Istanbul Is The Latest Mobile Board Game Done Right

First released in 2014, Istanbul is an economic board game that’s all about assembling rubies as fast as possible. It’s since been translated to iOS and Android by Acram Digital in the last few weeks, and it’s one of the better digital translations lately.

Istanbul players take the role of a merchant and their assistants as they navigate their way through the various markets, bazaars and vendors. A certain number of stops on the grid give players the chance to earn or purchase rubies, with the winner being the first to collect five rubies.

Players collect rubies by gathering resources and trading them in, either for coins or rubies directly. The kicker is that you can only move within two spaces (horizontally or vertically), and you can’t use each tile without dropping off or picking up one of your merchant’s assistants.

So like any good economy game, it’s all about efficiency: determining the most optimal path, interrupting your opponent’s economic engines without driving yourself into a corner. It won the 2014 Spiel des Jahres connoisseur Game of the Year award, an award given out to games like 7 Wonders and Isle of Skye (which beat out Pandemic Legacy, funnily enough).

But being a good board game rarely translates into a good app. Fortunately, Istanbul doesn’t have that problem.

Istanbul is more of a traditional game in terms of counters, resources and worker placement, so the design isn’t as clean or as pretty as Tokaido could be. But it’s incredibly efficient without being excessively confusing.

On the left hand side, each player has their name, portrait, amount of rubies collected, and then their “wheelbarrow”. The wheelbarrow is basically how many resources you can carry at once, and on the left hand side you have icons for special powers that can be picked up throughout the course of the game. These powers can be massive: the red castle, for instance, lets you change a die during a roll to 4, while other powers include being able to buy any resource for 2 gold whenever you’re at a bazaar.

Players can only carry a maximum of two resources when the game starts. The kicker is that every time a special power or a ruby is purchased or acquired, the price or resources required to buy the next one goes up. For the jewel market, that might mean paying 15 gold instead of 14. For the palace, it means you might need two blue resources and a few extra of the others instead of just one of each. For the special powers, it means you’ll need three of a particular resource instead of two (and you can’t have more than two without paying 7 coins to upgrade your wheelbarrow, which costs a move as well).

When you first fire up Istanbul, you’ll be given a basic tutorial that explains some of the tiles, movement and other mechanics. You can then play a game on a 4×4 grid with “short paths”, which places all of the resource and ruby gathering tiles in close proximity.

Grabbing the red textiles and then immediately trading them in for the dice special ability (which lets you either reroll a result, or change one die roll to a 4) is a powerful opening play.

It’s designed to teach players the basics of leaving assistants on tiles in a way that you don’t end up wasting moves. Players can’t use a tile if they can’t pick up or place an assistant, and the starting location on the board lets you gather all your assistants back together if you need to. But you never want to actually do this: it’s essentially a dead move, and the whole goal is to be as efficient as possible.

Fortunately, the full 4×4 grid fits neatly enough on a regular mobile phone that you can assess all the information at a glance. The iconography is also distinct enough that you can make out the details you need without having to zoom in all the time, and the lack of text on the 4×4 grid stops the game from being excessively cluttered. Tapping on any card zooms in, and you can swipe from that point to go to another card in the grid, or play special cards from your hand.

The game even comes with an option for neutral assistants, a variant that makes worker placement more tactical (as any player can pick up any other players’ neutral assistant). There’s also a colourblind mode in the options, as well as a checkbox for slower/higher frame rate, if you’re on an older device or want to save battery. You can also have the AI’s moves complete automatically, a necessity for the impromptu toilet gamer in all of us.

Istanbul is already a top game. Even with the small element of die rolls, it’s all about proper organisation. It’s pure planning, with plenty of replayability through the randomised board settings, neutral assistant variant, decent AI and online play. You can check it out through the Play Store or App Store now.

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