|Meeple Like Us
Playing Istanbul is a little bit like wresting a reluctant A* algorithm into grudging, malevolent obedience. A lot of games are built on the idea of optimisation – that your goals are best served by ensuring the maximum yield for the minimum expenditure. It’s a mechanism that is hard-wired into many larger game systems, and its impact is often implicit but undeniable. It’s not that subtle here with Instanbul. This is a game that forces you to confront your own extravagant wastefulness with every single turn.
And the thing is – despite this being a ubiquitous concern in games, it’s something that we rarely have to consciously factor into our decision making. Istanbul is a game of trying to find your way to an uncertain destination through unfamiliar streets when Google Maps is insisting that you’re actually five hundred miles away in a different country. And, importantly, you have to do that faster than anyone else around you. This is made intensely more complicated by the fact that every single time someone arrives at a major local landmark, the whole topography of the environment changes. It’s like someone pasted an AA road map onto a Rubik’s Cube and every time someone stops for directions an anxious five-year old gives it a good ol’ twisting.
Here’s how it works. You get a board of cards laid out in front of you. This is either according to a fixed pattern or through a random deal that is the board-game equivalent of yelling ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ at a passing mob of football casuals. Every player gets a merchant that stands atop a pile of assistants. Everyone can move a certain number of cards per turn, and when they arrive at a location they can leave (or collect) one of their assistants to trigger its effect.
I should point out here that the box comes with stickers for each of the different kinds of marker in the game. I just think they look very ugly. As such, most of the images you see here in this post have an intentional and wilful austerity to them – like Conservative Party manifesto statements on matters of domestic policy.
The different locations on the board have a range of effects. They might let you collect goods into your wheelbarrow, or trade goods for coins or rubies. They might let you buy upgrades, or collect special cards. They may also have an ‘encounter’ available that let you trade resources of one kind for advantages of another. Insofar as it goes, Istanbul has a fairly standard location activation system, made a little more complicated by the fact that if another player’s merchant is currently present you need to pay them to get access to the services provided.
The goal of the game is to gather rubies in sufficient quantities to trigger the game’s end condition, and several of the cards advance you to that goal. Fully upgrading your wheelbarrow gets you a ruby. Gaining the two special powers at the small or great mosques will get you a ruby. Trading in a particular set of goods at the Sultan’s Palace will also get you a ruby, as will spending a heavy sack of coins at the Gemstone dealer. There are lots of gems in the game, and they are unlocked with sets of goods in various configurations or ever more extravagant wads of cash.
Every good has a value that is defined by a kind of ephemeral ‘Difficulty to acquire’ and ‘Ease of spending’. Difficulty to acquire is based not just on the physical availability of resources, but also on how many turns it’ll take you to get them. The fabric, spice and fruit warehouses will fill your wheelbarrow to its maximum of the relevant resource… and that’s great if you currently have an empty wheelbarrow and can get there easily. If those warehouses are on the other side of Istanbul though… well. Then you need to consider if you can justify the travel time, because fundamentally the winner of the game will be the player that works fastest towards the game goal and takes the fewest number of unnecessary pit stops.
Ease of spending though is the other factor that’s constantly shifting – gemstones get more expensive to buy as the game goes on, and mosque improvements too require ever greater expenditures of resources to collect. So, it’s not just having the goods in your wheelbarrow that matters – it’s having them at the time you can spend them most efficiently.
Let’s say you’re looking at a palace asking for jewellery, silks, spices, fruits and a good of your choice. Spend that and you get a gemstone. Great, but you don’t have exactly what you need. You need one of the rarer blue goods, and you could currently get that from the post office, along with some other parcels from Amazon Prime. It’s two moves away though, and you don’t have the assistants available to get there easily. On the other hand, the black market is next door and that lets you roll dice for the chance to get jewellery. You might get lucky if you take the risk…
… or perhaps you just want to bail out of the palace and go sell your goods for cash. The gemstone dealer is relatively affordable and the market is currently paying out a huge number of coins for things you’ve got heaped up in front of you. And if you go that way you could stop in at the wainwright to upgrade your wheelbarrow…
… or you could go and use the fountain to claim back all your assistants and then go to the nearby police station to send a ‘family member’ off to Do Crimes at a location of your choice. And by that I mean ‘carry out the activities of a location you might not otherwise be able to reach’.
There are a lot of these considerations in a game of Istanbul, and were that all that happens it would be a satisfying but not overly exciting game.
But see, the thing is… the exchange rate of all of this changes every time someone activates a card, and when that happens the value of your wheelbarrow takes a trip through a roulette wheel. I hope you’re feeling lucky!
Someone goes to the market, spends some goods, get their money. The top-most card on the market is then removed to reveal a new deal – one that might be better, or worse, for what you currently have available. Disaster! Or not!
As soon as someone buys a gem at the palace or the dealer, it gets more expensive for everyone. Collecting goods at the post-office changes the specific blend available to the next visitor and one of the goods that just disappeared may have been the exact thing you needed. When someone collects a mosque token, the price for everyone goes up. Those gems, in other words, get harder and harder to collect as the game goes on. You want to pick them up fast.
But you also want to pick them up efficiently and that efficiency can only be cultivated with an eye to the long-term. Sure, you can gather two silk now into your tiny little shopping basket but that same move will give you five silk if you upgrade a few times first. Prudence dictates an efficiency of action, but your nerves demand you cash in quickly before others push up the price and randomise the exchange rate.
But… if you’re still pottering about with Baby’s First Handbasket while everyone else has upgraded to a pickup truck you’re going to find it difficult to parlay an early gem advantage into sustainability. Of course, there’s always the gambling halls if things aren’t working out.
There’s a lot going on in a game of Istanbul and to manage it you’re going to need a can-do attitude, a trader’s spirit, and a healthy dose of fatalism.
It’s a game with a well-deserved reputation. It’s straightforward and yet surprisingly complex. Algorithmic and yet with moments of unalloyed delight and despair. A game of ramping up efficiency where almost every game I’ve played has been on a knife-edge, only revealing itself in the final round of play to end in a photo finish. The way it feels to play Istanbul reminds me of what it’s like to watch a race where a curved track opens up into a straight line at the end. That’s the only time you really get a sense of who’s actually in with a realistic chance of winning and it comes with a rush of realisation that your assumptions weren’t quite correct.
As time goes by though, you start to see a few of the structural problems of the game that grind away at its replay value like waves against an eroding cliff.
The first of these is that the set maps suggested by the rule-book have learnable patterns that can be exploited. It doesn’t even matter which of them you use – there are quirks and tricks of each location setup that will gradually emerge through the course of play. If the first experience you have with the game is that of Sarah Williams facing the cruelties of the Labyrinth, the fifth or sixth will be like facing a daily commute. Some days it’s relatively clear, quiet roads and other days when you’re beset on all sides by cyclists. The travel conditions might change, but the route remains the route.
The second issue is that the random maps don’t really solve this issue. It’s a four by four grid and inevitably ‘clusters of excellence’ will end up being threaded into that terrain. Games stop being about working out the puzzle of the local ordinance survey and instead become about recognising the best patterns of movement. Since you can move up to two cards at a time, ‘cluster’ in this sense is a pretty big proportion of the map.
And while the economy of the game does rapidly shift over the course of the play, there is one fixed strategy for dealing with it – have access to more. Larger wheelbarrows offer resilience against changing market conditions and since you get a ruby for fully upgrading there’s rarely a downside for doing so. Having to add a second pineapple to a trade at the Sultan’s palace isn’t much of a penalty if you’ve got five of them rotting away in the warehouse. Of course, while this is the compensatory strategy it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a winning strategy. Other players, and the speed at which they’re grinding their way to gemstones, are going to influence that. You’re rarely taking a risk though by investing in the ability to roll in the same direction as otherwise uncontrollable market conditions.
Perhaps unusually in a game like this I find myself at least a little endeared by the random chance threaded through the design. Normally throwing dice into a game like this would result in me recoiling like I’d just found part of a spider in my half-eaten spaghetti. I don’t know though, it works here – it gives a chance for a certain shallow entrepreneurialism to arise from a game that is otherwise of fixed and static knowability. The market will change, at times you can’t predict, and always in reaction to what other players do. It feels like a meaningful way to incorporate economic uncertainty into the experience, and I like that. I even like the gambling dens where you can bet a precious turn of activity in the hope that it circumvents the difficulties presented by the game state. It’s odd to say this, but the randomness is a note of mercy in what might otherwise be an unforgiving experience.
This mercy carries through into the one-use bonus cards – they permit for players to rebound from misfortune, or to gamble everything on a risky strategy. They give you a chance to make requirements more flexible, or even occasionally let you double-down on an expensive outlay. The central game mechanisms are sharp and could well snap shut around your leg if you’re not careful. The cards, and dice, give you a lever to prise them open when that happens.
It’s odd for a game of this nature to feel so energetic – to feel like there’s a meaningful febrility underpinning everything. I think that’s quite an accomplishment. Games of economic optimisation almost always have a core that requires more contemplation than action, but Istanbul has here something more subtle. It provides a ticking clock set by the financial machinations of your opponent. That makes all the difference.
Istanbul is a great game, and I’d certainly recommend you give it a try.