Master the bazaar to become the best trader in Istanbul
Android & iOS
# of Players
Istanbul is a route optimization, worker placement game where players are merchants in the Istanbul bazaar in a race to collect rubies quicker than their rivas. Players navigate a modular board and use their assistants carry out a variety of actions which provide goods, Lira, or other vital services. Once a player has earned five rubies, they are crowned the champion of the bazaar, this usually takes around 15 minutes.
Istanbul begins by selecting the board layout, which is a 4x4 grid of locations that can be arranged randomly or in a few different predefined orders. Each player begins on a common location, the Fountain, with their merchant piece stacked on top of four assistants. A turn allows the player to move their stack one or two locations, not diagonally, and then stop. The player may leave an assistant at this location to carry out the location’s action. The actions vary by location, but they generally work to either earn the player goods, Lira, or directly provide rubies. Goods are stored in a player’s wheelbarrow which has a small initial capacity but can be expanded throughout the game at the Wainwright. Should a player encounter merchants or other special pieces on a location, there is usually an action that may be resolved before the turn ends. If a merchant ends up on a location which already contained one of their assistants, they may add them back to their stack for future use. There is a location, the Fountain again, which will summon all assistants back to a merchant but does not provide any other benefit.
Players take turns moving, leaving assistants, carrying out actions, retrieving assistants, and acquiring rubies until the game is over. Most games are played to five rubies, but a two player game is played to six. Once a player acquires their final ruby, the rest of the players get to finish that turn and then the game ends.
The heart of Istanbul is route optimization. With the modular board, which can be laid out randomly, the game won’t play the same from one setup to the next and the goal for players is to figure out the best way to use your limited movement each turn to collect what is needed to cash in for rubies. There are limited number of ways to earn rubies, most of them will be earned via purchase by goods or Lira. In a great design twist, the price for rubies increases with each ruby purchased by any player. This works really well to scale the game as players’ abilities increase over the course of the game. It also rewards players for targeting a specific purchase plan and being the first to act out the plan. The variety and strategy involved with the locations is Istanbul’s primary appeal. There is a gambling location, a couple of markets to turn goods into Lira, a few locations which simply provide goods, and so on. Knowing the locations and how they can be used to compliment each other is the key to winning this game.
Outside of the locations, there are a few additional mechanics at play. Bonus cards are powerful as they can be played at any point in your turn and you may play as many as you’d like. They can simply provide a free good/Lira, allow you to return an assistant, carry out specific actions twices, or a number of other things. The other mechanics of the game involve extra characters. Should you encounter the Governor you may gain an extra bonus card by paying or trading with him. The Smuggler is the same but provides a good. Each player also has a pesky, morally questionable family member whom will be found throughout the bazaar. If you land on another player’s family member token, you send them to the police station and earn a reward for doing so. On the flip side, you may visit the police station to free your family member, sending them to any location on the board to take its action. This is a powerful give-and-take that can really alter games.
Istanbul is a fun game. The decisions about how to go after goods/rubies and how to optimize your movements required to carry out your plan make for intriguing decisions. There is a lot of important timing, and some luck, involved to add more depth. With the modular board each random game will present a different challenge for players. It deserves mentioning that the potential for optimal/overpowered routes based on layout is a common complaint among detractors of Istanbul. Your experience will vary, but this has never been a big deal to me in the physical game and isn’t in the digital version either. The fun of Istanbul is devising a plan and seeing if it is good enough to beat your opponents’ plans, with only light player interaction there isn’t a ton you can do to foul up an opponent, so you better hope you have the best ruby acquisition plan on the digital table.
Barrier to Entry
Istanbul provides a brief tutorial to introduce players to the game. The tutorial only covers the very basics of the game, and leaves the rest open for players to discover. If you want a bit more help in learning, the game does offer a full rulebook which will cover things in much more depth. Additionally, the game constantly provides instructions at the bottom of the screen about what you should be doing (“Choose a Place where you would like to move” or “Take/leave assistant”, for example) which will help new players. More importantly, every location/action/card in the game has a small ‘i’ symbol attached to it which will bring up a detailed explanation of what that specific action means. The game will also provide popup information when you first encounter new game aspects during your initial plays.
Overall, the tutorial in Istanbul is a bit lacking, but the rest of the game does such a good job of explaining things that the tutorial itself isn’t a big deal. I would recommend that new players read the rulebook before diving in, but it won’t take many plays for new players to get up to speed.
Starting a local game
Visiting the post office
Look and Feel
Istanbul is a great looking app. The graphics from the menus to the game to the rubies on the loading bar popup all shine. Animations are smooth and the game allows you to optionally skip opponent’s turns which will speed up your games. One minor visual complaint is that you can’t zoom into a location if you have already moved to another. Almost always, decisions made at one location are to set yourself up for a future visit to another location, and new players might need to be reminded of some of the specifics of those other locations. The game allows you to back out to view the entire board, but you can’t zoom into locations at that point.
On the control side, everything works well. The game features an undo button which can undo you, step-by-step, back to the start of your turn in most cases and clearly notifies the player when they are about to perform an action which cannot be undone (which is a card draw or dice roll). All actions are performed with click-and-confirm, which works well, drag-and-drop doesn’t make a lot of sense for a game like this. Overall, Istanbul is a polished app, it looks and plays extremely well.
Istanbul offers asynchronous and real-time online games which are joined via lobby. There will be open, or password protected, games in the lobby or you can create your own. When you create a game you choose async/sync, number of players, whether to convert inactive players to AI bots, the board layout, and whether or not to play with neutral assistants (these last two options are explained below). The game has system notifications and online games work as you would expect. Early on, I’ve had great experience with online games. Asynchronous games move at a brisk pace and my created games have been filled within a few hours. As the player base grows the wait times should decrease.
The only downside here is the lack of any sort of ranking or leveling system, or even basic stat keeping. One of the fun bonuses of digital ports is to see how well you play the game over time. Not being able to see your record or any sort of ranking system to see how you stack up is a bit of a letdown, but certainly not a game-killer. Istanbul does offer local pass-and-play. There is very little hidden information (only your bonus cards) so the game works well in a pass-and-play setting.
Istanbul features single player games against two to four AI opponents. The AI difficulties are easy, medium, and hard. When starting a game you also choose the board layout, there are four options: Short paths, long paths, in order, and random. Short paths is a deliberate setup for new players (or to promote shorter games) as it places locations which work well together near each other, requiring less overall movement. Long paths is, as the name would suggest, the opposite which means tougher, longer games. ‘In order’ places the locations in their numerical order which is a bit more challenging as similar locations will be located near each other. Finally, random layout is (mostly) random which will make each game a challenge to identify the optimal routes. I say mostly because a few locations have specific restrictions even in random layout. The only other option for starting a single player game is whether or not to use the neutral assistant variant. This mode replaces the last assistant in your stack with a neutral colored assistant that can be collected by any other merchant if they are left on a location. This is a minor change but adds some nice depth and requires different strategies.
Istanbul features a bunch of achievements to unlock ranging from the standard “win 10 games” to some very specific actions. On the downside, there is no stat keeping in the game, which is a pretty simple addition that goes a long way. I, for one, would be thrilled to track my success rate (or lack thereof) at the Tea House.
Stopping at the fruit warehouse
The physical game has two highly regarded expansions which will either expand on the fun of the base game or fix some of its nagging issues, depending on your point of view. Unfortunately, neither are available in the app. Acram has stated that they will try to get the license to add them if the community demand is high enough.
Istanbul looks quite different once the expansions are added, to the point where many players can’t imagine playing the game without them. Here’s hoping they get added to the app down the line.
The Wrap Up
Istanbul is another strong port from Acram Digital. Like their others, this one is fairly bare bones. There isn’t any stat keeping or added game modes, the physical game is simply presented for players with a strong online mode and good AI opponents. If you want Istanbul in the digital world, this app will be perfect for you.
The app looks and plays great, the animations, menus, and game layout all work really well. The longevity of this app will be determined by whether or not a large online player base forms and if the expansions make their way into the game. Both expansions really add a lot to the game to create an even better experience, those who have been using them with the physical game for a while now will likely find themselves missing them in the digital game.