Istanbul is the latest Kennerspiel des Jahres winner (German Game of the Year - expert category). Boardgamecafe.net did a themed night on Spiel des Jahres nominees and winners, and I took the opportunity to check out what this latest winner is like.
The game board is made up of 16 tiles arranged in a 4x4 grid. Every tile allows you to do something, e.g. gathering goods, selling goods for money, upgrading your abilities, and spending goods or money to gain rubies. The objective of the game is to gain 5 rubies. So it is a race. It is about being more efficient than others in reaching your 5th ruby.
Everyone starts the game with a stack of discs on the fountain tile. The thick disc at the top of your stack is your merchant, and the other four stacked below are the assistants. On your turn, you move your stack up to two steps. Upon reaching your destination, you check whether there is an assistant left there previously. If so, the assistant rejoins your stack, and then you take the action of the destination tile. If there is no waiting assistant, you remove one from your stack to place him on the destination tile, and then you execute the action. If there is no waiting assistant, and your merchant doesn't have any with him either, you are unable to execute any action. You've just wasted one turn! This is the main unique element in the game.
The game board consists of 16 tiles. They can be arranged in different ways, creating different play experiences. Five tiles have rubies on them to be claimed - the four corner tiles, and the 3rd tile in the bottom row. The ways to gain rubies on these tiles differ. At the top corners, you need to gain both the special abilities from a tile in order to claim one ruby. At the bottom left corner, you turn in goods to get the next available ruby. At the bottom right, you pay cash for a ruby. On that bottom row 3rd tile, you need to upgrade your cart to size 5 to gain a ruby.
This is the player board, a cart with spaces for the four types of goods. Initially you can only store at most two of each type, but you can upgrade your cart to store up to five each. Claimed rubies are placed here too.
A fully upgraded cart with one ruby claimed. The tile at the lower left is a special ability tile. I can spend $2 to bring an assistant from anywhere on the board back to my stack.
Let's look at some examples. 2nd row 1st tile - Fill up the space for fruits (yellow goods) in your cart. 3rd row 2nd tile - Draw two bonus cards from the draw deck (on the left of the playing area) or the discard pile (on the tile itself) or both, then discard one card. 3rd row 3rd tile - Sell one or more goods displayed to earn money.
When you execute an action on this tea house tile, state a number between 3 and 12 (inclusive) then roll two dice. If the result equals or exceeds what you have stated, earn that much money. Else, earn $2.
The purple and black cylinders are the governor and the smuggler respectively. If you meet them, you get to execute a special action, and then they move somewhere else. The governor lets you buy a card or swap one from your hand. The smuggler lets you buy one good or swap one from your cart.
We did a 5 player game. From turn to turn, it is very much about planning a path for your merchant. You want to gain the most out of every tile landed upon, e.g. ideally you stop by the fill-up-spices location when you have already exhausted your spices, not when you are still half full. There are a few tactical considerations, e.g. whether the governor and the smuggler are nearby, and whether there are other merchants on the tiles you want to go to. If you visit a tile with other merchants present, you need to pay them $2 each. It's not bad enough to stop you from doing an action you really want to do, but it's not insignificant either. There is not a lot of direct player conflict or competition. It is mostly a race. It is about efficient play, and grabbing small opportunities that come up to squeeze out a bit more efficiency. You don't want to get distracted and do something that's not really necessary for your strategy. Minimise waste. Focus on what's essential.
One thing that makes the race element more pronounced is the early bird discounts. On the tiles where you can spend goods or money to buy rubies, the earlier rubies are cheaper. Similarly on the tiles where you can gain special abilities, the requirements increase each time a player claims a special ability. Such early bird discounts (maybe it is more like inflation) put pressure on players. There is a dilemma between upgrading your abilities so that you can be stronger for the rest of the game, and grabbing rubies early while they are cheaper or easier to get.
I kept joking about my criminal brother. One of the locations in the game is the police station. When you land there, you release your imprisoned relative and send him to any tile to execute an action there. This is very handy because you can save a lot of time and the trouble of going to some isolated corner. After your relative is done with his job, he stays there until another player's merchant stops by, sees him, and reports him to the authorities. That player gains a $3 reward, and your relative goes directly to jail (police station) without passing GO. I loved getting my criminal brother to do dirty jobs for me, and I kept asking the others to catch him, so that I could use him again. The other players all called me heartless. I said I was just being a good citizen. Brother or not, he should pay for his crimes.
Jeff won the game by focusing on a money strategy. He gained the ability to reroll dice early, and frequently used it at the tea house to make money. He mostly paid cash to buy rubies.
Tell me honestly. If you take a split second glance at this photo, what do you see in the drawings in the first column? I spent half the game seeing a computer monitor and keyboard and wondering what a PC has to do with this game.
Istanbul left me cold. The balance and the mechanisms are sound, it's just that I feel like I've seen too many similar games. It's a cube conversion game - you collect resources and convert them into money and eventually into victory points. You try to do this more efficiently than your opponents, making many tactical decisions along the way, exploiting small opportunities that arise.
I find player interaction low. This is not about direct or indirect interaction. In Agricola you can't burn your opponent's farm, but when you take the sheep he needs for food, his family will starve. In Istanbul, you can force your opponent to pay you $2 because you're standing where he wants to go. You can buy a jewel before he does so he has to pay $1 more for the next jewel. Both games have indirect conflict, but the severity is different.
One thing that didn't work for me is the interchangeable setting. I am unable to convince myself that this game is really about Istanbul. I'm not particularly insistent about boardgames having an interesting setting or compelling backstory, but when the mechanisms don't really pull me in, the lack of a convincing setting becomes a noticeable annoyance.
I did enjoy joking about my criminal brother and that the winner will get a big wet kiss from Kareem the game teacher. This is a medium complexity game that gamers can sit down to play and find challenging and satisfying. I would play it again with a bunch of good gamer friends, but if I get to pick I'd suggest something else.