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Istanbul Review – Rubies and Wainwrights

Eurogames. They remain ever popular. Eurogames have helped define the gaming renaissance we are currently a part of. From Catan to Carcassonne, Eurogames have boomed in the marketplace, and become ever apart of the movement we are now seeing.

Games can have any theme, and they can be set in any part of the world. Today we are going to take a look at one such game that feels classic in nature, and yet, coming out in 2014, it is fairly recent. Currently rated (at time of writing) as the 99th best game of all time – today we are going to be looking at Istanbul.

Istanbul Board Game Review

Istanbul on the Table

What is Istanbul?

Istanbul is an economic pick-up-and-deliver style Eurogame designed by Rüdiger Dorn. It is a game for 2-5 players and takes around 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes to play. Istanbul is a mid-weight game, published by Pegasus Spiele.

In Istanbul, players play the parts of merchants in Istanbul (note – not Constantinople), and they move around the city with their assistants, buying and selling goods to gain rubies. Those rubies are the end game condition, and the first player to gain five rubies (in a 3-5 player game) or six rubies (in a 2 player game) wins.

Istanbul is a simple race in so far as the end game condition; however, there are lots of options for how to gain those rubies. It is fast paced and challenging.

Istanbul Board Game Review - 16 Buildings

16 Buildings

How do you play Istanbul?

Istanbul starts with 16 tiles, each representing a location in Istanbul, and each doing something different. Those locations can be shuffled around at will, making the game more or less challenging as needed. The players, or merchants, start at The Fountain.

Each player has a wheelbarrow with which to collect goods and rubies. There are spaces for two of each of four types of good in the wheelbarrow – we’ll call them red, blue, yellow, and green (although they do represent actual goods like jewellery and food). There is also space to add three additional extensions to the wheelbarrow with a really neat extension mechanic.

Rubies can be achieved through buying them for money, or achieving certain objectives.

Finally, the one big rule that is important to know, all the players start with four assistants. Whenever they move, and they can move one tile or two at any one time (so layout is important), they leave behind an assistant. That is, unless an assistant is already on that space in which case they pick it up. What this does is limit the movement of the merchant, making the game really challenging.


Green and Red at the Spice Warehouse

So, how does a turn play out? Well, essentially there are four steps.

  1. Movement – a merchant moves and either drops off an assistant or picks one up to do an action. Alternatively, they can do neither and forego their action.
  2. Encounter with other Merchants – if another merchant is on the space that your merchant wants to go onto, you must pay them 2 Lira or not move onto the space.
  3. Action – you can do the action at the location.
  4. Encounter with something else – you can encounter family members (who you sent to prison for 3 Lira or a bonus card), the Governor (who allows you to buy bonus cards from him), or the Smuggler (who allows you to buy resources). After encountered, the Governor and Smuggler go to a random location.

That is it. Those are the base rules, and the rest comes down to the locations themselves. Those locations, in numerical order are:

  1. Wainwright – Pay 7 Lira for a wheelbarrow extension. Once you have all 3 you gain a ruby.
  2. The Fabric Warehouse – Max out Fabric (red) in your wheelbarrow.
  3. The Spice Warehouse – Max out Spice (green) in your wheelbarrow.
  4. The Fruit Warehouse – Max out Fruit (yellow) in your wheelbarrow.
  5. Post Office – Gain all visible resources, and then move the markers so the visible resources change.
  6. Caravansary – Pick up two bonus cards (these can be played at any time according to the card picked up) and keep one. Discard the other.
  7. Fountain – Where you start the game. This is the only place you don’t need to leave an assistant, and the action returns all assistants to you.
  8. Black Market – Pay goods and roll dice to get a set number of blue (jewellery or black market) goods.
  9. Tea House – Say a number as to how many Lira you would like and roll two six-sided dice. If you get your number or higher then you gain that many Lira, otherwise you get two.
  10. Small Market – Sell goods according to market demand. The market demand is denoted on tiles and rotated around whenever someone sells goods.
  11. Large Market – The same as the small market, but goods are worth more.
  12. Police Station – Free your family member and send them to another location. Do the action at that location, and you don’t have to pay any other merchants on the space.
  13. Sultan’s Palace – Sell goods for rubies.
  14. Small Mosque – Sell goods to get a special ability. These give you permanent abilities in the game such as gaining the ability to reroll dice. Once you have both upgrades you get a ruby.
  15. Large Mosque – A similar concept to the small mosque, but including things like a 5th Assistant. Once you have both upgrades you get a ruby.
  16. Gemstone Dealer – Buy rubies for Lira.
Istanbul Review - The Gemstone Dealer

The Gemstone Dealer

You go to specific locations, buy goods, sell goods, make money, and get rubies. It’s that simple…and it’s that complex.

What is it like playing Istanbul?

Okay, so there is one thing that need to be pointed out about Istanbul before we go any further. It is a pain to set up. In fact, out of all games, Istanbul is one of the fiddliest and most awkward games to bring to the table. It’s a real shame, because it is a great game and here’s why –

When you think about economic games within the board game space a few big ones come to mind. Most recently, games like Brass: Birmingham, or games like Power Grid. Those are both heavy going games that take a lot of mental energy to do well. Istanbul, however, is a lighter game, with a few beautiful concepts that keep the game flowing. At no point does Istanbul feel overwhelming or like it is something that cannot simply be thought out. Instead, it is oddly welcoming with how it approaches economy.

Istanbul Small Market

The Small Market

The Small and Large Markets in Istanbul are, for me, where the magic happens. The way market demand is controlled within the game is simply stunning, making sure no character can run away on a resource wagon, whilst also having it enable the trading and bartering in such a way it feels kind of magical. That was a very long sentence, but I hope you get what I mean.

This is one of a few systems that works incredibly well, and it is possible to write a complementary piece about every single tile in the game. The locations are so well thought through, and the delivery system is both challenging and exciting at the same time. It just works.

What Istanbul pertains to be is actually a series of different mini ideas that have been collated together within a game. Each location heightens the experience, offering something new and flavourful.

Okay, so that is a lot of abstract chat. That is a lot of saying how wonderful Istanbul is without getting overly specific – however, before we delve a bit deeper one thing needs stating loud and clearly. ISTANBUL JUST WORKS.

Alright, let’s get a bit more specific.

Istanbul, as a game, revolves fairly centrally around movement. The game requires players to move from point to point, and this is where a lot of the challenge comes in. Not only is Istanbul a game about finding the most efficient route to 5/6 rubies, but it is also a game of making sure you don’t run out of assistants. What the limitation of creating a breadcrumb of assistants means is that players need to plan their route around Istanbul, and they need to work out the best way to get what they want without running out of dudes.

What this does is make Istanbul a game where both long term and short term strategies are welcome.

One of the benefits Istanbul has is how closed the map is. We’ve played it with various player counts, and the additional players make the game a challenging experience. There are two player rules to simulate additional players, but playing four or five player means players are constant moving around and having to pay each other for the pleasure. What is more, the Black Market tile and the Tea House add in moments of randomness and gambling. Those moments of randomness add excitement and exhilaration as the entire table watches to see what happens. The Tea House is literally putting your money where your mouth is and that is really cool.

There are so many great ideas within Istanbul that make it a pleasure to play. It wasn’t too expensive and, having added it to our collection recently, I really can’t wait to play it again. There is some magic in Istanbul and I really like it.

Istanbul Review - Police Station

The Police Station

TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and the Tea House

So, like with all games, we can now break this Istanbul review down into good, bad, and neutral points.

The Good:

  • There is so much good with Istanbul, but let’s start with how fantastic the point-to-point movement is, and how fantastic the assistant system is. They create a bread crumb trail based on where you go.
  • Each location does something awesome. The sixteen locations and different play modes are really well thought through.
  • Istanbul has some of the best economic systems I have ever seen gaming. The Small and Large Markets have a demand system that is just superb.
  • Everything works really fluidly.
  • The pieces are tactile – from the wheelbarrow having empty expansion slots you purchase and build, to the rubies being actual shards of plastic that feel really decent (and weirdly remind me of Aember upgrades from Keyforge).
  • Istanbul is a superb mid-weight game.

The Neutral:

  • The Black Market card isn’t nearly as appealing as the others. It is a risky and not particularly good way of gaining resources. This is representative of what it represents, but it is also a little bit rubbish.

The Bad:

  • The game takes a long time to set up. The set up to play length ratio is not great. This limits how often it comes to the table.

You all start at the Fountain

Conclusion: Istanbul Review

In case you hadn’t guessed, I really enjoy Istanbul and find it easy to recommend. We’ve introduced it to a few people now, and where the game can take some getting used to, once you know how to play it moves very fluidly. Generally speaking, it is highly enjoyable. A good time all round.

Now then – over to you. Have you played Istanbul? Would you like to play Istanbul? What mid-weight Eurogames would you recommend? Let me know in the comments below.

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