brought it to the table this past weekend when our friends Josh and Catie came to visit. Did everyone enjoy Istanbul, or did they find it to be a bit of a bazaar game? (I’m so sorry)

How to Play

Istanbul is a pick-up-and-deliver game, where players control a merchant and his followers as they travel around the board carrying out various tasks, with the singular goal of earning five rubies (or six, in a two-player game). The modular board is made of 16 tiles, each with a unique action that can be carried out by a merchant’s assistant. The merchant does not do any of the work himself, but he travels around with his assistants in tow, picking them up and dropping them off to perform their tasks.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, if you want to get the most rubies, you’ve got to be as efficient as possible. You have a limited number of assistants (four, with a possible fifth added later), and once you run out, you have to waste time and/or money to collect them back. The only way to avoid being penalized is to circle back and pick up your assistants, at which time they’ll be able to perform that same action a second time. If you don’t plan carefully, you might be too far away to get back to your assistants (the merchant can only move 2 spaces per turn), or you may have to bribe an opposing merchant to enter the same space as them.

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If your assistants get too scattered, you can head to the Fountain tile to retrieve them.

The 16 tiles strike a perfect balance, providing a variety of actions while not being too overwhelming to learn:

  • Three warehouses, where you can go pick up a certain type of goods at no charge;
  • Two markets, where you can sell goods to make money;
  • One wainwright, where you can upgrade your cart size to hold more goods;
  • Two mosques, where you can pay a portion of your goods to receive action upgrades;
  • One fountain, where you can go to gather all your assistants back together;
  • Two spaces where you can acquire rubies for money or goods, respectively;
  • One caravansery, where you can draw bonus cards;
  • Three other locations where you can get varying amounts of goods and/or money; and
  • One prison.

I want to talk a little more about the prison, because it’s my favorite location of all. Never thought I’d say that sentence… anyways, when you go to the prison, you can bail out your deadbeat cousin and send them anywhere on the board to do your bidding. If an opponent happens upon your cousin, they can send your cousin back to jail and receive a bounty. It’s a funny little action, but also one of the best strategic wrinkles. Being able to send a piece anywhere on the board can be really powerful, but once this piece is deployed, it can’t be used again until it’s been sent back to prison by an opponent. As such, it must be placed wisely for maximum impact.

When you go to the prison, you can bail out your deadbeat cousin and send them anywhere on the board to do your bidding.

That’s pretty much all you need to know in order to play! Best of all, everything you need to know fits on a small two-sided player reference card that is given to each player. As the person who is usually the rules explainer in the group, I love when games provide reference cards that are concise and clear.

Rubies Rule Everything Around Me

I first introduced Istanbul to Josh and Catie about two years ago, after which point they bought a copy for themselves (which seems to be a common theme among friends I’ve played this game with). With the opportunity to play any game in my collection this past weekend, they went right to Istanbul again. And I wasn’t the least bit disappointed.

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The game flew by at a brisk pace, and before we knew it we were resetting the board for a rematch. The endgame in Istanbul usually comes quickly, with the final few rubies coming in quick succession once players’ engines are humming at high speed. Sometimes there’s a photo finish and sometimes a player emerges from the pack, but either way there’s never the feeling of a victory procession. With the modular board and the many paths to victory, the game feels fresh yet familiar each time.

I think that’s a perfect illustration of the value of Istanbul in a game collection: it’s a game that has immediate allure from your very first play, and lasting appeal well past the point when the average game would become stale. Plenty of games possess one of those two qualities, while very few have both. When thinking of games in my collection with similar levels of accessibility and staying power, I think of Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride.

In conclusion, I believe Istanbul is certainly worthy of its position in the BGG Top 100. If anything, I consider it to be underrated. One might even call it a… hidden gem.

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And just in case you’ve decided you want to add Istanbul to your game collection, I’ve provided an Amazon link. A small portion of the proceeds will go to support this site. 

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