Istanbul Review

Istanbul is the Kennerspiel des Jahres nominated (2014) game from famed and accomplished designer Rudiger Dorn. It has players assuming the role of a merchant and his assistants moving through a bazaar, interacting with the various vendors and meeting up with other merchants, family members, and even the governor!

Istanbul's "board" is made up of several separate tiles, which are laid out in a 4x4 grid. This can be done randomly, but the rules do suggest specific layouts for beginner and advanced games. The goal of the game is to gather goods and money in order to acquire gems. The first player to acquire 5 gems (6 in a two player game) will be the winner!

On a player's turn, she must move her merchant and her stack of assistants either 1 or 2 spaces (not diagonally) and do 1 of 3 things:

  1. If none of her assistants are already on the tile, she drops one off, and performs the tile's action.
  2. If one of her assistants is on the tile already, she picks that assistant up (places it on the bottom of her stack) and performs the tile's action.
  3. If none of her assistants are already on the tile and she also has none in her stack, her turn ends. 
Here, the yellow player need to decide if she will go back to a tile where she had previously dropped off an assistant, or go to the fountain (the only tile that can be used without an assistant) to call back all of her assistants.

A lot of the strategy of Istanbul is planning out a couples turns ahead, so that you don't have to deal with option 3, and do basically nothing on your turn. 

The tiles that make up the board allow players to do a variety of things. Some are Warehouses that allow players to load as many of a certain kind of good as they can carry in their carts. Some are Markets that allow players to sell sets of goods for money. Others are Mosques that reward players with upgrade tiles for having a certain number of goods.

Two of the more important tiles are the Sultan's Palace and the Gem Market. These are the two main ways to acquire gems. At the Sultan's Palace, players can trade in goods for a gem, which makes the next gem more expensive for the next player. The Gem Market lets players buy gems, with each successive gem purchased more expensive than the last, just like the Sultan's Palace. 

The first available gem at the Sultan's Palace (in a 2 player game) costs 1 jewelry,  1 fabric, 1 spice, and 1 fruit. Once that gem is taken, the space it was previously covering is added to the next gem's cost.

Istanbul is a game that hit me right in my wheelhouse. It has a lot things that I love about board games, like variable setup, player powers (though you don't start with them), advanced planning, upgrades/engine building, and even some dice rolling! 

From left to right: The blue upgrade tile adds another assistant to a player's stack, the yellow upgrade tile (my favorite) allows a player to pay $2 to retrieve an assistant from anywhere on the board and place it in her stack, the red upgrade tile allows a player to set a die to a 4 or reroll whenever rolling dice, and the green upgrade tile allows a player to purchase 1 of any good when visiting a warehouse.

Speaking of upgrades and dice rolling, let me talk about the upgrade tiles. There are four total, and just like the Sultan's Palace and Gem Market, they become more expensive as they become purchased. They are also pretty important to doing well in Istanbul. Once players are more familiar with the game, an interesting race happens in the beginning of the game where the players will rush to grab either their favorite upgrade tiles or a cart expansion.

(Left) At the beginning of the game, each player can only have 2 of each good. 
(Right) By visiting the Wainwright tile, players can purchase cart upgrades for $7. 

Players have to visit the Wainwright during the game as early as possible, because the additional capacity will allow them to purchase upgrade tiles they may have been priced out of, it makes it easier to make money at the market tiles, and it makes it much easier to acquire gems from the Sultan's Palace. 

There is so much to like about Istanbul. Mr. Dorn has not only reimplemented a version of his Goa auction mechanism, but he has finely crafted a fantastic medium weight strategy game. Istanbul has so many options for players to explore, with many interesting decisions to be made each turn, and planning ahead is very much rewarded. The act of planning out your actions in just the right order so that you can not only do everything you need to do, in the order that you need to do it in, and also end up with all of your assistants back in your stack is just so satisfying. 
One thing I don't always love about the game is the luck of the cards and the dice. Some of the cards are just better than others, especially if they are drawn at exactly the right/wrong time. The dice can really hurt a player who doesn't have the applicable upgrade tile, and can result in several wasted actions. The interesting aspect that arises from the randomness of the dice, however, is that the value of the dice manipulation upgrade tile is a bit more fuzzy than the values of the other 3 upgrade tiles.

After I got Istanbul, I played it 5 times in 4 days. It is absolutely one of my favorite games from this year. It plays well with all player counts, does not overstay its welcome, and despite having a fair amount of complexity, I feel like I could teach this game to almost anyone. Istanbul deserves all the hype around it, and despite being up against two very strong contenders for this year's Kennerspiel des Jahres (Concordia and Rococo), I believe it should (and will) win the very prestigious German "expert game of the year" award. I give Istanbul a 9.0/10.


  1. Please note that, while I share your enthusiasm with the game, the theme has nothing to do with real Istanbul. We do have the Bazaar with lots of spices and trading (and tourist traps) but we don't deal in gems and the men don't wear "sarık" (the headpiece in the cover).

    1. Thanks for the insight Phoenix!

      I had kinda assumed that the game is set in the middle ages or thereabout, maybe during the reign of Ottoman Empire? I don't know I'm terrible with history. Either way, I assumed the game wasn't representing present day Turkey/Istanbul, but thanks very much for confirming that!

  2. Phoenix: You are completely ruining my view of the world! :)

    James: Great review, between Rahdo and this I think I must get this game.

  3. Agreed, Phoenix. I'm really interested in trying this game, but I'm kind of put out by the Orientalist stereotyping of board games that take place in the East. Games like this, Arabian Nights, and even this upcoming one from Days of Wonder ( need to be more critical in how they're representing different cultures and races and not default to time-tested caricatures.

    1. I'm of Asian descent, and I kind of hate (and kind of love) the title and art for the upcoming Madame Ching, so I definitely see where you guys are coming from.

  4. Fantastic game! Great components, artwork, but most importantly, excellent mechanics. Wish there was more games that featured what this one does, modular board, action point allowanace gameplay, with in-game risk factors (dice roll elements via the governor, the smuggler, and market tiles). This has quickly shot up to the top of my personal best-of list. Only complaint is it's not weighty enough, but it does keep the interest of my wife and would be a game I would introduce to others.