Istanbul sees two to five players travel to various locations in the city in a race to collect a set amount of rubies first. Players have a Merchant Token and a set of assistant tokens underneath. On your turn you will move this stack of tokens one or two spaces on to a different location and either drop off one of your assistants or, if there is one already there, pick on back up. You then do the action for that location.
Most locations offer you a chance to gain goods, rubies or improve your chances at both in some way. Along the way you might upgrade your goods wheelbarrow to store more, gain another assistant, and task your uncle to help you. There are also a couple of other characters on the board who you can encounter, which give you some more options.
The board is made up of 16 location tiles and although there are a few suggested set-ups, you are equally welcome to deal them randomly or make your own. Being that you must either pick up or drop off an assistant on your turn you will find yourself either with a wide spread of tokens across the board, or a tight little corner where you move back and forth between them. To help you if you get stuck, the fountain location lets you collect all your assistants from where ever they are on the board.
As players race to collect rubies, some of the easiest ways to get them become more and more expensive to use, giving you lots of decisions - compete with everyone else or go your own way and unlock some of the other rubies?
Istanbul is a great game in anyone’s collection. It is easy to understand but rewarding to play, with a good depth of decisions. The game is not too long or too short and accommodates all player counts well. Truly a modern classic.
Player Count: 2-5
Playing Time: 40-60 Minutes
Age Rating: 10+
Istanbul was designed by Rudiger Dorn, and is essentially a pick-up and deliver style racing game. You are a merchant in a frantic bazaar area of Istanbul. Scrambling to acquire Rubies, you will use your assistants to trade on your behalf.
Scurrying from the stalls back and forth to your barrow with the goods, which you will need to turn into gems. It is a simple fact that you want the most gems. Thereby you will set yourself up as the most successful merchant in Istanbul.
Get em while they're hot?
Right from the start, Istanbul will wow you with its sumptuous artwork. There is so much colour yet it is never garish or over the top. The setting is definitely not what you would call “modern day accurate” but it is definitely much more in the style of a Hollywood movie representation of what they think Istanbul should have looked like in the 30’s and 40’s.
This is no bad thing at all because you instantly feel at home with it. Nothing makes you feel more at the heart of a city like a bustling market. Sights, Smells, Movement and numerous vendors calling out their wares trying to tempt you to spend big.
OK so maybe Istanbul is not actually quite that immersive. But you will find it easy to envelop yourself in the role. “Spices! Spices!” “Special price for you sir and madam."
Wow, sounds complicated?
Istanbul may initially seem confusing, given all the various tokens and markers. To be honest I think the only real negative in this game is that it can be quite fiddly to set up. You will however be pleasantly surprised. By approximately half way through your first game you will realise that you have not looked at the rule book in ages and you just know how it works.
All the Location tiles are very clear and the Iconography is very easy to understand. To start a game you will lay out the 16 Location tiles into a 4×4 grid.
Helpfully the Rule book has a suggested starting layout. This is a very good starting point for learning the game. It also contains an “advanced” layout which makes the game much more difficult.
Another option is to lay the 16 Location tiles in a random 4×4 grid. It is from this last option you will find the most mileage in Istanbul. The number and variety of different layouts will mean that you need to keep on your toes with varying strategies for trying to collect those pesky Rubies.
Once you have laid out your “board” you will then place your Mosque tiles, Rubies, Mail markers, Governor, Smuggler and Family members (they start in jail, more on this later). Onto the tiles. Players will then place their Merchant marker along with four Assistants in a stack on the Fountain Location Tile. A nice quiet spot away from the hustle and bustle of the Market itself.
You will also receive a basic Wheelbarrow. While this will hold some goods at the beginning. You will very quickly find you need to upgrade it if you are to have any hope of gaining Rubies.
Show me the Money!
Movement in Istanbul is deceptively simple, your merchant can move one or two spaces each turn. Sounds simple right? However the merchants will not do business with you direct, they will only deal with your assistants.
Each time you move you will need to “drop off” or “pick up” an assistant in order to take the action available on the Location tile. It is all too easy to find yourself in the position of wanting to move to a certain tile to take an action, then finding that you need to backtrack to collect assistants to be able to get there.
Forward planning is crucial but thankfully, given the 4×4 nature of the layout, it is not “brain-meltingly” difficult to do. The actions available to the player when they have completed their movement will involve visits to:
- Warehouses - Where the player can max out his supply of a certain good.
- Wainwright - To purchase a wheelbarrow extension or a gem if fully extended.
- Post Office - For an ever-changing assortment of goods and money.
- Black Market - To utilize a “lucky” dice roll to obtain goods.
- Tea House - To roll a dice to try to win money.
- Markets - Where you can sell goods for money.
- Mosques - To obtain special tiles that allow a once per turn advantage.
- Caravansary - Bonus cards are discarded here.
- Police Station - To free your family member.
- Sultan’s Palace - Certain combinations of goods can gain you Rubies.
- Gemstone Dealer - Allows you to purchase gems outright with money.
- Fountain - You can call all your assistants back to you.
Back up. Who is in jail?
Being a successful merchant in Istanbul is not all plain sailing. You have your wayward cousin to contend with. He is trying so hard to be successful but things just don’t work out and he regularly finds himself a guest of the local constabulary.
It is not all doom and gloom though. He will be so grateful when you pay his bail. He will happily pop over to any Location tile and carry out the action there regardless of who is already there. This can be a real boon when playing with the higher player counts as the board does tend to get crowded.
I say this because whenever you are moving your Merchant and you stop on a space already occupied by another Merchant, the Governor or the Smuggler, you will have to pay them to be able to carry out the tiles action.
Because the aim of Istanbul is to obtain rubies, there is a large element of “race game” feeling. This is further enhanced by the fact that as locations are visited and rubies are claimed, the costs gradually increase along with them. So in a five-player game, being the last to claim a Ruby from a spot can be quite expensive. This is usually because you have focused on getting rubies from elsewhere.
One of the beautiful things about a game of Istanbul is that there are multiple paths to victory. You can try your luck at the riskier, but potentially more rewarding, black market or gambling. Amass a fortune in coins and try to buy your way to victory. You might decide that the best route is to trade the goods well to obtain that win. It is just as possible to win a game by mixing together a combination of different strategies.
Plan your route, make your plans and stick to them….unless you decide to change them.....
Final Thoughts on Istanbul
Istanbul is one of those games that in my opinion everyone should have on the shelf. It is a little fiddly to set-up but the play time is quick and there is little downtime. A full game only takes around an hour. It always leaves you with a feeling of enjoyment and does not outstay its welcome.
Even if one player gets a run of outrageous luck on some dice rolls you won’t feel hard done by. It has enough strategy to keep most gamers interested but it manages to balance this with an easy to pick up and play style that is great for novices as well.
Istanbul does have some elements of luck but you can more or less ignore those tiles if you wish to. This is definitely not multiplayer solitaire as what actions the other players take can have a direct effect on your plans or available options. At the same time it is not a take-that game either.
You Might Like
• Re-playability. Does not outstay its welcome and leaves you thinking I want more.
• Easy to teach, Easy to learn. Just what you want in a worker placement game.
• Every game is different thanks to the variable Location tile layouts.
• The use of a dummy player makes the two-player version well balanced, while the five-player can feel a bit crowded at time (3-4 is probably the sweetest spot though).
• Rewarding. There is very little downtime, lots of options and some good thinking needed.