Not Constantinople: A Review of Istanbul

Today Firestone's going to review the Kennerspiel des Jahres winner from 2014: Istanbul, designed by Rudiger Dorn and published by AEG. You're a merchant, leading your assistants through the bazaar and trying to use the the booths' abilities to gain enough money to buy the rubies necessary to win. Let's take a look!

Designer Dorn came up with a unique movement mechanism where you take a stack of pieces and you drop one piece off as you move along the board. He used it first in Traders of Genoa, and then since in games such as Louis XIV and Robber Knights, with slight variations on that central idea. 

Istanbul uses a variation of that mechanism. You have a stack of Assistants, and you'll be traveling around the board, dropping off and picking up an Assistant at various booths as you move and take actions.

The Setup

Istanbul comes with 16 booths, and you'll set them up in a 4 x 4 grid. There are setups for a "short path" game, a "long path" game, or you can just randomly set them up. It makes most games unique and ups the replayability. Everyone starts with a wheelbarrow that can hold three of each of the four goods; you can add more pieces to the wheelbarrow later. And finally you place your Merchant and your stack of Assistants on the Fountain tile. 


The Gameplay

On your turn you'll start by moving, either one or two spaces orthogonally, and ending up in a spot different from the one you started in. There are two options, based on the tile you end at. If you already have an Assistant there, you pick it up and add it to your stack. If you don't, then you remove one of your Assistants from your stack and add place it on the tile next to you. If you have no Assistants in your stack, and none on the tile, your move ends. This means your merchant, by himself, can only move one space at a time. Try not to do that!

If there are any other players' Merchants on your destination tile, you have to pay each of those players $2, and if you don't or can't pay, your turn is over immediately. (The Fountain is safe ground from this.)

Finally, you take the action on the tile, if you want to. 

Here are just a few of the tiles:

Wainwright: Pay $7 and add a piece to your wheelbarrow, which will allow you to hold one more of each good. Each wheelbarrow can be extended three times, and once it's complete, you get a Ruby. 

Fabric/Spice Fruit Warehouse: Each of these goods has its own warehouse, and if you take this action you move your marker to the highest position it can go on your wheelbarrow--you're stockin' up!

Fountain: In addition to starting here, and being a "sanctuary" for having to pay other players, when you take this action, every Assistant returns to your stack here. 

Tea House: Announce a number between 3 and 12, and roll both dice. If you roll equal or greater than the number you said, you get cash in the amount you said. If not, take $2. 

Gemstone Dealer: He has a line of Rubies available, and you pay the current cost of the next available Ruby and add it to your wheelbarrow. This uncovers a new price for Rubies--and the price increases with every Ruby bought. 

Police Station: Everyone has a Family Member on the board, and if he's in the Police Station, you "free" him and send him to a booth to take the action. He can move anywhere, and he doesn't have to pay other players whose Merchants happen to be there. 

And that's only half of the available tiles. And there's an expansion on the way with even more!

There are a few people you can encounter on the journey. If you encounter other players' Family Members, you send them to jail and get a reward of a bonus card or $3 for each one you catch. If you encounter the Governor, you can draw a bonus card and add it to your hand. If you do that, you either pay $2 or discard a bonus card from your hand. If you encounter the Smuggler, you can gain a Good of your choice. If you do that, you either pay $2 or discard a good.

The bonus cards let you break all sorts of rules, such as gain a good, gain $5, move you Merchant by 3 or 4 spaces instead of 1 or 2, and many others--and you can play those at any time. 

There are also Mosque Tiles that let you break the rules in cool ways. You get these from tiles on the board.

The point of the game is to collect 5 Rubies. There are numerous ways to get them, but they all involve using your moves efficiently. You're creating a sort of tactical engine that lets you get this and turn it into that to move there and turn that in to get a Ruby. There's some luck involved, but generally whoever is more efficient will win. 

The Verdict

I have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Dorn. On my very first game night I played his classic Goa, and was awestruck. It's still one of my favorite games ever. But does Istanbul live up to that legacy?

Istanbul is terrific. It combines worker-placement, dice-rolling, and pick-up-and-deliver into a compact 30- 45-minute game. Plus a variable setup. Plus it plays well with 2! Plus it's FUN!

I'm terrible at efficiently making my way around the bazaar. It always seems my opponents are running circles around me. I'm not a huge fan of "race" games, where the end-game is triggered by the first person to do X, but that hasn't stopped me from playing this a ton, and loving it every time. 

The Short Path is fine for a first or learning game, but really there's no reason to ever play that way again. Istanbul really opens up once you start messing with the position of the tiles. Do that as soon as possible. 

Firestone's Final Verdict--Istanbul definitely deserved to win the Kennerspiel des Jahres. It's easy enough to teach nongamers, and meaty enough to satisfy gamers. So fun. I can't wait to see what the expansions bring!

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on Istanbul?