Istanbul or “Trade Everything You Acquire for Rubies” is the winner of this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres and after playing the game, I can understand why. The game is certainly fun, and it has enough going on that it will be enjoyable time and again.
I found the game to somewhere between Puerto Rico and Village in terms of intensity, strategy, and player interaction. And that “weight” plays into Istanbul’s favor. It has a great balance between light and heavy game play, which means the likelihood of it hitting the table is high, at least in my gaming circle.
Just like with Puerto Rico, there is very little luck involved to win Istanbul. The player that wins the game deserves to win because they played better than everyone else. At least that will be the case most of the time. There is some luck involved: to which space the Governor and Smuggler travel, how many lira you’ll gain on certain spaces, and which cards you’ll draw, but this isn’t enough to solidify a victory or throw a game off balance.
For most of the game, a player’s turn is taken and completed fairly quickly. However, toward the end of the game, some players may start to suffer from analysis paralysis as they try to figure out how best to gain that last ruby.
Player interaction is minimal, but important. Throughout the game, a player may move their merchant onto a space containing another player’s merchant. When this happens, the player that moved onto that space pays the other player two lira or they cannot perform that space’s action. Should there be more than one merchant on a space before another merchant moves there, each other merchant is paid two lira before the space can be activated. This can cause players that are short on coins to curse the other players beneath their breath.
Another, more indirect, type of interaction comes from the fact that when certain items are purchased, the cost for that particular item increases. So, for example, the first player to purchase an upgrade only has to exchange two fabric cubes while the second player will need to exchange three fabric cubes for the same upgrade (the third player would need to exchange four fabric cubes, and so on). Exchanging three cubes is, of course, impossible without first upgrading your wheelbarrow. Fear not, because upgrading your wheelbarrow isn’t fruitless, far from it. In addition to being able to carry more goods, you will also gain a ruby when you max out the capacity of your wheelbarrow. And that is one of the reasons why I like Istanbul so much: your actions are very rewarding, even when they might not be the action you hoped to complete. For the strategic player there are almost no bad choices.
The real beauty of the game lies in its simplicity. When looking at the game for the first time, it can appear like a lot to digest. And there is quite a bit to the game, but the core mechanic is move 1 or 2 spaces and complete that space’s action. Simple. The challenging part is figuring out which space is going to be the most beneficial. You have to manage your assistants as well since you have a limited number of them and dropping off an assistant is how a space’s actions are activated. This is what makes things so interesting. With each space containing a different ability, there are many paths to victory. You’ll not only have to manage your resources (your goods, your assistants, and your coins), but also plan a move or two in advance in order to be sure you’re able to activate the space you want.
While I greatly enjoyed Istanbul, no game is perfect. The player reference cards are nice, but even with them at their fingertips some players still had questions about their bonus cards and/or upgrades tiles. It is also easy to forget that you have a certain card, but I can’t really fault the game for this. I mentioned not liking adhering stickers to tokens in my review of Paradise Fallen, and Istanbul forces stickers on game owners as well. Although, there aren’t that many sticks so it isn’t that big of a deal, but they still suffer from all of the problems inherent in a sticker (the application might be uneven, they might lose their stickiness, etc). Storage also isn’t great. A few baggies of your own help, but a better storage tray would have been nice.
I definitely recommend Istanbul. Essentially, the game is a bunch of clichés: it is both simple yet complex. It is easy to learn but difficult to truly rain down pwnage on others. It really is a beautiful mix of fun in a box.