Welcome to Istanbul's market. It is noisy, it is chaotic and it is busy. You are an aspiring merchant wanting to make a name for yourself. You armed with your trusty wheelbarrow and have a group of assistants just ready to do your bidding. Race around the narrow streets of Istanbul's market, dropping off assistants, filling your wheelbarrow with goods and delivering these goods to various markets. Efficiency and optimisation are key. Visit the tea house for a spot of gambling, make your way to the Sultans's Palace to exchange goods for rubies or say Hi to the Gemstone Dealer who wants cold, hard cash in exchange for rubies.
Istanbul is a 2-4 player pick-up-and-deliver game from Rudiger Dorn, published by Pegasus Spiele. Istanbul won the Kennerspiel award in 2014. There are two expansions available: Letters and Seals and Mocha and Baksheesh. Today, we’re reviewing the Istanbul Big Box, which contains the base game and the two expansions.
In Istanbul, you play as a merchant moving to various locations and dropping off (or picking up) your assistants to carry out various actions. You start off with four assistants and if you run out of assistants then you can't carry out the action. You can return to the fountain to retrieve all of your assistants. Actions include filling up your wheelbarrow with goods, delivering these goods to a market, upgrading your wheelbarrow to hold more goods, visiting the mosque for bonus tiles, going to the tea house for money, visiting the gemstone dealer to purchase rubies and visiting the Sultan's Palace to trade goods for rubies. When a player has collected five rubies, the final players complete the round and the game ends. (It's six rubies in a two-player game or when using the expansions.)
Istanbul Big Box - Dropping Off My Thoughts
There are many aspects of the game that I really enjoy. The board is effectively modular and made up of thick card tiles. This gives a lot of set-up variability, as you can pick the suggested short or long paths or go for a random arrangement. I am still playing with the short paths but will be trying the long paths and then random setups soon.
The two-player variant is executed so well with the dummy merchants. There is minimal admin involved in these and they don't even come in to play unless you land on the same space as them. At this point you give money to the bank, roll two dice and move the merchant. That is it. This adds the feeling of a more crowded board that you would get with more players, without any major overheads or rules to remember. Such a good design choice.
There are multiple ways to get rubies. This offers players options, which I love. If you race to get the rubies from collecting two mosque tiles, you get the bonus abilities, but then your opponent(s) may have purchased a few rubies from the Sultan's Palace or the Gemstone dealer, making it harder to acquire these in the future. This increasing price is really cool as well. You really need to work hard for the last few rubies, as they get more expensive every time one is purchased.
The theme could probably have been anything, to be honest, but I think it fits well with the mechanisms. The efficiency and optimisation of dropping/picking up work well. Moving from location to location really feels like you are running around a market. The two expansions that come with the Istanbul Big Box are fun and interesting additions to the base game. The Mocha & Baksheesh expansion adds four new places to visit as well as coffee, a coffee trader, guild cards, tavern tiles, new bonus cards and the baksheesh. The end game trigger has been increased to 6 rubies now, regardless of player count.
The expansion adds new ways to gain rubies. There are also new things to do on your turn with the guild cards. The tavern location with its barrier tile adds more player interaction. Meanwhile, the Letters & Seals expansion adds another four locations to visit, as well as kiosk cards, new bonus cards, letter tiles, companions and couriers. This can be combined with the Mocha & Baksheesh expansion. Letters provide an additional way to gain rubies. Letters delivered to specific locations are flipped to reveal seals. These seals can be traded in to gain rubies. Players also have access to a companion which can be moved instead of your merchants. The companion is an independent piece and doesn't require assistants.
Everything in the Istanbul Big Box comes together to provide a game with a relatively short playtime, meaningful choices and simple rules. The expansions add extra things to do but they are not complicated. They only add to the choices that you have. The only disappointment that I have is with myself. Why I have waited so long to play this game?