Istanbul is a game for 2-5 players older than 10 and takes about 40-60 minutes. In Istanbul players control merchants and their assistants to rush through the bazaar of Istanbul to collect and sell goods, acquiring special abilities and bonus cards and ultimately to buy and collect 5 rubies to win the game.
The board consists of 4×4 tiles that allow different actions such as buying rubies, getting money, selling goods, getting extra abilities and so on. Beginners can play the standard setup of tiles. In this setup certain tiles, that are often used one after the other, are close to each other resulting in a smoother and faster game. More experienced players can play with a random setup of tiles so they have to figure out a strategy for the specific setup.
Each player starts with a merchant and four assistant tokens below the merchant. Each turn a player moves one or two orthogonal tiles. However, the player needs to drop an assistant on the tile where the merchant stops. This way one can run out of assistants which results in wasting a turn to get assistants back to the merchant or spending two Lira to get an assistant if one has a specific extra ability. If the merchant stops on a tile where there is already an own assistant one collects the assistant instead of dropping one. So one tries to find an efficient route to not waste turns or Lira collecting own assistants and getting rubies as fast as possible.
Players can get in your way, though. If your merchant stops on a tile where there is a merchant of another player you have to pay this player two Lira. If there are more you have to pay all of them and if you don’t have enough money to pay the respective players you can’t go there. This is a wonderful mechanic because it 1. forces you to anticipate the moves of your competitors, 2. it adds some interaction and 3. it tends to make popular strategies more expensive. Nonetheless, this mechanic does not completely block spots or strategies, it just makes them slightly less advantageous.
Also, there is some luck involved. In the tea house one has to say a number between 3 and 12. If the roll is higher one gets the number of Lira that one said and if the roll is lower one does not get anything. Saying a lower number is less risky but the payout is also smaller. Also the smuggler and governor provide nice bonuses and their location is rerolled constantly.
Certain tiles give some special ability like being able to reroll a die or getting a fifth assistant and they become more difficult to get the more players have taken them. Also one can get bonus cards that can be played once in addition to a normal move and may give five Lira, allow the owner to do an action twice, move 3-4 steps and so on.
Interaction: 5 out of 10
There is interaction in moving to tiles before other players, in increasing the price/difficulty of certain tiles or rubies for other players. One also needs to closely observe how many rubies other players have because the first player getting their fifth ruby triggers the end of the game. The interaction is rather indirect and not very high, though. Nonetheless I really liked the interaction, especially the need to anticipate other players’ moves. The information is basically visible on the 4×4 tiles and the few extra tiles players may have in front of them, only the bonus cards on hand are hidden. Thus, it is very easy to overview the relevant information and think a few own and competitors’ steps ahead. In other games you can theoretically interact and think of what is good or bad for an opponent but one may not care for it because the relevant information is cluttered all around the table and difficult to realize.
Fun: 9 out of 10
During my first game I was a bit disappointed by Istanbul. I guess I expected a heavier game as “Kennerspiel des Jahres”, something like Terra Mystica. Istanbul is quite a light game, the rules can be explained in less than 10 minutes, it is fairly easy to grasp, newbies have a realistic chance to win against more experienced players.
For a Kennerspiel des Jahres there is also a decent amount of luck involved. Usually I strongly dislike luck in strategy games. In Istanbul I like how luck is embedded, though. Only few tiles and the bonus cards involve luck. However, one can control for the risk by getting the tile that allows to reroll and by being able to say a low number in the tea house. At the same time, one can voluntarily take risks to be able to still catch the leader.
Istanbul is a race and most games are tight until the very end. And if a game is not so tight it usually ends sooner.
Also, the game provides for a euphoric experience. I didn’t even mind being badly beaten by a newbie. The game is surprisingly light, plays fast and still feels like a strategy game. The decisions are not trivial at all. Even if one has detected the most efficient route other players may interfere, new bonus cards or the constantly moving smuggler and governor often give incentives to deviate from the original plan. Also I found that one may want to take into account the numbers on the 4×4 tiles because they indicate the likelihood of the smuggler and governor to pop up when their new location is determined by the dice roll.
Replayability: 6 out of 10
I love how the random setup of the tiles forces the players to come up with new route in each game! Apart from this nothing really changes, though. Nonetheless, I felt even after a few games the decisions are not so easy and it is still fun. The replayability can easily be enhanced by new tiles (there already is one new one, the kebab shop).
After I overcame my first disappointment with this rather light game with a decent amount of luck I was fascinated because Istanbul is very fast-paced with no downtime and still challenges players with non-trivial strategic decisions. I know very few games that play so fast, are that easy to teach and that still feel like a strategy game. Istanbul caters the taste of casual gamers and strategy gamers that want to play something in under an hour.
In addition, it scales well with the player count. It is a bit more crowded and chaotic with more players but I enjoyed both four player and two player games.
I am not sure if I gave this light strategy game the “Kennerspiel des Jahres” award but I can really recommend it as a very fast-paced and yet quite deep and enjoyable strategy game.