Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: Istanbul, Coffee and the Postal Service

I have been meaning to use this blog to also post some board game reviews, and it made sense to start with something positive. So here goes.

Note: I will take and post photos to this at some point. I didn't want to use photos without the owners permission, but some great photos can be found on the Istanbul BGG page.


Designed by RĂ¼diger Dorn

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is one of the favourite games of my regular gaming groups. It is never hard to get Istanbul to the table, either with the base game alone, or with either of the expansions mixed in.

Istanbul is a hard game to classify. It is played on a modular board, and I have heard it called a worker placement game, and also a pick up and deliver game. To me neither of these quite cover the truth behind the simple and yet elegant mechanics that make Istanbul one of the best games in my collection.

In Istanbul you are a merchant who is dragging your wheelbarrow around locations taking the actions of those locations in order to accumulate enough rubies to win. In the base game the first person to 5 rubies triggers the end game, but with either of the expansions this is changed to 6 rubies. This seems arbitrary in explanation, but during play it doesn't feel that way because the options you can take to collect these is both limited, and very varied. While there are only a few locations where rubies can be obtained, the ways you can gather the resources required are vast and every player will have a different strategy.

While you are moving your merchant, you also have assistants that you must use in order to activate the locations you are visiting, either by leaving an assistant behind or by picking up an assistant that you left their earlier. If you do not have an assistant then you can visit a location, but your turn ends immediately without you taking any action. This means planning your moves is critical to success. One of the central locations will always be the Fountain, where you can arrange to meet all your assistant and start afresh, however all you do on this turn is collect your assistants again, so it gives your opponents a chance to take more productive actions. However your supply of assistants is very limited so everyone will be visiting the fountain occasionally.

The core of Istanbul is a modular board made up of location tiles. These tiles are often laid out in a particular order, but the game gets amazing when these tiles are randomised with a few simple restrictions. When this happens any strategy you have used in previous games may not work, because locations that you were able to use in synergy may not be close enough together to use that way any more. This means you will constantly be looking for new ways to solve the puzzle that is trading and dealing in the streets of Istanbul. Of course if you visit a location and there is another merchant there ahead of you, you will need to pay that person in order to be able to take that action, after all, they got there first and you are interrupting them. This also allows for some really mean blocking actions if you are so inclined.

During the game you will have the option to visit the Wainwright to get your wheelbarrow upgraded, go to Mosques to study to learn how to do new things, go to the tea house to gamble, or to the Black Market to do some dark trading for the hard to obtain jewellery. You will even encounter the Governor of Istanbul or a notorious Smuggler.

Bonus Cards that give you special actions you can take during your turn, or single shot rule breaker actions also mix things up every game. You never know what bonus cards you are going to get, and a well timed bonus card may give you an option that you have never seen before.

But what makes Istanbul special is it's speed. Generally a players turn will only take 10-15 seconds, and you will often find that by the time you have finished thinking about what you want to do next, it's your turn again, even in a 4 or 5 player game. This is because the results of each location are generally simple, even though they are meaningful to the player.

I have taught this game a lot, and have found a explanation of all of the details before starting is the best way to go for this game. It's slower, but will mean the game is a lot faster. If someone is asking about all their options every turn, then the game will take a lot longer than the detailed explanation followed by the game when everyone knows what the locations do.

The biggest complaint about Istanbul is about how fiddly it is. Because turns happen so fast, and you are often moving stacks of pieces and can be moving around coins, and cubes, and tokens all quite quickly, things can be knocked over or dropped. Add to this the cards moving around and the dice being rolled and ... it can be very fiddly. Especially for older players it can be quite awkward to move things around cleanly. However you just slow play down a little and it's all good. It does add about 5 minutes to a game, but it's still a short enough game that it doesn't matter too much.

Istanbul normally takes 45-60 minutes to play, a little shorter for a 2 player game. What is strange is 3-5 player games don't seem to vary that much in play time, with each extra player adding only about 5 minutes to the play time. I think this is because most people are using other player's turns to think about their actions, and things move so fast.

The other complaint about Istanbul is the gender disparity. As in there is not a single woman depicted anywhere in the game that I have seen. However my mother played this over a dozen times without noticing this, and she normally does see this sort of stuff. When I asked her why, she said that it was probably because the game felt like it was an inclusive game because of the goals and the theme.

Istanbul also has two expansions...

Istanbul: Mocha & Baksheesh

Mocha & Baksheesh adds a new trade good (coffee) and four locations to the base game. This changes it form a 4x4 grid to a 5x4 grid, so it gives you more room to move around. This is both a blessing and a curse, as you won't get in each others way as much, but it takes much longer to get anywhere.

You can trade your goods or your Lira for coffee, and then use that coffee to get extra bonuses, or trade for Rubies. With the expansion you need 6 rubies for victory instead of five so you need to work a little harder to gain that prestigious title of Best Merchant in Istanbul.

Also added are Guild Cards which are powerful turn replacements that can alter your strategy significantly.

Mocha & Baksheesh gives you another option for getting in the way of your opponents as well, potentially making important locations harder to reach using the barricade. There can only be one barricade at a time, and this comes with a cost, and there is nothing stopping them taking control of the barricade and doing the same to you.

Overall Mocha & Baksheesh became a standard when we played Istanbul, and the only time we played without it was when introducing new people to the game.


Istanbul: Letters & Seals

Letters & Seals adds several different elements to Istanbul. The thing the expansion is named after is the new Letters, which you can obtain from several locations and then deliver to obtain the seals which can be cashed in to obtain rubies or used to take extra turns.

Also added is a companion, which can be obtained and used as a second, but more limited merchant. The companion can't move as quickly, however doesn't need assistants to take actions so can be very powerful in a limited section of the board. Also having two locations of the board where you can take actions is very empowering. Because your opponents need to pay you if either your merchant or your companion is on a location, this opens up a lot more options to block in demand locations.

Letters & Seals also adds the Kiosk and the Auction House, both locations which allow players to potentially gain benefits on other players turns. These locations are a little slower than most of the others, but because all players are involved they don't feel that way.

I can't say if I like Letters & Seals more than Mocha & Baksheesh, they are very different expansions and change the game in different ways. They are both excellent.

The Great Bazaar

With Letters & Seals there is also the option of combining both expansions to play on 5x5 grid called The Great Bazaar. I haven't played this yet, because I can't see this working with less than 4 players, and I think it would work best with five. Also you would want all the players to be fairly familiar with both Mocha & Baksheesh and Letters & Seal before playing with this, so there is some learning investment before playing it.

I can see this being a very interesting game, with a lot of moving parts, but I think it will be a while before it hits the table because I really think it will be at it's best with five people who know Istanbul really well.

In Conclusion

Istanbul is a great game, that plays quickly and rewards various play styles. There is no "solution" that will work for every game if you play with a randomised tile layout, and you will be faced with challenging decisions each time you play.

However even with all these complex decisions of balancing trade goods, Lira, bonus cards, and special actions, Istanbul still never drags as things happen remarkably quickly for a game of this type.

One other thing that's great about Istanbul is it works well at all player counts. It plays slightly differently for 2 players, but it works for 2-5 without there being a perfect player count and at no point do I want to not play it because we don't have the "correct" number of players.

Istanbul is a game that will continue to be visited by myself and my game group for years to come.

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