Review: Istanbul04 Jul 2018 4
Released 26 Jun 2018
Before eBay, any bargain hunter’s best option was probably a trip to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It sounds mightily impressive, with more than four thousand stores spread over sixty-one covered streets. You will be relieved to hear that this multi-award winning board game conversion reduces the bazaar down to just sixteen key locations. Players take on the roles of merchants who must oversee the actions of their four assistants, who dash around the bazaar, striking bargains as they go. The overall aim of Istanbul is to ensure that your dealings will help you acquire five rubies before any of your opponents manage to do so.
Rubies are not just going to drop into your lap, so a good place to start is a visit to one of the specialist warehouses. Here, you can stock up on supplies of silk, spices or fruit. The other resource on offer is jewellery, but this is trickier to get hold of. Goods can be traded for money by completing specific orders at markets or exchanged directly for rubies at the sultan’s palace. Earn enough money and you will be able to buy rubies from the gem dealer, but the price will increase as his stock diminishes. Another good use for your hard-earned lire is to get your ride pimped by the wainwright. Unfortunately, the ride in question happens to be a rather prosaic wooden wheelbarrow, so no chance of adding spinning wheel rims or a hydraulic suspension rig. You can, however, take the more practical measure of extending the size of your barrow, which allows you to cart even more items from place to place. Your options do not end there; a quick visit to the caravansary will earn a bonus card, whilst meeting the requirements of a mosque will be rewarded with a permanent special ability. If you prefer to sail closer to the wind then you can strike a dodgy deal at the black market or indulge in a bit of gambling at the teahouse.
The bazaar is shown as a grid of locations and on your turn you must move your merchant either one or two spaces. Your assistants are represented by counters, which are stacked underneath the merchant. The tricky part is that to take an action you must either leave one of your assistants behind or collect one that has been previously dropped-off. Thus, Istanbul is a game of route optimisation as you carefully plan ahead to avoid being left with no assistants. If you do find yourself all alone, the only option is to make your way back to the fountain. This acts as a central meeting place, it is a bit like when you used to go on a school trip to the zoo and everyone was told to meet back at the elephant house. Thankfully, your loyal servants return promptly, unlike those wayward pupils who would be too busy tormenting the monkeys.
There are also other constantly changing dynamics to take into account. A smuggler wanders the dark alleys, allowing for a little underhand trading. You may bump into the governor who offers you the chance to acquire an extra bonus card. Then there are those pesky rival merchants who always seem to be hogging the places you want to visit. The only way to access these places is to pay any opposing merchants two lire each. Also, we should mention that dodgy family member who nobody likes to talk about. He is usually found serving time in prison but knows the bazaar even better than the back of his cell door. Release him and he will be able to pull a few strings on your behalf, immediately travelling to any location and carrying out an action. However, be careful since the other merchants may catch the scoundrel, sending him back to prison and earning a reward as part of the bargain.
Istanbul is not a difficult game, on each turn you simply move your stack of counters and execute an action. However, remembering all of these actions will take a few games and newcomers may find that although the tutorial gives a good overview, it lacks specifics. A thorough read of the rules is definitely recommended. In-game explanations of actions and cards are just a single tap away, which also really helps. After a couple of plays, you slot into the game’s pleasing rhythm and turns will just fly past. The game is both captivating and intense; many actions increase in price, forcing you to constantly reassess your options. There are numerous ways to acquire rubies and it is a real challenge to work out the optimum approach. Istanbul can be a very tight game that feels quite ruthless, with a single ill-thought-out move costing you victory.
The random board layout helps maintain interest and includes the option to set long or short paths between related locations. You can also play with additional neutral assistants; these add an extra level of strategy as all rival merchants can employ them. It is true that after numerous games Istanbul can begin to feel a little samey. The board game combatted this with the release of some well-received expansions, which really helps boost replayability. Hopefully, in due course, these will make their way over to the digital version.
Nearly at the end of the review only to discover that I haven’t really discussed the app itself. This is actually a good thing as it means that Istanbul can be enjoyed without any need to comment on limitations, bugs or unresponsive controls. There are options to set up online games or offline multiplayer contests with a mix of human and computer controlled opponents. AI rivals blaze through their turns and on the hardest level offer even experienced players a challenging game. The evocative graphics stay true to the board game and the atmospheric music and context sensitive sound effects are the icing on a very tasty cake. Istanbul is a game with few moving parts and only limited information to track, which makes for an ideal mobile game. Having said that it could have easily been ruined but, thankfully, the developers have done a fine job and produced one of the best digital board games on the market.