Confession time, board gamers. I have never played Istanbul, the 2014 Kennerspiel winner from AEG. I am not berating myself. With 450 new titles at GEN CON these past few years, and another 500 titles at ESSEN SPIEL, it is impossible for us at Board Game Gumbo to play everything.
But the Kennerspiel and SdJ awards are very big on my radar. Both represent the kinds of games I like to try. I have enjoyed my play of Karuba, another game by the same designer, so for me, not playing Istanbul represents a hole in my gaming experience. But what if I could find a game that bears at least some resemblance to Istanbul, but in a tighter, shorter, more palatable format?
Does your game group like dice games where you can mitigate your luck? Do you like light engine builders?
Istanbul: The Dice Game is a stand alone game set in the world of Istanbul. You do not need to be familiar with the larger game to have fun playing the dice version. The game is for two to four players, and plays in about thirty minutes.
Players visit the Bazaar of Istanbul, and compete against each other in a trading competition. Each player will roll the multi-colored set of dice (which represent the player’s “assistants”), and carry out two actions using the dice that they choose. The actions they can choose come from the die results, which give you either money, the chance to buy bonus cards, or one of four different resources. The players will end their turn by collecting money and goods, and hopefully having enough of either (or both!) to exchange for rubies.
The engine builder part comes in the form of mosque tiles that can be purchased using the symbols on the dice and/or tokens that represent the various goods on the dice faces. The mosque tiles are very powerful, as they give each player an advantage that lasts each round, things like extra dice, or extra actions beyond the original two allowed. Each player could even earn more money or a free crystal each round (crystals can be exchanged in ordere to re-roll the dice.)
Players can also earn bonuses by purchasing Bazaar cards. These are one time use only, but give quick boosts to the efficiency of each player’s actions or extra resources / money. In an ingenious move, some of the best bazaar cards not only help the active player, but also the other players as well.
First player to collect a certain number of rubies (it changes depending on the player count) will trigger the end of the game. The player with the highest amount of rubies is the winner.
Istanbul: The Dice Game is the kind of box I like to carry to game night. It is a little bit bigger than my outstretched hand, and fits all of the components nicely. I like the thick tiles that AEG used to represent the mosques, and the colorful resources tokens are easy to distinguish. Plus the rubies and crystals look good on the table.
The board is small but sturdy, has no folds, and is laid out in an easy to understand fashion. But, it is a bit unstable with all of the rubies on there, without the almost always present notches we see in other games. That’s not really a downer here, because the board is small enough, but be careful, as the rubies can get knocked around accidentally.
The real complaint I’ve heard from our game group is the dice. They are wooden with printing on them, and feel a little light. I am not a dice fanatic, so these are fine to me. They are a bit like smaller versions of the weather die in Takenoko, which has never bothered me. But some of the gamers in the group said they felt a little too light for rolling, and they did not like how the dice bounce around when rolled. Your mileage may vary.
BUT IS IT FUN?
I knew nothing about its big brother, Istanbul, so I had no preconceived notions when AEG sent me the review copy. But, to be honest, I was not expecting much.
Well, I was wrong. I was surprised at how quickly we picked up the rules, and this game took off the very first time I brought it out in the various game groups.
My wife and I love quick-playing games that can be played in under an hour, but give you enough heft that it feels like you are playing a bigger game. Games like Karuba, which is another game designed by the same designer, give me the illusion that I am following through on some big overarching strategy to plan, but they never feel so meaty that I cannot enjoy a friendly conversation after a meal while playing. Istanbul: The Dice Game is exactly that type of game. We have played this a half dozen times together, and each time it feels like we explore a different strategy. If we don’t like the result or the bad luck we’ve had rolling, we are not out any significant time.
The easy teach but depth in the game was a big selling point to my dad and lad scout group game night. They are always on the lookout for games that can be quickly taught, and played a couple of times in a row. It is not a great late night picnic table game with all of the little pieces, but it worked great on our sleep over recently at a church after a long day on the river.
The engine building part of the game has also been very satisfying to most of the gamers in the Gumbo game night group. The decision to boost up the engine, and then know just the right time to let up the gas and dive into the rubies is one of those juicy decisions that really fires up the cranium. Every time I think I have my engine built, and another die or action mosque comes out, it is just so tempting to add one more piece! But if you do, you are likely to watch as other players zoom right past you in the race.
But, the most interesting decisions that I have seen, especially with new players, are the ones surrounding the blue crystals. As we discussed above, the blue crystals give you the opportunity to re-roll your dice. It is an essential element in mitigating the luck that random dice rolls can present, and can also help you plan better if you are unsure of which ruby to go after next on your turn. When do you play them? Do you hoard them until the end, or use them to get a leg up on grabbing some of the cheaper rubies?
There is definitely more to those crystals than meets the eye. The ability to re-roll can be a boon that is immeasurable late in the game, even though it feels like it is underpowered for most of the game up until then. Being able to roll your dice two or three times in a row until you get that perfect result that allows you to sneak two rubies right at the end and pass up the leader? That’s a priceless feeling and I have seen it happen many times.
Let me tell you how much I like Istanbul: The Dice Game in one sentence: It is on my short list of the best filler / gateway game that I have played so far in 2018.
I play a lot of gateway games, many of them just once or twice or a few times, but this is one that I would almost never turn down a play. In fact, I rarely play it just once in a night — it is usually the kind of game where as soon as we finish, we will re-set the board to play again (maybe even adding one more player on the restart).
So, if you like games that can be easily taught in five minutes, take around thirty minutes to play, yet give you the feeling and weight of a larger game in a small package, try out Istanbul: The Dice Game. If you are worried about the sheer randomness of the die rolls, the designer’s inclusion of the blue crystals, mosque tiles creating an engine, and the one time bonuses from the Bazaar cards should alleviate most players’ fears. Plus, you get the added bonus of a game that looks cool on the table with all of the colorful rubies spread out over the board.
Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler!