I am not making the Constantinople joke. I hear it all the time.
You may have heard of Alpal and I discussing Istanbul: The Dice Game in the Blatherings last week. Today, welcome to the formal review!
If you have never played Istanbul, it is a game that I would encourage people that enjoy a medium weight game to play it. The purpose of the game is simple – be the first player to obtain six rubies. This is done by various trades and exchanges, and you travel around an randomly created marketplace via a mancala mechanic.
It is a unique game and one enjoyed by a large portion of my regular gaming group. Don’t believe me? Istanbul was also the winner of the 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres, as well as many other awards and nominations.
Anyone that has played the original Istanbul will be pleased that the core of the game remains so intact, in what is a completely different game.
Where the original Istanbul is a very logical and strategic affair with near perfect information, Istanbul the Dice Game is a true dice game where your fate lies in your rolls and ability to react on the fly.
What it definitely isn’t is a case of Yahtzee with Istanbul symbols like some other dice versions – many of the features of the board game are cleverly integrated into the game. This make the dice game a great choice for people that enjoy lighter luck based games, especially compared to the board game.
Overview on How To Play
Istanbul is a market bargaining game. You collect resources and trade them in for rubies. When a player gets 6 rubies, this triggers the end game where play continues until all players have had the same number of turns (i.e. back to first player).
Then it’s a simple matter of the most rubies wins! What tends to happen when playing though is that more than one player has six rubies, so people cash in their goods for money which acts as a tiebreaker.
How do you go about collecting things? That’s simple – you roll the die and see what resources you have!
Everyone starts the game with five dice, and the ability to play two actions. The actions are pretty much all exchanging dice and goods for other items, including rubies.
On each die, one side of each of the four resources is shown – cloth (red), fruit (yellow), spices (green) and jewelry (blue). The other two sides are coins (Lira) and Bazaar cards, which I will talk about in more detail later.
As I previously stated, Istanbul the Dice game is fairly simple – you need to collect six rubies. To collect rubies, you use your dice rolls to build up resources, then hand in those resources to collect the corresponding ruby.
But it’s not quite as simple as just collecting some fruit for a ruby either. If you look at the board, you will see the rubies laid out in a manner that makes sense pretty much as soon as you look at it.
For example, to collect the fruit ruby you must pay 4 fruit resources as an action, as shown on the board. But as you take the ruby from the right, the cost increases – the next player needs to pay five resources, shown as the ruby is taken. All goods are costed like this, so you want to be first to get in and get ‘cheap’ rubies.
So how do you pay for the higher cost items? By collecting resources from turn to turn. Every turn, you will have whatever you roll on your dice, but you can store goods for later as well.
For example, if you roll two cloth, you can store a single cloth tile in your warehouse to use it later. Have three different resources? You can exchange those for a crate, or a wildcard resource. Did you roll a rainbow and have one of each resource? You can pick any two resource tiles (apart from crates) that you like!
This will be most of your actions, especially in the early parts of the game as you build your stockpile. But do you go on an early spending spree, or hoard everything until the end? With only two actions per turn, you can only exchange for two rubies, and the longer you wait the more expensive they become, so timing is everything.
The next common action is exchanging the Lira you rolled for money in the game – each die you rolled is worth 2 Lira and you get to build up your bank.
But there are ways to gain advantages during play as well, in the form of Bazaar Cards and Mosque Tiles.
Bazaar Cards can be exchanged from the Bazaar Cards die face, and offer one-time instant bonus opportunities to the player. You may be able to gain a resource and lira, or exchange one resource for two others.
You may also be able to cash in situational bonuses – for example, if you have one of each resource, you can cash them in to take one ruby from anywhere on the board.
One thing about Bazaar Cards though is the majority not only help you but can help other players as well. For example, you might be able to pick up a Cloth and three Lire, but all other players can pick up a Cloth OR three Lira.
If you roll multiple Bazaar Cards, when cashing them in as your action you can pick up that many Bazaar Cards and choose which one to play, giving you a little more control over the situation.
Mosque Tiles however probably have the biggest impact on making your own game unique each time.
These Tiles are laid out in a group of six, and you simply pay the cost on top of the tile similar to purchasing a Ruby. At the start of each turn, before you roll your dice, you gain certain abilities depending on the tile.
These can be as simple as automatically gaining three Lira at the start of your turn, and increase to taking more actions or even add more die to your roll – probably the most powerful tile in the game.
There are also tiles that play during your turn, where you can switch your Lira rolls into taking one resource tile of a set type (e.g. rolled a coin but don’t want the cash? Take a cloth marker). These can also have a big impact on the game, as it allows players to get a slightly easier time accruing certain goods.
One feature I haven’t discussed is rerolls – technically, you don’t get any. The exception to this is crystals, which you can gain by trading in two different resources or via Mosque Tiles and Bazaar cards. If you trade in a crystal, which does not count as an action, you can choose to reroll as many dice as you wish.
Again, you need to really think about if you are going to reroll or not though. While cashing in a crystal is simple enough, the fact it will cost you a future action makes it expensive in terms of play economy. Also, if you are in a tiebreaker situation, crystals are worth three Lira which could tip a win in your favour.
Of course, tiebreakers mean nothing if you don’t think you can get enough rubies to be in the endgame, so it all boils down to picking the right moment and luck being with you.
Why do I enjoy Istanbul the Dice Game?
One thing I really like about Istanbul the Dice Game is that while it is a very competitive game at its heart, there are no real ‘take that’ mechanics in the game. True, when you buy a ruby the price goes up, but that is the same for yourself just as much as other players. At no point do you take anything from another player, so no one can be picked on or crowded out in this game, which is something a table can do in Istanbul the Board Game.
The Bazaar Cards are also a clever inclusion as well, and not as an Istanbul mechanic. Playing one will reward the drawing player the most, but a good number give the other players a benefit as well. That benefit can be straightforward (take money or goods), but it can also be the choice to exchange something to help them out as well, such as change goods for Lira.
It may seem small, but because Bazaar Cards are so commonly played during a game, players have a level of engagement on each turn, even if it’s just to see if that player will activate a Bazaar Card. Far too many dice games are simply ‘roll dice – do the thing – tune out until my turn again’. It’s true you can play this way, but that would be a sign to me that you really aren’t engaging in the game and it may not be for you.
Istanbul the Dice game is a really fun game, and one I can readily suggest as a middleweight game in many peoples collection. It manages to capture the slow build, tension and overall feel of the original board game and plays in half the time. With the high luck factor of the dice, it’s simple enough to play while talking around the table while being simple enough to teach on the fly.
People that prefer perfect knowledge type games will probably not enjoy this, but that would be true for most games of this sort. If you enjoy Istanbul the Board Game, and/or want the same feel in a quicker package, this is a must buy for you.
If you had ever looked at Istanbul and thought ‘Maybe?’, I would recommend the dice game in a heartbeat. Istanbul the Board Game is not a game I get to the table as often as I would like, but I can get in multiple games of Istanbul the Dice Game with little to no effort. It’s simpler nature makes it an easier sell to new players, plus it’s not overly complex or mentally taxing removing the ‘in the mood for’ factor of the board game.