Board game review: Istanbul

by Mar 26, 2016board games, family0 comments

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You are a merchant, scurrying to and fro with your assistants through the bustling bazaar district of Istanbul. Your assistants load their wheelbarrows with warehouse treasures, then scurry away to sell them at a premium with rubies being the ultimate reward for their efforts. This is the basic storyline of Istanbul, a fun, family game for 2-5 players that plays easily within an hour.

Players who enjoy an aspect of randomness will appreciate the board setup for this game. Rather than utilize a single game board, the board is instead created from 16 small place tiles, each representing a location in the Istanbul bazaar. There are tiles for the fountain, markets, police station, warehouses, and gemstone dealer, among others. Tiles are randomly placed in a 4×4 grid (with a few rules for placement) so that gameplay can be different with every game you play.

Each player receives a wheelbarrow, a merchant and 4 apprentices, and a few lira to start. All players place the tokens for their merchant/assistants on the fountain and then play proceeds through rounds: each player moves their stack of tokens throughout the bazaar places, leaving an assistant at each place visited and often picking them up on the way back to the fountain. At each location, they are able to take certain actions—picking up wheelbarrow extensions, maximizing their warehouse loot, selling goods at the marketplace—all with the ultimate goal of obtaining rubies. The first player to collect 5 rubies (or 6 in a 2-player game) is the winner.

The game is a great mix of strategy and luck. Strategy is a key component throughout the game since you have to plan out your apprentices’ moves throughout the bazaar, trying not to meet up with other players (whom you have to pay if you share a space) and making sure you reach the desired destination first. Luck is a factor at a handful of the places where you must roll the dice to produce a particular outcome. You can offset the negative result of unlucky dice rolls with certain game components that allow you to name the value of one die or re-roll. There are also governor and smuggler game pieces that can help you gain bonus cards and goods for a reasonable price.

Although the base game is plenty of fun, you can add an additional level of complexity and interest with the “Mocha & Baksheesh” expansion. This add-on gives you 4 more bazaar place tiles (2 are entirely new and 2 replace their counterpart in the original game), plus the ability to collect a new type of resource: coffee! Additionally, it features a few new options for turn actions: the opportunity to play a guild card rather than move your apprentice through the market, to pay a baksheesh in exchange for a ruby (or block opponents from certain tiles by means of a special barrier), and to collect coffee as another type of trading resource. It also adds a coffee trader that works much like the smuggler and governor. 

For hardcore gamers that enjoy games with a sustained focus on strategy, this may feel a bit lightweight. However, I think Istanbul is a solid choice for a family game for younger kids (say 10—12) because it’s relatively easy to learn and fairly quick to play. There’s enough variation so that each game doesn’t feel exactly the same because of the accessibility of certain items through the tile placement.

My husband received this game as a Christmas gift in 2015 and our family has enjoyed playing it regularly in the two months since then. Although we’ve only had the extension for a few weeks, we love the added depth it provides to the game, and we probably won’t play without it moving forward.

Do you play Istanbul? Does it sound like a game you’d like to try? Check out this gallery of images to see the game up-close!

Sincere thanks to Jeremiah Harris for beautifully photographing the game for this post.


Playing Time

40-60 minutes

Number of Players

2-5 players Ages 10+

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