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Istanbul (Big Box)

Another modern classic, Rudiger Dorn's Istanbul won the coveted Kennerspiel des Jahres award in 2014, up against particularly tough competition: Concordia (PD-Verlag) was another of that year's nominees! Istanbul is a worker placement euro game where 2-5 players are moving their merchant to place out or pick up assistants that permit them to take the action at that location. Ultimately you're in a race to collect five rubies (six in a two-player game) which you can get either by buying or trading for them (in both cases at an escalating cost) or by returning to the Mosque locations having already acquired the upgrades at those locations.

The game is played on a modular board made up of 16 large tiles. There are a couple of recommended layouts for the tiles but it's a completely modular board and you can vary as you please the layout at setup. You'll be moving to orthogonally adjacent tiles each turn in order to take actions.

In many euro games, players can find themselves running to stand still - in that they have an overhead or upkeep per round. That's not the case in Istanbul. You won't always be picking up rubies but this is nonetheless a games where players will have an abundance of riches. There are locations where you can fill your cart to the max with goods. There are Market locations where you can sell a specific mix of goods for cash. At the Mosque locations you can upgrade your merchant's abilities at the cost of just one specific type of goods, but you'll need to have a minimum number of those goods in your cart to be able to make that transaction and that minimum increases whenever another player takes the upgrade. At the Wainwright you can pay 7 Lira to buy an upgrade to your cart so that it will hold more goods - and you'll need to have done this in order to have the capacity in your cart to qualify for those merchant ability upgrades...

Success in Istanbul then is about optimising your movement and actions: it's all about finding the most efficient path to accumulating those rubies. And there are wrinkles along the way. In particular, if other players already have a merchant at a location when you visit it, you'll need to pay them before you can take that location's action. You have a relative held at the Police Station, and if you visit them at that location you can send your relative anywhere you choose where they can take the action at that location without having to buy off other players' merchants or assistants; but other players going subsequently to that location can collect a reward for recapturing your disreputable relative and returning them to police custody.

There's more: you can encounter the Governor (allowing you to buy a bonus card) and the Smuggler (allowing you buy or swap any type of good) and you can even try to accumulate wealth by gambling at the Tea House: state a number, then roll 2d6 - if you roll that number or higher, you collect that amount in Lira; if you don't meet the number, you still collect 2 Lira.

Istanbul plays quickly and has oodles of replay value but this Big Box edition from Pegasus Spiele, and from AEG in the USA, incorporates both the Mocha & Baksheesh and the Letters & Seals expansions that were published in 2015 and 2016. These both add more tiles, so automatically extending the difficulty by increasing the distance between locations.

Mocha & Baksheesh adds coffee as an additional resource but it's not a trade good. Coffee tho' can be used to upgrade your merchant's movement or to use the Governor and Smuggler for free. You can pay coffee and goods at the Tavern as 'baksheesh' to acquire a ruby more cheaply than via conventional routes. You can also place out a barrier to block other players' route; adding to Istanbul's interactivity. In addition, the expansion offers more bonus cards and it introduces powerful guild cards which let you take an action for free - albeit at the cost of your turn. If you're canny, you'll try to time the single use of a guild card to allow your merchant to remain at a location other players are eager to visit, forcing them to pay you to go there.

Letters & Seals gives players a new character they can move in place of their merchant. This helps compensate for the fact that the extra location tiles in this and the Mocha & Baksheesh expansion significantly increase the 'board' size. You can collect letters, mainly from the Embassy but also from bonus cards, the Kiosk and a new non-player character. Undelivered letters are worth one seal. When you are at the location indicated on a letter you can flip it for its value of two seals. When you have six seals you can cash them in for a ruby at the Secret Society. You can also spend three seals to take an extra turn. Given that Istanbul is essentially a race game, taking an extra turn can be a huge bonus. This expansion also adds in an Auction House where you and other players bid in order to win two bonus cards. If you win, you pay one good plus the amount you bid but if another player wins the auction you launch then they have to pay you. At the Kiosk, you pick up a letter and you reveal a number of new bonus tiles equal to the number of players plus one. You get to pick the first bonus, then other players pick a bonus and you additionally get the bonus left unclaimed.

Istanbul is a great game. If you don't already have it, then this Big Box edition is a great opportunity to get not just the core game but also the expansions, which otherwise haven't always been easy to obtain. The expansions don't greatly complicate the game tho' they add to the interaction between players. Nevertheless we'd always recommend familiarising yourself with the base game before adding the expansions into the mix.

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