Istanbul is for people who enjoy longer-term strategy games like Catan, Wingspan or Scythe. It’s not hard–exactly–but you do have to think ahead. You don’t have to ponder so much that you ignore the people around you but there’s definitely scheming involved!

Each player is a merchant who puts their assistants to work in a race to collect rubies. Your player board is a wheelbarrow; you use it to keep track of the goods you collect and sell.

There are 16 different locations, each with a different reward: fill your wheelbarrow with all the goods it can carry at the spice, cloth and fruit merchant stalls. (There’s jewelry too but it’s harder to get.) Stop by the Mosques to get bonus abilities; sell your goods at the market; gamble for money at the Tea House; buy a bigger wheelbarrow from the Wainwright. Once you’ve accumulated enough goods and money, you can get rubies from various places like the Gemstone Dealer and the Sultan’s Palace.

There are two basic tricks involved: One is, you can only take the action at each location if you have an assistant to leave in place. If you’ve left an assistant on a previous turn, you can go back, pick them up, and get the location treat again. But Merchants are like Gru; they’re in charge of scheming and bossing all their Minions. Merchants are the ultimate capitalist pigdogs or, maybe, politicians. Merchants don’t do any work on their own; they just boss their flunkies and take bribes!

Trick two is that you can only move one to two spaces on any turn. This means you have to think a few moves ahead so you can accumulate the stuff you need to carry out your scheme. You’re never blocked from any location but, if there’s already another Merchant in the space you want to go, you have to bribe that Merchant to let you in.

One exception to all this is you have a family you can deploy too. The problem is, your family is in jail, so you have to break them out and send them off to do your bidding. If another Merchant happens upon your family while they’re out in the market, that Merchant can collect a reward and send them back to prison.

I mean… we’re not talking about going to Walmart here. The whole vibe is one of dealing in the back alleys of a disreputable bazaar full of sketchy people… and it’s a hoot!

We all liked the game with a couple of caveats. For one thing, Istanbul has a lot of moving parts so it takes a minute to set up. The other thing is you actually need to pay attention for the whole game!

Chris and I are usually the people who get up to wait on customers during Compulsory Merriment and we belatedly realized that we were at a real disadvantage to Mandi and Kasper, who sat scheming the whole time. OK. If Mandi & Kasper wait on customers and Chris & I still lose, we’ll get back to you on a new excuse! 😉

Istanbul comes with 16 location tiles that can be set up in various ways so you don’t ever need to play the same game twice. Plus, the Big Box comes with two included expansions: Mocha & Baksheesh and Letters & Seals. The expansions are, basically, side hustles that expand the market and give you more vaguely disreputable ways to earn rubies.

Plan on about 15 minutes playtime per player so it’s 30-75 minutes playtime for 2-5 players, Ages 10+