Thursday Night Gaming (TGN) saw The Great Guru Luff, The Halfling Hickman and myself once again reach into our gaming back catalogue and pull out Istanbul: The Big Box – a game that we haven’t played for about 10 months.
Istanbul was released in 2014, and won the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Expert Game of the Year). The Big Box variant came out in 2018. This version includes the base game along with the expansions Mocha & Baksheesh and Letters & Seals.
We first came across this game at the UK Games Expo in 2018. It was one of those games that we played and immediately bought.
The aim of the game is for the players, whose pieces represent merchants, to gather 5 gems. Gems can be gathered by either paying for them with money, exchanging them for goods, delivering letters or collecting certain tile sets.
The board is made up of a number of large tiles. The base game contains 16 tiles, with Mocha & Baksheesh adding 4 more and Letters and Seals adding a further 5.
Each tile represents an area in which a player can take an action. These action can include gathering goods at warehouses, selling goods at markets, exchanging goods for tiles and obtaining cards which can give you immediate bonuses.
Movement is limited – players can only move one or two spaces in an orthogonal direction – and the number of turns you can make before having to ‘reset’ is limited. You are also able to block your opponent from moving into the area that you occupy, unless they are willing to pay you a fine.
The game changes each time you play as you can vary the layout of the tiles, which means that the paths you have to trace in order to gather goods, money and gems changes each time.
On Thursday we played with both expansions, in the variant known as the ‘Grand Bazaar’. This gives you more options with which to gather goods and earn money, plus an extra place to earn gems. These extra options are offset by the requirement to get 6 gems to win rather than the usual 5.
Istanbul is a typical euro game, in that there are multiple strategies that can be used in order to win, because of the diverse ways with which you can earn gems. The skill of the game comes in quickly identifying the strategy you are going to use to gather gems – which is coupled with identifying the quickest paths between the various tiles you will have to visit during the course of play.
It can be easy to become distracted by trying to perform actions which don’t ultimately contribute towards you obtaining your goal. At the same time, you may have to be flexible should your opponent throw a spanner in the works (beating you to a particular gem, thus increasing the cost of subsequent ones, for example).
The game is ranked at 103 on Boardgamegeek with a rating of 7.6, probably due to the fact that it is now 6 years old. However, just because it is an older game doesn’t mean that it is any less good – far from it!
Istanbul is very good indeed. It keeps you thinking throughout and turns happen very quickly, which mean you always feel that you are engaged in the game. I would recommend that you give this a play if you can.