Nothing captures the heartbeat of a city like the local market. It’s a blur of sights and movement, a well of sounds and smells. The movement of vendors and shoppers melds with the colors of the food and wares sold by the hawkers. The haggling and advertising creates a relentless murmur that’s impossible to escape. It can be overwhelming to some, but not for you. This is your territory. This is your home. It’s where you’re most comfortable. It’s probably why you became a merchant in the first place. But simply being a merchant isn’t enough for you. You want to be the best and you’re out to prove it. Though it would be a lot easier if the competition weren’t so tough.
How to Play
As a merchant, it is your goal to collect a certain number of rubies before your fellow merchants. Why? Well, that’s how you win the game, of course. You’ll be gathering goods from the various stalls around the famous Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, selling and trading them in an effort to gather precious stones with the help of your assistants and trusty cart.
The board consists of a grid of randomly placed tiles, each of which represent different stalls and buildings throughout the market. On your turn you can move one or two spaces from your current location and take the action associated with the space you land on. Each location is unique and allows for various ways to achieve the goal of attaining rubies. You can fill your cart with fruit at the fruit vendor, gamble at the local tea house, sell goods at the market stalls, steal mail from the post office, and even bail your good-for-nothing nephew out of jail. There are also locations in which you can collect rubies. You can buy them at the gem dealer or receive them from the Sultan in exchange for certain goods. You can also be rewarded with rubies if you donate enough to the mosques or fully upgrade your cart to hold more goods.
There are bonus cards that grant special abilities and you can have encounters with special characters, but for the most part, it’s as simple as moving to a location and taking that location’s action. Well, it would be that simple if it weren’t for your incredibly lazy assistants. Since you obviously can’t be expected to handle such menial tasks as loading and unloading your own cart, your assistants have at least some nominal value to you. Unfortunately, if you aren’t directly supervising them they’re next to useless. You and your assistants are represented by a stack of discs, the topmost disc representing yourself as the merchant and the discs below your assistants. When you take your turn you will move the entire stack. If there is an assistant on the space you land on, you place your stack on top of him and take the action. If there is no assistant there, you will drop an assistant from the bottom of the stack and then take the action. If there is no assistant on the space and no assistants in your stack, you’re out of luck and won’t be able to take an action that turn. If you ever find yourself in this situation, it might be worthwhile to visit the fountain which is your designated meetup spot and allows you to gather all of your assistants back into a single stack.
Once a player collects five rubies, the end of the game is triggered and the round of play is finished. Whoever has the most rubies once the round ends is declared the winner.
Starting Off on the Right Foot
Istanbul’s 4×4 tile grid seemingly offers a lot of choice as to how you want to achieve the goal of attaining rubies. You can gather goods and turn them into the Sultan’s Palace for a ruby or sell them at the markets for coin which can then be used to purchase rubies at the Gemstone Dealer. Both are legitimate methods to earning rubies, but the reality often dictates that only one method will earn you rubies fast enough to win and speed is everything in Istanbul. The game not only rewards you for being first to collect 5 rubies, it also rewards you for being first in just about every aspect. Rubies become more expensive to purchase as they are bought up by players, and donations to the mosques must increase as others donate before you. So it would seem that the best strategy would be spread out and do a little of everything in order to avoid the increasing costs. So it would seem.
In truth, the best strategy is to find the most profitable, repeatable path and exploit the living daylights out of it. If you can, for example, identify a path that allows you to collect all four goods on the way to the Sultan’s Palace, you had better jump on it and keep at it until something stops you. Since the tiles are randomly laid out every game, a huge part of the game takes place before the first action is even taken. Whoever can identify the most efficient and lucrative route from the outset will have the advantage.
There are a few ways to slow someone down. Anytime a player moves into a location they must pay two coins to every other player who is already there. It’s usually enough to change someone’s course, especially if there are multiple other players on the space. You can also grab a ruby before they can, thereby changing its price though it’s easier said than done. There’s also a variant included in the rulebook where every player has a neutral assistant. These neutral assistants have no allegiance to any single player and will join any player’s stack when left alone. It adds more interaction to a game that could really use it and it forces you to think twice about moving to a certain space lest your neutral assistant be poached and you’re left with no clear way back. The variant is only possible with 2-4 players, but I highly recommend using it once you get a few plays under your belt.
The Tortoise or the Hare
Istanbul is essentially a race. Jumping out to an early ruby lead can leave your opponents in the metaphorical dust. But it isn’t strictly a mad dash for rubies. By upgrading your cart size you’ll be able to carry more goods at a time which means less trips to the vendors. And the upgrade tiles at the mosques can give you great benefits such as re-rolling dice and granting another assistant. But while you’re busy upgrading your cart and gaining special abilities, your opponents may already be nearing the finish line. There’s a delicate balance that’s created by the collective play at the table and the layout of the board. If someone’s identified a short path to 5 rubies and is left to their own devices, then their victory is mostly a formality. But the board layout is such that the lucrative paths are spread apart, it might be worth spending more time bolstering your merchant abilities. Sometimes Istanbul is a sprint and sometimes it’s a marathon. Identifying and reading the play-style of the table is a huge part of being successful.
Both approaches can appeal to different types of players. Long-term planners can spend their time upgrading their carts and gaining abilities while short-term goal seekers can dash around the market scooping up rubies as quickly as possible. Very rarely will the board layout lend itself to both approaches equally. Most often the best strategy will be a combination of the two approaches with a heavy leaning towards one side or the other.
Offering multiple paths to victory that vary in effectiveness from game to game is an interesting approach. On the one hand, choosing the right path is incredibly rewarding once you start pulling into the lead. On the other hand, it can be incredibly deflating to realize that you chose the wrong path. I don’t want to overstate the advantage gained from choosing the right path early on. I can successfully counter if players at the table can recognize the leader and work to slow them down. I don’t have a problem to this type of self-balancing other than the fact that it doesn’t work particularly well with two players. It encourages players to take stock of the play field and analyze the current state of the game. So I don’t fault Istanbul for this attribute. I actually enjoy it.
I consider myself an above average board game player. I don’t always win, but usually put up a good fight. I’m pretty poor at Istanbul. I don’t do well with spatial recognition and I’m not the best at devising plans and seeing them through. I tend to play from the gut and I’m too easily distracted to adhere to any plans I’ve made. These are traits that don’t lend themselves to doing well in a game of Istanbul. And yet I enjoyed my time with the game. The act of picking up goods and turning them in was satisfying. Gaining abilities and upgrading my cart differentiated myself from the other players. It made me feel special. And each of the actions at the various locations were fun to use. Yet I didn’t love Istanbul.
The heavy emphasis on route recognition doesn’t resonate as well with me as some of my favorite games. And winning matters. I’m going to enjoy things more when I do well at them. It’s not the sole criteria for judging a game or anything else for that matter, but it does flavor my thoughts. Ultimately, I enjoyed my time with Istanbul, but not enough to recommend it wholeheartedly. It offers some unique ideas and employs an overall game strategy that is sound, but just isn’t my cup of mocha.