Kennerspiel… What are you Talking About!!
Expert Game of the Year is the literal translation for the Kennerspiel des Jahres and along with Spiel des Jahres it is regarded as one of the most prestigious awards in the board gaming calendar. Being first awarded in 2011, it expands the prestigious Spiel des Jahres to recognize the best “expert game of the year”. These are games meant for a more experienced audience, and where the Spiel des Jahres typically recognizes games for the entire family, the Kennerspiel des Jahres is more for gamers looking for games which present them with more of a challenge.
In 2011, hit game 7 Wonders won the Kennerspiel des Jahres, followed by Village and last year, Legends of Andor.. So it would seem that Istanbul is keeping good company in the board gaming world.
During the judging process, Istanbul’s main competition came from Concordia and Rococo, with other recommendations being Amerigo, Blood Bound, Guildhall and Russian Railroads.
Let’s Do the Time Warp…Istanbul, the Where, What and Why!!
If you’re not interested in History, feel free to skip to the next section. But before I move on to how the game plays, I wanted to paint a picture of how the Istanbul board game came to be.
Originally known as Byzantium, history dictates that for nearly sixteen centuries following its re-establishment as Constantinople in 330 AD, the city has served as the capital of four empires: the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). It was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times, before the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and transformed it into an Islamic stronghold. The seat of the last caliphate, its name was changed to Istanbul. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istanbul.
View Istanbul in a larger map
Istanbul’s strategic position along the historic Silk Road linking it to Europe and the Middle East, also being the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, meant that it has been and still remains one of the largest ports in the world.
Take a second to image what the market scene must have been like in say, the middle of the Ottoman empire. Then take a look at the artwork of the game box and the game boards included within it, they give you a glimpse of what it must have been like!
A Wheelbarrow…And a Bunch of Assistants!
Enough of the history rhetoric, let’s get on with the game. Istanbul is a board game with sixteen small boards, each representing locations in the grand bazaar (market).These boards can be placed in a preset manner for an easy, or expert game, or be shuffled and placed out in a totally random, chaotic order.
At each board, or location, you can carry out a specific action, which let’s you either secures goods, sells goods for money, trades goods to increase your wheelbarrow size or acquires a ruby as a result of the above. There are other options too, but we will talk a little about them latter.
The main premise of the game, is that you are a merchant who has four assistants and a wheelbarrow. You dash around the market, making deals and increase your wheelbarrow size. Your ultimate goal,to be the first to collect five rubies! At its core, Istanbul is a worker placement game but it feels like a race game too!
Worker Placement… So What’s So different about This One!!
I know what you are thinking, another worker placement game. I play the occasional worker placement game with the hope, that it is the only one I am going to play that session. A full gaming session of worker placement games makes my soul weep.
The gaming mechanic that sets the Istanbul board game apart from other games and what probably was the deciding factor in the judges mind, was the assistant worker placement. You are the Merchant with assistants, this is represented as a stack of discs. Each turn you can move up to two locations, on one of the locations you can take an action, be it buying or trading.
Since you can only do one action per turn, you try and make this count and to do that, you leave an assistant at the location.Assistants stay behind and arrange the transactions. Next turn you move again and leave another assistant behind to resolve the next trade. This carries on until you have no assistants left. At this point you need to return to the fountain tile and use the action there which returns all of your assistantsand you start again.
Fast, Fun….Yes, It Really Does Live Up to the Billing!!
With only one action per turn, the game is quick. There isn’t too much thinking in between turns, usually you will have planned your route of trades and will pursue that course. If another merchant is on a tile, you cannot land on it until he moves off of it, so timing is important. There are fun tiles too, like the smuggler, who you can send anywhere on the board to do your trading, except for buying a ruby. Although the Smuggler is very powerful, there is a down side;when another merchant lands on that tile, he sends the smuggler back and takes four gold from your purse.
As well as the Smuggler, there’s also a gambling house, where you roll a dice to gain extra goods and money. There’s even a tile that enables you to trade for extra bonus cards, in addition to those you get at the start of the game. These bonus cards can give you extra movement or trading bonuses throughout the game.
The wheelbarrow, in which you store your purchases, is of a certain size to start and can only carry a limited amount of goods and, more importantly, rubies. You are going to have to increase its capacity, at some point in the game, to get that fifth ruby!To do this you are going to have to collect goods and trade them for a tile that you add to your wheelbarrow board.
Now the race element is enhanced by the simple fact that, if you are the first person to buy a wheelbarrow tile, you get it cheaper than everyone else, this is the case in buying the first ruby at the jeweller, etc. etc. Each time an item is bought, the next in line is always more expensive. Leave it too late in the game and you could be paying a fortune to get that ruby that you need to win. It all adds a fanatic pace to the game, as each merchant schemes for that last ruby. In fact there’s a fair amount of back-stabbing and blocking that comes into play during a game of Istnabul!
So What’s the Verdict…On the Kennerspeil Des Jahres Award!!
This is a difficult one actually! Firstly, when you weigh up the games that were in contention and the ones that were nominated, it just makes you grimace. Then there were the games that weren’t included, such as Madeira and Francis Drake. With that in mind, you could be forgiven If you thought that the expert gamer wasn’t really considered in this award.
Of all the games that have been mentioned,there are a quite a few which have better gameplay and have much better production values! Games that will become classics in time, but none of them are as easy to learn and play as Istanbul.
Istanbul’s production values are above average, the game can be learned in less and half an hour, it can be taught in about five minutes flat and played in less than an hour. It is fun, fast and can cause some pondering towards the final stages of the game.
Following on from past Winners…
I think that Istanbul won the award for the same reason 7 Wonders was chosen over Lancaster and Strasbourg, and that Legends of Andor was given the award, over the fantastic Terra mystic and the wonderful Bruges. That reason… that some of us just don’t have the spare hours needed to learn complex rulebooks or decipher badly written explanations.
For a game that is going to have wide audience appeal as an expert gamers-game, or a gateway game for introducing people into the hobby, then Istanbul is probably the deserved winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2014 award.
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Paul Matthews is a Sales Manager for Gamesquest Ltd, as well as a part-time Board game Demonstrator and Blogger. After several years playing Yu-gi-oh at Tournament level, his latest passion is all things board gaming. Besides playing board games, Paul is a part time author and enjoys reading and archery. Paul has a Degree in Humanities Psychology/Counselling and several Life-skill Degrees in Parenting, Horse Management and Ecommerce.