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Istanbul

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Pegasus Spiele, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 40-60 minutes; $49.99)

istanbul(1)Buying and selling, wheeling and dealing, have often been the basis for games. Rűdiger Dorn must agree as he takes those basics and transports game players into an exotic locale, the exciting Middle Eastern city that gives the game its name: Istanbul.

Although categorized as a board game, the “board” to Istanbul is actually a set of 16 tiles placed into a 4 x 4 grid. These tiles represent different locations in the bazaar. Each location offers something special. Using these locations call for some planning and the use of “assistants”.

Every player begins with a merchant, his “staff” of four assistants and a “family member”, all in his chosen color. They also receive a “wheelbarrow” (a player board which will keep track of goods collected) as well as a “bonus” card. (Bonus cards give a player certain advantages such as increased movement, choice of an extra good etc. and may be played at any time during a player’s turn.) Now the tiles are seeded.

Among the 16 bazaar locations are two Mosques. Two different types of Mosque tiles are placed in each along with some rubies. Wheelbarrow extensions (3 per player) and rubies (1 per players) are placed on the Wainwright. Demand tiles are placed on the two Markets. Rubies are placed on the tracks of the Sultan and the Gemstone Dealer. The dice are rolled and the Smuggler and Governor (large cylinders) are placed on the spaces matching the dice rolls. All Family Members start at the Police Station. Bonus Cards are shuffled and each player receives one. Players also receive money; 2 Lira for the first player and one additional Lira for each other player in clockwise order. Finally, players take their merchant piece, place their four assistant disks underneath to form a stack of five pieces, and put it at the Fountain. Now the game can begin.

On a turn, a player may move his merchant (and his stack of assistants along with him) one or two tiles, either horizontally or vertically (not diagonally) and, in doing so, may engage in encounters and actions.

Every location allows for a special, beneficial, action. But in order to trigger that action, the player must either A) have an assistant with him that he can leave behind or B) pick up an assistant already there to add to his stack. No assistant, no action. (If another merchant is already at that location, you must pay that merchant 2 Lira. If you can’t or won’t, your turn ends and no action can be taken.)

There are several ways to get rubies but the two basic ways are through trading goods or buying them outright. Four types of goods are in the game (and for ease of understanding, we just call them by their colors): blue, red, green and yellow. Your wheelbarrow starts the game by being able to hold only two of each. Going to any of the three warehouse locations will allow you to load up on either the red, green or yellow. (There is no warehouse for blue; that is the most difficult color to obtain.) But if you travel to the Wainwright, you can purchase an extension (there is room for 3 of these) that will allow you to hold another unit of each. Each extension costs 7 Lira and you can only buy one per visit. Buy all three and you earn a ruby for yourself. (Incidentally, you can’t stay there at a location. You MUST move each turn.)

Once you get goods, you may wish to use them to improve your abilities. This can be done at the two mosques where having goods will allow you to purchase tiles which bestow benefits, for example, get a fifth assistant disc or, when visiting a warehouse, pay 2 Lira to get 1 unit of ANY color (a good way to get that blue good). Obtain both tiles at a single mosque and you get a ruby too. Or you may simply wish to sell goods for cash.

Two market locations are in the bazaar. The Small Market generally has more need for the red, green and yellow goods and pays less than the Large Market which generally demands more blue goods and pays more. So how do you get those blue goods? We mentioned that mosque tile that helps you get a blue good. Another way is to visit the Black Market,

The Black Market is a gamble – literally. At that location, you immediately gain 1 red or green or yellow good. Then, you roll the dice. A roll of 7 or 8, will give you 1 blue good. Roll 9 or 10 and get 2 blue. Eleven or 12 will put 3 blue goods in your wheelbarrow. The Post Office is a “revolving” center as goods and money available there change each time a player claims them. There are also bonus cards that can give you a blue good as well as other benefits. And speaking of gambling, a good way to get some easy money is at the Tea House where you make a bet. Choose any number between 3 and 12 and roll the dice. If you roll that number or higher, you get that amount of Lira; fail, and only 2 Lira is collected. Finally, when you have enough money or goods, you can try to convert them into rubies.

istanbul2At the Sultan’s Palace, delivered goods (as specified on the track at the location) will earn you a ruby. Similarly, at the Gemstone Dealer, you may buy, for the specified amount of Lira, one ruby. Although one deals in goods and the other cash, both locations work the same way. Each contains tracks covered in rubies. As a ruby is obtained, the next space is revealed, either increasing the number of goods needed to exchange for a ruby or raising the price for a straight ruby purchase (a very clever way to indicate the rising demand and rising costs of rubies). Rubies earned are placed right on your player board so everyone can see just who is in the lead and who is close to winning.

After actions are taken, however, you may run into family members of other players, the Smuggler and/or the Governor. All of these meetings can prove helpful.

If your merchant enters an area where a family member of another merchant is, that family member is “captured” and sent to the Police Station. Your reward is to get 3 Lira from the bank or a bonus card. The Governor and Smuggler can be helpful as well. You MAY draw a bonus card when meeting the Governor but have to pay 2 Lira OR discard a bonus card from your hand for that privilege. Similarly, the Smuggler will allow you to take 1 good of your choice (a nice way to get another blue) in exchange for 2 Lira or 1 good of your own. (After dealing with the Governor and Smuggler, the dice are rolled and those pieces are relocated to the location of the rolled number.)

As players move from location to location, they will be leaving a trail of assistants in their wake. This is fine, as long as the assistants are within reach of actions you wish to take. If not, you always have the option of returning to The Fountain at which point ALL assistants magically return to the merchant and you may embark, on your next turn, with the full complement of assistants.

When someone has managed to acquire 5 rubies, the round finishes so that everyone has an equal number of turns. The player with five rubies wins. Tie? Then most remaining money, then most remaining goods and, if necessary, most leftover Bonus cards will break the tie.

Although the 4 x 4 array is standard, the specific arrangement may change. You may use the “Short Paths”, denoted by blue numbers on the tiles, or the more difficult “Long Paths”, identified by the green tile numbers. You can even deal out the tiles randomly although some restrictions to this are suggested in the rules. Tiles to create a movable (and variable) board is a technique used at least as far back as Sorcerer’s Cave (originally published in 1979) and it is used to excellent effect here. You may be surprised at just how much the challenge changes depending on whether locations are adjacent or spaced farther away.

The entire merchant/assistant dynamic gives Istanbul a unique character. Putting down and picking up assistants forces players to plan their moves a turn or two in advance lest they run the risk of being unable to perform at a location at all. You don’t want to stray too far from the Fountain (where you can retrieve your assistants) unless you have to. That’s one of the reasons that Family Members are so important.

Family members begin at the Police Station and if you travel there, you liberate them from that space and can “airlift” that piece directly into any location. Family Members are like a “special assistant” and act just like a merchant in triggering actions at a location. The important differences are that they operate on their own (no assistant needed), you can reach distant locations in one move (something your merchant could not do) and Family Members do NOT pay the 2 Lira penalty if entering a location occupied by a merchant. (If multiple merchants are present, ALL must be paid. Money can be tight here so you want to avoid this.) The downside to all of this upside is that once placed, Family Members do not move unless and until they are captured by other merchants. At that point, they teleport back to the Police Station, ready to be freed by their merchant for their next assignment while the “capturer” enjoys a 3 Lira bonus or bonus card as his reward. You just hate to give such a bonus to an opponent so you have to decide if using the Family Member is worth it. (It usually is.)

Graphically, the game is a pleasure. The artwork and graphic design of Andreas Resch and Hans-Georg Schneider capture the atmosphere of Istanbul and the East. (The blue and green used to indicate short and long paths, however, are much too similar in color, the fault of the printer rather than the artist, I suspect.) The location tiles and large and thick which is a very good thing. The plastic rubies (rather than cardboard counters) add to the ambiance as well. The play aids provided for every player containing all of the necessary information clearly presented is another plus as they help the game flow smoothly.

Rűidger Dorn is probably best known for Goa, an intense Euro strategy game featured 10 years ago, back in the Summer 2004 issue of Gamers Alliance Report. Istanbul is much less demanding. Even so, the merchant-assistant-family member maneuvering gives more serious strategists something to ponder. Yet, because it is a lighter game of considerable charm, Istanbul also works well with family gaming groups. It’s a win for everybody making Istanbul a rarity as valuable as those red rubies.


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