Istanbul won 2014’s Kennerspiel des Jahres award, given to the best advanced-strategy game of the year, previously won by 7 Wonders and Village. The award is now separate from the Spiel des Jahres, which honors the best family-strategy or mainstream game of the year, and went in 2014 to Camel Up. Istanbul is a great game, worthy of some honor here, but it’s not a particularly advanced or difficult game, easily understood by my eight-year-old daughter (although she’s pretty sharp, in my unbiased opinion), and probably would have been a better choice for the mainstream prize rather than the expert-level game award.
In Istanbul, players represent merchants in a Turkish bazaar who work to be the first to acquire five rubies (six in a two-player game) and win the game. Players move around a 4×4 board of tiles with the help of their assistants, acquiring goods and lira (coins) that can eventually be swapped for rubies, or can be used to fulfill certain other tasks that will earn one ruby each. The board can change each game, and the presence of two different types of currency means there are several varying paths to victory, all readily apparent upon one or two plays—at least three rough strategies: money-centric, goods-centric, and one built around achievements.
The game’s biggest twist is in the movement mechanic; each player’s movement token is actually a stack of tokens, the merchant itself (a slightly fatter disc than the rest) and four slimmer assistant discs, with the player leaving one assistant on each tile s/he visits—unless there’s already one of his/her assistants there, in which case the player can pick it back up. On each turn, the player may move the token stack one or two tiles horizontally or vertically. Once a merchant is out of assistants, the player can move but can’t take any actions until s/he regains one or more of the assistant discs, by revisiting a tile with one on it, by using a bonus card or tile to reclaim one, or by going to the Fountain tile and immediately regaining all of his/her assistants in one shot. That mechanic makes route-planning a central part of the game—you’ll have to retrace your steps on occasion, or you’ll give up every fifth move to go recollect all your peeps. (You can also add one more assistant during the game, which would at least push that to every sixth move.)
You do have one more piece on the board, your “family member,” who is really more the black sheep because he starts out in jail, on the Police Station token. If you move to the Police Station, you can free (break out?) your family member and send him to any tile on the board to take that tile’s associated action. Of course, that makes him a fugitive; if any other player lands on the tile where your family member is on the lam, s/he can send your cousin back to the clink and collect a reward of 3 lira. Still, the family member allows you to make a move beyond the two-tile limit, and helps you avoid the fee associated with bumping into a rival merchant. Those undesirable meetings, called “encounters,” also cost you—2 lira to every other merchant on the tile where you land. With limited spaces to acquire certain goods, you’ll often have to reroute yourself if you’re too cheap or too broke to pay—and if you can’t or won’t pay, you can’t take the tile’s action.
The core of the game is resource acquisition, with six tiles specifically dedicated toward getting something for nothing. There are four good types in the game, represented by red, yellow, green, and blue squares on your board, and there is a warehouse tile for each of the first three goods where you can take as many of that good as your board can hold. The blue good is harder to come by, but you can swing by the black market, get one of the normal goods for free, and then roll two dice to see if you get any blue goods, needing a 7 or more to get at least one. The Caravansery lets you draw a bonus card from the deck or the discard pile, with each card giving you a bonus coin, good, or ability for a single use. Another tile lets you roll for cash, and the Post Office tile gives you a rotating combination of two goods and a few lira, which might explain why the USPS is always running a deficit.
The remaining tiles allow players to exchange goods and/or money for other things. Two markets allow players to trade specific baskets of goods for money. One tile allows a player to expand his/her board’s capacity—the game refers to the boards as “wheelbarrows,” which is great until you wonder how exactly one expands one of those—by four goods, one of each type, for 7 lira; expand three times, filling in your board, and you get a ruby. Two “mosque” tiles allow you to buy bonus pieces, each of which grants a special power, such as adding that fourth assistant or allowing you to turn one die to 4 every time you roll the pair; gather both bonuses from a mosque and you get another ruby. Two more tiles allow you to buy a ruby, one for cash, the other for a prescribed set of goods, and the price on each tile increases every time someone takes a ruby.
Moving is simple with two or three players, but encounters will become more frequent with four or five players, meaning you can’t just avoid everyone unless you’re comfortable with a game where you get nothing accomplished and lose in ignominious fashion. The bonus cards become more important in those games because some of those cards allow for greater movement, or the ability to use a tile twice without leaving.
A full game of Istanbul takes under an hour, and while there are a lot of specific rules for the tiles and bonus cards, nothing here is complicated and there’s no gating factor like you find in games where you have to feed your family or constantly run out of money. You’re never left with nothing to do, or no good options, unless you fail to plan a single turn ahead. That makes it a fantastic family game, one where my daughter could win legitimately (using an all-cash strategy) in a three-person game with two adults. It’s just not the kind of high-strategy game the Kennerspiel des Jahres award exists to honor.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.