Istanbul occupies a special place on my gaming shelf – It’s one of those games that I never say “no” to playing. I don’t care how I’m doing, I don’t care how long the game takes, I simply love playing it! This is not to say that Istanbul is my favourite game – and you’re going to have to wait until I’m pressured into a top ten list to find out what that is! I don’t know what it is about Istanbul that engenders such passion, and I don’t need to know. I just know. For those that haven’t seen it, Paul wrote an excellent review shortly after the game won the Kennerspiel des Jahres title in 2014, and it’s definitely worth a read. October saw the release of the second expansion to Istanbul; Istanbul: Brief and Siegel (or Letters and Seals, to those who want the English translation!).
Before I cover the new expansion, however, I have a confession to make. I hated the first expansion to Istanbul. In my humble opinion, Istanbul: Mocha & Baksheesh was (this is a critical word, as we will see later in this review) an expansion that took a game I love playing and…just broke it. That was the feeling that I got while playing. I felt like I was playing a different game, and I didn’t like what i was playing. At all. So it was that with no small amount of trepidation I took Istanbul: Brief and Siegel to a friend’s for investigation. Would I like it (and I was really hoping i would)? Or would it be consigned to a pile that I rarely consider even creating…the “burn it” pile!
Sales are dwindling in the Bazaar – We need to earn some extra money!
The premise of Istanbul: Brief and Siegel is simple, but effective. In order to make a greater profit (surely the aim of any good merchant!), you will now courier messages around the bazaar, gaining seals for delivering letters to the right places. An undelivered letter is worth only one seal, while a delivered letter is worth two. You can get two letters from the Embassy, one letter from the Kiosk, or you can buy a letter from the Courier. Several seals can be redeemed for a gem, or to take another turn. To help you in this mission of profit making, you have enlisted the assistance of a companion; another merchant in your ‘family’ who can act by himself, but a little slower than your main merchant and his band of assistants.
Istanbul: Brief and Siegel – what’s in the box??
Istanbul: Brief and Siegel contains a wealth of components to support the new mechanics;
Spot the difference! Components from both the base and expansion!
- five new locations (one only for use in the “Grand Bazaar” variant, combining both Istanbul: Mocha and Backsheesh, and Istanbul: Brief and Siegel with the base game);
- new wooden components representing each merchant’s companion, and a new encounter, the Courier. Naturally there is also a sticker sheet as in the base game, so that the new markers can be decorated with the face of your merchant.
- a new set of Bonus cards, that can combine with or replace the cards from the base game;
- Kiosk tiles and Letter tiles (more on these later);
- a few more rubies to add to the pool in the base game;
- a Bonus card overview sheet listing all cards from the base game, Mocha & Baksheesh, and Brief and Siegel.
I’m going to pause here to comment on the quality of the expansion components. Regardless of the theme of a game, one thing that really grates with me is when an expansion stands out from the base game it is expanding. By this I mean that you can see, easily, which are expansion components. Cards slightly different sizes, colour palettes slightly off, component material or quality differences, that sort of thing. There are no such problems with Istanbul: Brief and Seigel! All of the tiles, cards, and components match the base game. Exactly. If it weren’t for the jump in tile numbering (I have 1-16 from the base, and 21-25 from Brief and Siegel) I would be hard pressed to pick out the different components (ignoring the little symbol on the bonus cards that mean you can separate the game if need be).
The Bazaar has been closed for expansion – time to explore the new spaces!
In Brief and Siegel, the bazaar has been expanded to either twenty locations (base game and Istanbul: Brief and Siegel) or 25 (Base, Istanbul: Mocka and Backsheesh, and Istanbul: Brief and Siegel – collectively, also known as the Grand Bazaar variant). I’ll focus on the former setup, for the moment. The new locations are the Embassy, the Kiosk, the Auction House, and the Secret Society. There is also the Catacombs for the Grand Bazaar.
The new locations included in the expansion
At the embassy, you can collect two letters for delivery; these go in your personal supply until you deliver them to the correct place.
At the Kiosk, you can take one letter for your personal supply, and also turn over tiles equal to the number of players plus one. You get first choice of the tiles on offer, and then each other player gets a choice of a tile. After all players have chosen a tile, you get the last one. Taking a tile provides actions such as gaining a good and some money, gaining two goods, taking bonus cards, and other such bonuses, so consider how much you want to risk helping the competition before you visit!
The Auction house gives you one good of your choice. You then begin an auction for two bonus cards. You must bid at least one lira, and then each other player gets to bid. You get a final bid, where you can choose to bid higher than the current bid, or pass. The winner of the auction gets the bonus cards (well it is an auction after all!) If you win your own auction, the money goes to the general supply. However, if you choose to let someone else win, you get the money from the auction!
The Secret Society allows you to take a ruby, from either the Sultan’s Palace, the Gemstone Dealer, or the Coffee House if it is in play. In payment, you have to discard letters showing a total of six seals. As an added bonus, the first player to accomplish this takes three Lira, the second gets two Lira, and the third gets one Lira. The fourth, and subsequent players, only receive the ruby, and no additional reward.
Finally, the Catacombs gives you a good of your choice, and you may then move your merchant stack to any location. You don’t get to perform that location’s action or have any encounters, however this can stand you in great stead for the next turn; The Catacombs are only used in the Grant Bazaar variant, where all 25 tiles are in play, so being able to move to anywhere on the board is a serious shortcut!
Your family has expanded – another budding merchant has joined your team!
The Green player has several options here – their merchant stack can move up to two spaces, so can reach anywhere on the left-hand side of the board except the Caravanssary. However they can also move their companion to the warehouse, mosque, or sultan’s palace.
As well as the new tiles, Istanbul: Brief and Siegel provides a new option when it comes to movement. Your companion comes into play the first time you use the Fountain space to recall your assistants; he sits in your personal supply until you deploy him to a tile. Deployment happens at the beginning of your turn, and costs nothing. After your assistant is deployed, you can choose to move your merchant stack or your companion. Your companion can only move one space, and works alone, without the need for assistants. When you return to the Fountain, you can choose whether to return your companion to your supply, or leave him on the board.
Unlike your other family member (the ne’er-do-well who starts the game at the police station) the companion counts for interactions – he can trade with the Governor, Smuggler, Coffee-seller and Courier, and also counts as a merchant piece when moving between squares – so if you leave your companion on a popular space, people will have to pay you to land there!
An added bonus? Added Bonus cards!
Istanbul: Brief and Siegel also contains a new deck of Bonus cards. In a similar vein to the base game, the new Bonus cards provide goods, special effects, and additional income. You can choose to use the new deck of cards, or the old deck, or combine both into a single large deck. Given my experience with playing the base Istanbul, you rarely get through the entire deck, so combining both will likely just leave a larger pile of unused bonus cards, but the variation will make things more difficult to predict the cards that will come up.
Love or Hate? What’s the verdict?
So, as I mentioned before, I seriously disliked the first expansion to Istanbul. The intricacies of movement, planning your turns to the best effect, and the consequences for getting these wrong were all lost with the guild upgrades, and the Coffee aspect seemed a little unbalanced – you can buy coffee cheaply and sell it for a decent profit with minimal work involved. I’m pleased to say that Istanbul: Brief and Siegel is, to me, a much better balanced expansion – the addition of the Companion provides some interesting options on your turn. The letters provide reasons to venture to the less ‘popular’ spaces on the board, and provide a further method of winning the game through collecting a delivering them quickly.
Most importantly to me, I’m actually interested in playing the Grand Bazaar variant, and seeing if the things I disliked in Mocha and Backsheesh have been fixed, or at least mitigated with the larger board!
Istanbul: Brief and Siegel, therefore, is a worthy and welcome addition to my gaming shelf, and future games of Istanbul! Given that I’m thinking of picking up an expansion that I previously disliked, I’d have to rate this as an 8-out-of-10! If you have Istanbul, I’d say it’s a must-have!
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