Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Not Constantinople

I have high regard for board game designer Rüdiger Dorn. I've played his games Goa, Traders of Genoa, and Las Vegas a ton -- and he has several other games I wish I'd played more. One of his more recent efforts, Istanbul, has reached the top 100 on BoardGameGeek, and I've now had a couple of chances to play it.

In Istanbul, 16 large tiles -- each allowing its own unique game action when you move there -- are shuffled to form a 4 x 4 bazaar in which players move around acquiring goods. Goods can be combined in different ways, or sold for money, to ultimately inch you toward your real goal: obtaining five rubies before your opponents.

There are several intriguing gameplay mechanisms at work in Istanbul. One surrounds movement. Where most games give you a meeple to move around, Istanbul gives you a merchant disc that sits atop a short tower of assistant discs. You can only move one or two tiles on your turn, and at the end of each move, you must "pay" to take the tile's action. You do this by either leaving the bottom disc of your stack behind, or "reabsorbing" into your stack a disc that you left there previously.

This system creates two interesting dynamics in your movement decisions. First, it creates a tether of sorts as you work your way across the board; you can only go so far before you have to backtrack. Second, it forces you to devise a strategy in which landing on the same tile several times is advantageous -- because backtracking lets you reabsorb a disc, which in turn increases your range. This is all on top of more customary considerations in an action-based game: paying rivals to take the same action they just took, and roving tokens that add other incentives to the actions on specific tiles.

Many of the tiles are set up with rising cost systems, adding another challenging dynamic to the game. On nearly half of the "board," each time one player takes an action, it becomes more expensive for the next player to take it. As a result, even though "pay me money to land on my space" is the one of the only forms of direct player interaction in Istanbul, there's an enormous amount of indirect player interaction. You're constantly trying to beat your opponents to the punch, constantly scrambling to raise more resources for a much-needed action that your opponent just raised the price on.

While I find the relationship between all these mechanisms to be clever and fascinating, it pains me to say I have some rather significant reservations with the game's scoring system. As I mentioned, the goal of the game is to collect 5 rubies. There just aren't many increments on this scale -- you're either 20%, 40%, 60%, or 80% of the way to winning... or you've won. Where other games leave score a bit murky, it's easy to see here who is in the lead. And when that's someone else, they can feel hugely ahead of you; a difference of just two rubies can feel insurmountable. I say this having been in both situations in different playthroughs: feeling completely out of contention even with 2 rubies collected, and feeling like "I've totally got this" with just 3 rubies in hand to my opponents' 1.

I think I'd peg Istanbul around a grade B. Because of the clever ways the game pits the players against each other (and against its own movement system), I'm willing to keep trying it. But I'd really like to see someone pull off what feels like a "come from behind win" within the next couple plays, or it might fall off my radar completely.

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