Istanbul (2014) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameIstanbul (2014)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.59]
BGG Rank109 [7.59]
Player Count2-5
Designer(s)Rüdiger Dorn
Artist(s)Andreas Resch and Hans-Georg Schneider

Version Reviewed

English/German first edition

Introduction

We liked Istanbul a lot and gave it four stars in our review. Oddly for a title about building and leveraging efficiency it’s quite a merciful game. When you stumble, it makes sure you’re not out of the running. That’s an interesting feature. It’s an endearing feature. And it’s hopefully a feature that leads to us being able to give some good news in our accessibility teardown.

That said, it’s still a game that taxes a lot of skills and as such we probably shouldn’t go in with our hopes too high. The marketplace of the game state may not reward accessibility the same way that (I hope) the real-world marketplace does. No point speculating though – we’ve got a wheelbarrow full of observations to offload and not a lot of time to do it.

Let’s get cracking.

Colour Blindness

Predictably given the colour palette, we have a problem here. The game uses red, green, blue, yellow and white to represent merchant markers and assistants. This combination creates a problem for all categories of colour blindness. Interestingly, the use of yellow and green and red means that those with Protanopia are in a peculiar position. We sometimes talk about ‘adjacency’ here when referencing colour – the idea that you can tell that there are different colours when pieces are side by side but not what they are when they’re not. Much of our colour perception is based on comparison. Istanbul manages to introduce this for three pieces. You could tell yellow from red, but maybe not yellow from green and maybe not green from red. It makes choosing an effective selection of colours for low player counts more difficult than you’d hope. It is possible though.

Colour blindness and pieces

This is important too, because the assistants that players leave around the game indicate two things. If you own them, it indicates a path you can take through the game by collecting them up once more. If someone else owns them, it indicates that they might well be back for them and if you move to that card you might end up paying a fine. Being able to tell who owns which assistants and how that relates to the merchants is important.

The markers I have images of here don’t have the stickers (as I said in the review, I think they make the game look very cheap and ugly) but they don’t make a difference. All that changes when stickers are added is that there’s an identical merchant on each of the differently coloured thicker disks. It’s a wasted opportunity not to use different images to help address the colour blindness issue, but to be fair that would have to be carried through to the assistant tokens also. Still – the stickers are almost a good idea

Colour blindness and the board

It’s a similar issue of family members, and to a lesser extent the encounter markers. Goods for sale are however differentiated by colour and icon, and there are no other game components of information where colour is the only way to differentiate.

This is reasonably bad news, but honestly the only reason in most cases to know where assistants are is to avoid having to pay a player for occupying the same space as their merchant. You could play without that rule, and while it would have a significant game impact I don’t think it would ruin it.

We’ll tentatively recommend Istanbul in this category.

Visual Accessibility

The full game state in Istanbul is possessed of vast amounts of information, all of it interlinked. At a minimum a player needs to know:

  • The number of spaces in their wheelbarrow. This is tactile.
  • What goods they have in their wheelbarrow. This also tactile.
  • What goods are in demand in the small and large markets, and this will change on a regular basis.
  • The cost of gemstones at the Sultan’s palace and at the gemstone dealer
  • The cost of power-ups at the mosques
  • Which goods are currently available in the post office, which is also tactile
  • The gemstone count of each player
  • The goods count of each player
  • The contents of (private) bonus cards

That’s a lot to commit to memory already, but it fails to take into account the single biggest source of changing information in the game – where the cards are, and what assistants, family members and encounters are distributed onto each.

Istanbul board state

We encounter a familiar issue here in that it’s possible to identify the presence of certain markers, but not their specific ownership. For example, you can tell the difference between a merchant and an assistant by touch – the merchant is notably thicker. You couldn’t tell by touch who owned the disc. You could tell a family member because they are much thicker tokens than the assistants, but again – no idea who the family member belongs to. You can tell encounters which are thinner and taller than family members, but there are two different kinds and the specific one touched would remain a mystery.

But still… that’s a lot of tactility to work with.

Istanbul offers a few ways to set up the board, and as such there’s an extent to which the distribution of locations would be learnable. Random distributions would add a great deal of uncertainty to working out routes, but a meaningful (if somewhat repetitious) game is to be found in the standard sets. However, the fact that many of the cards have other physical cues really helps in offering visually impaired players a way to reduce uncertainty. For example, the mosques have two stacks of mosque cards. The markets have a single stack of market cards. The post office has cubes. The palace and the gemstone dealer all have lines of gems. If someone is very careful they could get a lot of the geography of the city by feel.

The distribution of goods in the post office is also learnable, as is the pattern of costs for the Sultan and for the gemstone dealer. Similarly for the increasing cost of mosque tiles – the size of the stack of tiles remaining will allow a player to deduce costs.

You can see here I hope why Istanbul is doing so well for such a complicated game, and it’s because pretty much all of the game is on the board and there’s an easy way to tell different pieces apart. This is an excellent feature of the design.

So, what are the inaccessibilities here?

The first is that a player will often have to inquire of the location of encounters, family members, assistants and merchants, and in a four by four grid where there are dozens of data points that need to be tracked. They’ll change regularly too – almost every time someone moves they’ll either collect an assistant or drop one off, and encounters and family members are regularly sent off to other parts of the board. For those with total blindness, it’s possible to play an effective game of Istanbul when focusing only on one’s own obligations. The only real impact that knowing where other players are is when you need to pay them for using a location’s services, and you could certainly play without that rule.

The second issue is that the contents of the marketplace and other cards will need to be announced when they are set up and when they are changed. For good practise, players should probably announce when they collect up goods too, giving an annotated overview of their inventory.

Bonus cards

Bonus cards are well contrasted and easy to read, but for those players that are totally blind there will need to be some way to have them outlined, or everyone will have to play with bonus cards as open information. I don’t imagine that would be all that impactful on the experience of play, but it would have some detrimental effect.

Some dice rolling is required, but it’s with standard d6s and accessible dice will serve as a fully appropriate replacement.

But you know what – even with all of this I’m inclined to give Istanbul a recommendation, even if only just. It offers so many avenues of tactile investigation of game state. That means something that is inherently unmanageable becomes reasonably feasible just because of the way the game lays everything out physically. If a player has any degree of ability to make out the colours of tokens, they’ll likely find the game relatively straightforward to play. For those with total blindness the situation is more difficult, but I think just within the realms of ‘straightforward’ possibility.

Cognitive Accessibility

We can’t be as positive here as we have been in the previous section. There is a lot of numeracy in Istanbul and a profound need to arrange route-efficiencies that permit for rapid accomplishment and meaningful upgrade. That requires deep understanding of route planning, node planning (each assistant you leave behind is part of a chart of options), addition, subtraction, probability, and ascertaining the motivations and likely destinations of opponents. There’s no point heading to the palace if someone is going to beat you there and leave you short-changing the Sultan.

The bonus cards and random dice rolls give players a chance to bypass all of this, but only to the extent that it permits a certain forgiveness of game state. If there are no goods of a particular kind easily available you might get lucky with these routes. However, their relevance and value is situational and they can’t substitute for working with the rhythm of the other players.

The game state becomes very complex over time, and the difficulty of accomplishing goals becomes increasingly pronounced as the game goes on. The distribution of assistants, encounters, family members, gemstones and more all have tightly linked implications. There’s no point upgrading your wheelbarrow if you don’t need extra goods or are already at max capacity, which means that having an assistant there is limiting your ability to build locational efficiency. If you left one there during your last upgrade, it’s doing you no good and actively hampering your ability to function. Those kind of implications of positioning are very subtle, and they require thinking about moves carefully. Paradoxically it might be better to go to the jail if you want an upgrade rather than go to the wainwright, and knowing when that’s the case requires a deep reading of game state.

Game flow is reasonably consistent, but the effect of every location is different and so turns don’t feel consistent. You might make one move and end up gambling. Make another and you’ll sell some goods and then have two random encounters. While turn order is fixed and reliable, turn activity isn’t. That can easily make it difficult for some players to track and follow what’s happening during the game.

There are lots of different token types too – each player has a merchant and assistants, and there will also be family members and encounter tokens arranged about the board. They have different physical factors, but there is a difference between, say, a purple token and a black token when it comes to encounters and there’s a difference between a merchant and an assistant when it comes to sharing a space.

Scoring is straightforward and tactile, but it’s also difficult to do properly at the speed needed to have a reasonable showing in the final game. Since ties are common, it’s also important for players to manage their money and goods with an eye to their value as secondary scoring indicators.

There isn’t much that need specifically worry a player with memory issues though, other than that discussed above with regards to the game complexity itself.

We don’t at all recommend Istanbul for those with fluid intelligence impairments, but we can tentatively recommend it, just, for those with memory considerations.

Emotional Accessibility

There’s a lot of being ‘pipped to the post’ in Istanbul. I mean… a lot. Maybe not at the lower player counts but in most circumstances you’ll find yourself building up a set of goods only to find it’s no longer applicable. You needed three pineapples and a couple of bolts of silk and now suddenly you need three rings, spices and silk. You’re never penalized by having the wrong things – it’s always better to have them than not – but goods only have the value that they are worth in trades. You can be put in the position of players not stealing your goods but stealing their economic validity.

In many games that would be potentially frustrating but here, because Istanbul is also a race, it can be devastating because it often undermines your plans. You were going to trade your goods to the marketplace for twenty coins, and then use those coins to upgrade your wheelbarrow twice to get a gemstone. Now you can… do nothing. All the options that would let you recover are two turns away, and nothing worth doing is within range of your next move. Ooft.

Also, if players are being extra competitive it’s possible they can essentially block you out of making use of facilities by leaving merchants in place where you’d most like to go. That adds a cost of doing business that may mean you’re no longer able to even take advantage of the location. They can’t keep their merchant there, but there’s also room for players to work together to frustrate another. It would always be to their own detriment though – there are diminishing returns that come from making use of a location several times in a row, and in the end bonus cards can cut through this kind of area denial strategy.

Score disparities can be surprisingly high in a game where you’re racing to be the first to five (or six) gemstones because victory gets farther away the slower you are to claim things. The rubies become more expensive in a lot of locations. If someone has a few canny turns where things line up you may find yourself unable to even afford things in ideal circumstances. For example, if you have a small wheelbarrow, you simply can’t hold enough goods at one time to purchase later stage mosque rewards. It’s not that the rich get richer – it gets harder for everyone. More that there’s a very real first mover advantage.

We can only tentatively recommend Istanbul in this category.

Physical Accessibility

The wheelbarrow you get for storing goods is a bit of a missed opportunity – it has slats that you slot into place as you handle upgrades, but it would have been good to see that carried through to its logical conclusion – slats with sockets that worked for the cubes. As it is, it’s easy to dislodge the cubes and randomise the contents of your warehouse. It’s not a huge problem because it’s generally easy to fix, but an annoying one.

The cards that make up the board are generously proportioned, and they have to be – there are often lots of markers on them and players will occasionally have to lift up a whole stack of tokens while leaving one behind or picking one up.

Stack of tokens

Players will also have a hidden hand of bonuses, but this is unlikely to comprise of many individual cards and in any case they’d work fine in a card holder. All the key actionable information is in the centre.

Some dice rolling is required, but only by choice – players who make use of the gambling options are opting in to this and if it’s likely to be a problem there’s no issue with it being done on behalf of another or through a voiced accessibility aid. Standard d6s are used.

If any of this seems onerous, verbalisation is fully supported because every location is individually named and the actions at a location are as simple as ‘pick up’, or ‘leave’. All options in locations can be fully and unambiguously described.

We’ll recommend Istanbul in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

Well, we’re in the rare position here of being scooped on these issues by another review site. Shut Up and Sit Down have an excellent overview of representational problems in Istanbul in their review, including a discussion on Orientalism. I honestly wish I could write that more often – it would be wonderful if more sites took these kind of issues seriously in their coverage. Critiquing these things, in their own context, is important – just because we love a hobby doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part in trying to make it better. Even if the topic was raised to critique the critique, I think we’re enriched by having the conversations. Anyway, watch Shut Up and Sit Down. I concur with everything they say. Representation is… somewhat of an issue.

The manual also defaults to masculinity, referencing players, merchants and assistants as ‘he’ or ‘him’. Interestingly though, for family members ‘they’ is used instead so it’s not as if gender neutrality isn’t something addressed. It should just be consistently applied throughout.

Istanbul has an RRP of around £30 and cleanly supports between two and five players. It’s a decent price-point and a good spread of player support.

Overall, we tentatively recommend Istanbul in this category.

Communication

Istanbul has no need for literacy, and no formal need for communication during the game.

We’ll strongly recommend it in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

Our recommendations for players with colour blindness and visual impairments would be pretty much instantly rescinded in the event of an intersection. Similarly if memory impairments intersected with a visual impairment or colour blindness – the token disambiguation and tracking where people are is dependent, in large part, on holding a model of the game state in mind. The sophistication of that model increases with severity of visual impairment.

There are otherwise no significant intersectional issues that come to mind.

Istanbul lasts perhaps 60 minutes of play-time, barring accessibility considerations, and it does support players dropping out provided nobody minds overly much that the pace and tempo of the game changes. It certainly shouldn’t prevent people getting to the end if someone decides to no longer have their merchant on the board. It would need to be removed, or its presence should no longer trigger payment rules, but aside from that it should be fine.

Conclusion

I didn’t go into this teardown with especially high hopes given how much Istanbul asks of players with regards to route planning and efficiency of movement. It’s a game where precision matters, and that’s always going to be a difficult ask of players. Still, I’m not surprised to see it do well where it did well and badly where it did badly. As I often say in these teardowns, I don’t go in with any expectations and I’m often as surprised as anyone by the outcome. Not here though.

Istanbul, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessC+
Visual AccessibilityB-
Fluid IntelligenceE
MemoryC-
Physical AccessibilityB
Emotional AccessibilityC
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC
CommunicationA

There’s a lot of room for improvement though, although perhaps not in the cognitive areas. It’s not even the case here that a better colour palette is necessarily needed – they already had the solution with stickers. If they had different merchant profiles, and a sticker for each assistant, there would be very effective double coding. A better palette would then be gravy on top. That would then improve not just the ease of the game for those with visual impairments, but also intersectionally. Better representation would be great. Notches in wheelbarrow slots to secure cubes in place. Options aplenty really.

We gave Istanbul four stars in our review because it’s a very good game that manages to be fun to optimise while also offering moments of surprise and excitement. While it doesn’t exactly thrill in the accessibility stakes, it’s not exactly lacking in its charms. If you think you could play it, I’d certainly recommend having a go.


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

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