Mary Dimercurio Prasad: Review of Istanbul (Plus Kebab Shop)

Istanbul (Plus Kebab Shop)

  • BoxPublisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) [Included: Istanbul: Kebab Shop Mini Expansion, by Spielbox]
  • Designer: Rüdiger Dorn
  • Artists: Andreas Resch, Hans-Georg Schneider
  • Players:  2-5
  • Ages: 10+
  • Playing Time: 40-60 min
  • MSRP $49.99
  • Released: 2014
  • Reviewed by: Mary Dimercurio Prasad
  • Game Played: Review Copy
  • Number of Plays: 4


You are leading a merchant and four assistants through the 16 Places of the bazaar. At each Place, you can carry out a specific action. The challenge is that, to carry out an action at any of those Places, your merchant needs the help of an assistant and has to leave him behind. To use that assistant again later, your merchant has to come back to that Place and pick him up. So plan ahead carefully to avoid being left with no assistants and thus unable to do anything. (From Rulebook.)

Rules Summary

The goal of Istanbul is to collect a certain number of rubies, depending on the number players. Each player controls a merchant and four assistants (represented by round disks; the merchant disk is marked with a picture of a merchant on top). The board is made up of 16 numbered tiles (Places in the rulebook, but I will call them spaces), laid out in a 4×4 grid. Each space is described in detail in the rulebook.

Game Board

Players take turns moving around the board, collecting goods, bonus cards, tiles, money, and rubies. Each player has a “wheelbarrow” player board where his goods will be tracked. The starting wheelbarrow comes with storage for up to two of each good, but players may expand the capacity up to three times during the game by stopping by the Wainwright space and paying 7 Lira (money in the game). The photo below shows a fully expanded wheelbarrow.

Player BoardWooden cubes in the player’s color mark the capacity of each good (starting at 0, where the empty crate is shown). When a player collects a ruby, she places it in one of the ruby spots. Each player also has a family member, represented by a cylinder. This family member is always in trouble with the police for some reason – it starts out at the Police Station space. As an action at the Police Station, you may free your family member to go to, and carry out the action at, another location (i.e. move its pawn to a space of your choice and do that action).

There are also two other cylinders on the board, representing the Governor and the Smuggler. Encountering them give you some choices.

Player turn:

  1. Move your stack (merchant on top, any assistants still left are below) one or two spaces orthogonally AND either place it on top of your assistant if one was already there, or drop the bottom most assistant in the space. If you cannot or do not want to do this, your turn ends immediately.
  2. If you encounter other merchants, pay 2 lira to each. If you cannot or do not want to pay, your turn ends immediately.
  3. (Optional) Carry out the space’s action. If you cannot or do not want to carry out the action, go to the next step.
  4. In any order:
  5. If you encounter another player’s family member, send their pawn(s) back to the Police Station and take either a bonus card or 3 lira for each family member encountered.
  6. If you encounter the Governor, you may draw 1 bonus card (added to your hand) and either pay 2 lira or discard 1 bonus card from your hand. Roll 2 dice and place the Governor in that space.
  7. If you encounter the Smuggler, you may gain a good of your choice and either pay 2 lira or 1 good. Roll 2 dice and place the Smuggler in that space.

Bonus cards can help you in the game, any number of which may be used during your turn. Full descriptions of each are in the rulebook. There are also tiles on a couple spaces that may be collected in exchange for goods; these tiles can also help you in the game.

One space of note is the Fountain. This is where you may go to return any number of assistants to your merchant stack. This is also the only place where you do not need an assistant to carry out the action.

The Kebab Shop Mini Expansion was included with the March 2014 Spielbox Magazine. It replaces the Fountain space. You may choose to use it in the same way as the original Fountain OR you may instead pay 2 lira to use your family member pawn (i.e. move it to a space and take its action), provided it was not at the Police Station.

Kebob Shop

The full set of rules may be downloaded as a pdf from the AEG website.


Istanbul is what I might call a “next-step” game: it’s not quite a “gateway game” but maybe a step beyond. It is easy to learn, although there are quite a few action types, possibly making it a bit too complicated for a non-gamer to jump right into (unless they are particularly savvy). The game has some pick up and deliver aspects to it, e.g. picking up goods and delivering them to market or to a space where they may be exchanged for rubies or for tiles that may somehow help you in the game.

Mainly though the game is about maximizing your movements between your merchant, which may move one or two spaces each turn, and your assistants, one of which must be either dropped off or picked up on your ending space. Players will also want to minimize the number of stops at the Fountain space to collect assistants (ideally not using the space at all, but good luck with that).

The modular board is one of the best features of the game. It allows the board to change play to play, from completely random (advanced), to some of the ordered variations listed on the back of the rulebook (i.e. short paths, long paths, grouped places). This helps keep the game fresh.

There is also an interesting variant for 2 to 4 players where the 5th player color is used as a neutral. Each player will start with a neutral assistant at the bottom of her stack. These assistants may be used as usual, but any player may use them. I haven’t tried this variant but I am looking forward to seeing how it may change the game.

I played Istanbul once with 2 players, which is altered by adding merchant disks of unused colors to some of the spaces making them more expensive: remember you must pay 2 lira to each other merchant in the space before taking its action – in this case the money just goes to the bank. The game scales well but I prefer to play with 3 or 4 players. Although the 2-player is perfectly functional, it was more fun to figure out how to maneuver around the other players, rather than just having the fixed extra merchants. Also, having extra players increases tension (competition for tiles, bonus cards, rubies), allows for more interaction, and usually gives you more family members to send to jail (Police Station). The reason I don’t prefer it with 5 players is due to the combination of being a bit too crowded, for my taste anyway, and the increased wait time between turns. Though, if I played with fast/experienced players, I might still enjoy the 5-player.

The game artwork is beautiful – it doesn’t at all interfere with game play, and in fact gives it the right feel for the theme (some may consider the theme pasted on – yes, it could probably be re-themed rather easily). The components are high quality: thick cardboard, nice linen finish, wooden pieces. The box is a little oversized but this does make it a standard sized game box, think Caylus or Egizia.

There is some luck in the game, in where the Governor and Smuggler end up each time they are used (dice roll determines their new location) and in card draws. There are also a couple of spaces where players must roll for an outcome – this is mitigated by gaining a minimum of something regardless of how poorly you rolled (thank goodness).

Istanbul is very fun to play. Taking under an hour, it hits a sweet spot for most gamers looking for something meaty but not taking hours to play. The interaction is interesting and not too “mean” as it will cost you a little more to go into spaces with other players but probably won’t restrict you from doing so. The reward for sending another player’s family member to jail is a nice counterbalance. There is a little race element as well – getting to several spaces first will cost you less to get something. This is one of my favorite games of 2014.

The Kebob Shop expansion allows another option for using family members. It didn’t seem to be much use in a 2-player game but I expect it will be more useful as the number of players increases. If you missed the Spielbox version, you could easily make the expansion with some mat board and a color print of the image (see BoardGameGeek).

Istanbul won the 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Greg S:  I thoroughly enjoy Istanbul.  As you mention, it is not too difficult and is a good game for folks who wish to avoid the heavy side of the hobby.  Still, there is enough to offer seasoned gamers.  I find it quite challenging and allows players some level of creativity and cleverness.

Jonathan F: I love the classic Dorn movement of the stack of tokens and the modularity of the board.  For us, once you have played the preset boards, much of the game feels somewhat sorted out by how the tiles are arranged.  Once you see the paths that you feel will be best for you, you play through and see what happens.  I am looking forward to both the expansion and trying some of the variants on the back page of the rulebook, as they might turn a like it into a love it.

Larry (about 8 plays):  I’m very fond of Istanbul; it’s one of my favorite titles from 2014 (which, granted, was a weak year for me).  It’s a fast-playing middleweight design that requires some planning, but won’t strain your brain too much.  I’m also delighted that Dorn figured out yet another way of utilizing his beloved walking mechanic.  After my first couple of plays, all of my games have been with a random set-up and it’s worked extremely well that way.  It’s just a solid and very professionally designed game.  One of its biggest plusses is that it works well with a wide variety of gamers, so it’s a very good choice as a crossover game.

Ben McJ: I’ve played Istanbul approximately 5 times now.  While it stood up to repeat plays far better than I expected, I do not have a strong desire to play it further.  I find the balance of tactical and strategic decision-making pleasant, but I find the substance of the game lacking.  It is simply so refined and generic that I can’t be passionate about it.  I have been known to enjoy other games with relatively bland themes and mechanics, but they typically involve considerable tension or dramatic swings of fortune or even a hidden layer of nastiness that appeals to my personal tastes.  Istanbul is simply pleasant all the way down.  That’s not enough for me to seek it out.

Dale Y: (~7 plays) – I have only played the base game, and I have enjoyed the tactical decision making that this game provides.  I prefer playing the game with a truly random setup of tiles as this adds a little bit of Turn Zero complexity to the game as you have to be able to look at the board to figure out where the efficient methods of scoring victory points are.  Being the first person to find an efficient loop of action spaces is key to winning in the random setup.  That being said, I would still recommend using one of the two starting setups in the rules when playing with people who are encountering the game for the first time.  Those boards are meant to have easy-to-see scoring loops and help get people to understand how the game works quickly.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I love it! Mary Prasad
  • I like it: W. Eric Martin, Jonathan F., Larry, Fraser, John P, Dale Y
  • Neutral: Ben McJ
  • Not for me…

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