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Review: Istanbul: Mocha & Baksheesh

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You sling bananas with the best of them. Your spices are the spiciest. And you’ve amassed enough rubies to make Mr. T blush. You’ve done well as a merchant, but your customers’ demands never cease. They grow tired of your standard fare and are looking for something a little more exotic. All the cool kids are drinking coffee now and if you don’t sell it to them, you’ll soon be in line at the unemployment office. Enter Mocha & Baksheesh, the first expansion to 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner Istanbul.

How It Plays

When playing with Mocha and Baksheesh, the goal of collecting rubies remains the same as do the majority of the rules. This review assumes that you are familiar with how the base game works, but if you are new to Istanbul I recommend checking out the review here. Mocha & Baksheesh adds five major components to the main game. The namesake addition of coffee adds another type of resource. There is no limit to the amount of coffee you can hold and it may be used to pay for various benefits.

The expansion also adds Guild cards in addition to the bonus cards from the base game. Guild cards offer incredibly powerful abilities when used, such as buying a ruby at whatever location you are. To temper their usefulness, you are not allowed to do anything else on a turn that you’ve played a guild card.

Guild cards are acquired at the Guild Hall
Guild cards are acquired at the Guild Hall

Then there’s the Coffee Trader who will be placed on the board in the same way as the Smuggler and the Governor. Whenever you encounter the Coffee Trader, you are able to sell him coffee for some coins and goods. The trader acts as another way for you to spend coffee.

Lastly and most importantly, the expansion adds four new location tiles which will be added to every game in a randomized fashion and expands the overall playing area from 16 tiles to 20. At the Roasting Plant, you can acquire coffee for coins, goods or discarding bonus or guild cards. You can gain up to six coffee in this way. The Guild Hall gives you one coffee and a guild card. The Tavern location gives you three separate options to choose from that all involve paying coffee. You can pay 2 coffee to move a barrier between any two tiles on the board and take an action of either location adjacent to the newly placed barrier. Only the player who last placed the barrier is allowed to move through it. If you don’t want to place a barrier, you can pay coffee to take an ability tile. These tiles work in the same way that the mosque tiles did in the base game in that they grant you permanent abilities to augment your normal play. And if none of those options tickle your fancy you can pay four coffee and the goods depicted on the tile to take a ruby from one of the other tiles where you normally get rubies from. The last new tile is the Coffee House where you can trade coffee for a ruby.

The new tiles expand the play area by 25%
The new tiles expand the play area by 25%

Expanding on Expansions

I’ve never been an expansion person and it wasn’t until relatively recently that I even owned an expansion. I’ve always been excited by new ideas and new experiences. I still am, but as I play more and more games I am starting to see the merit in expanding on a game that you are already familiar with. Every new game, and the rules that accompany it, occupy mind space and as the primary game explainer I find myself quickly running out of place in there. Being able to inject a bit of freshness into a game that I’m already familiar with allows me to scratch the itch to try something new while keeping the overhead of learning to a minimum.

It might seem strange that I would choose Mocha & Baksheesh as my first expansion to review seeing as how I wasn’t exactly over the moon with Istanbul. I often get a bit irritated when I hear it said that expansions “fix” a base game. It bothers me in the same way that people tell me to endure through the first two seasons of a television series before it “gets good.” I shouldn’t have to suffer through that much viewing to find enjoyment and a board game should stand alone as an entertaining experience. But the truth is, I saw something in Istanbul that made me overlook my usual aversion to expand upon a slightly above average game. I saw potential. By layering new ideas on top of a solid (if uninspired) foundation, I thought that Istanbul just might be able to capitalize on that potential. Luckily, I was right.

Everything that comes in the expansion
Everything that comes in the expansion

An Injection of Tactics

The base game of Istanbul boiled down to identifying the most lucrative routes and exploiting them like there was no tomorrow. Getting a good read and an early jump on the best routes on the board was a surefire way to meet victory. The real game was figuring out where those routes were and it happened before the first turn was even taken. Mocha & Bakseesh disrupts the status quo and it makes for better game.

By adding new tiles and expanding the play area, Mocha & Basheesh immediately makes it more difficult to identify the most efficient routes. Pure numbers makes it harder to find routes among 20 tiles as opposed to the original 16. And even when you identify them, trying to gauge which one will be best gets more difficult when there are more of them.

But simply adding more routes isn’t all this expansion has to offer. By adding another currency in the form of Coffee, Mocha and Baksheesh forces you to carefully weigh your choices. It’s difficult to be rich in coins, goods and coffee. With coffee as another currency comes additional ways to earn rubies. Now when you lose the race to a specific ruby, you can shift your focus quickly and redirect your efforts.

Most importantly, Mocha and Baksheesh introduces multiple ways to impede and disrupt your opponents’ plans. A well placed barrier can wreak havoc on even the most well thought out ideas. And the flexibility of the Tavern allows you to grab rubies that your opponents are after. It’s as satisfying to grab a ruby from under the nose of an opponent as it is deflating to have it snatched from you. Mocha and Baksheesh introduces highs and lows into an otherwise mild experience. It introduces some grit that gives you something to grab hold of.

The Roasting Plant is a major source of Coffee, a new addition in the expansion
The Roasting Plant is a major source of Coffee, a new addition in the expansion

Conclusion

Mocha and Baksheesh flips the script without adding too much rules overheard. Instead of being a game about reading the board, it becomes a game about reading other players. You can adapt to other peoples’ actions more easily and you never feel helpless as your opponents race towards victory. Whether it be blocking off their routes or snatching a ruby that they were after from across the board, you must consider at all times what your opponents are doing. Istanbul was a game with some clever ideas that was about exploiting systems. Mocha & Baksheesh is a game with those same clever ideas, but about interacting with players. I’ve long said that the greatest resource a board game has at its disposal are the players at the table. The cunning and intelligence of a player at the table is miles beyond that of mere cardboard and dice. A good board game will use this fact to it’s advantage in order to create something special.

It’s something of a shame that Istanbul didn’t incorporate some of the ideas from the expansion from the get-go. The game would have likely been less appealing to the masses, I’m sure, but it would have been a better game. Luckily, Mocha & Baksheesh is here to rectify that. Does it justify the existence of Istanbul as it’s own product? I think it does. As I mentioned previously, Istanbul on it’s own isn’t terrible, it’s just nothing special. This expansion brings Istanbul to a level where I look forward to playing more of it and that’s a success in my book.

  • VERY GOOD 8.5
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Summary

Pros
New ways to earn rubies
Player focused instead of system focused
New currency allows for different avenues to victory

Cons
Requires Istanbul to play
Slightly increased set up time

8.5 VERY GOOD

I love board games. The more esoteric, the better.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Hi Alex, just pointing out an error in the article.

    Incorrect: “Whenever you encounter the Coffee Trader, you are able to sell him coffee for some coins and goods. The trader acts as another way for you to spend coffee.”

    Corrected: “Whenever you encounter the Coffee Trader, you are able to buy a coffee for coins or a good. The trader acts as another way for you to buy coffee.”

    Otherwise, a good read!

    Thanks,
    James

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