Three Ring Circus: Oriental Express

The good people of Germany declared Istanbul their favourite strategy game of 2014 ,(Kennerspiel Des Jahres).  When it comes to matters cardboard, their judgement is pretty sound and so I decided to pick up a copy.

The premise of Istanbul is that you are a merchant, with four trusty assistants, trading your way through the streets of the city.  “Trading, in the Mediterranean! Haven’t I seen that before?” I hear you cry and also your mutters, “Actually Istanbul isn’t even in the Med.  Why is he putting words in my mouth?” 

The box art also promises little.  The standard European marketing ploy of ‘putting a chap on the cover’ is used to full effect here:  a merchant displays his collection of rubies while welcoming you into his world or carpets, fruit and spices.  Despite those cosmetic reservations, Istanbul turns out to be a game of great pace and tension.

He will crush your rubies…


The game is published by Pegasus Spiele in Europe. It plays in around 45 minutes and offers fun for 2 to 5 players.


The components are all of a good standard: made either of wood or thick cardboard. Oh, and there are the rubies themselves, glowing red plastic chunks, that look good on the table.  Also of note are the rules, which are clear and concise.  There is no insert in the game and I think that is a case of ‘could do better’.


The board is made of 16 generously sized, (and beautifully illustrated), tiles that are laid out in a 4 x 4 grid to form the city.  There is a little bit of set up involved in placing rubies, hand-barrow parts, (of which more later), and tiles in the mosques and market places, but experienced hands working together will be ready to play in 5 minutes.

The board is lush with colours and components.

Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby

The game is a race to get to 5 rubies.  Some rubies can be bought, others are earned.  Getting them means pounding the streets, and using the mosques, markets and other locations to pick up and deliver your way to success.

You start the game with four assistants and a half sized wheelbarrow to store your wares.

Warehouses allow you load up your barrow to the max with carpets, spices and fruit. Markets convert your goods into cash,  mosques offer power ups in exchange for gifts.  These power ups are really useful, offering a fifth assistant, dice bending powers and the option to buy goods or return an assistant to you.  It’s a first-come cheapest cost situation with the bonus tiles.  Making a grab for these can pay off in the long run and importantly, picking up both tiles from a mosque gets you a bonus ruby.

The carter will enlarge your barrow for cash, (and who wouldn’t want that), while the Palace and Gem Dealer will give you rubies for goods or money.  If you are feeling lucky, a bit of gambling is allowed down at the tea shop and the black market.

My cart runneth over: a wheelbarrow with two extensions fitted.

At the Istanbul police station, you will find the black sheep of your family waiting to be bailed out to act as a bonus assistant who can immediately  make it to anywhere on the board.

Finally, the fountain in the market square allows you to recall all your assistants from where you dropped them off. If you don’t have assistants you can’t take any actions and that is a bad thing.

On your turn you:

  • Move your merchant, with the stack of assistants beneath him, one or two spaces.
  • Drop off an assistant or pick one up.
  • Take the action of the location.

There are a couple of other possibilities:

  • Pay 2 Lira to a player if their merchant is already there.
  • Use the Governor or Smuggler for bonuses if they are on the location.

That is how the game works: simple actions making for simple turns.  The complexity is in how you do it: the routes you plot and the decisions you make.

Playing with Three

I’ve played this game with two, three and four players.  All player counts were fun, but it could be that three is the magic number.  With three there is some interaction and your turn comes around soon enough.  Upping the player count increases the challenge slightly, as more locations are blocked

How easy is it to teach the game?

The basic, ‘move one or two squares and drop off/pick up’ mechanic is supremely simple.  The complexity comes with all the tiles having an action, which need to be explained.  After one game, anyone should be up to speed.

Can complexity be scaled?

The game comes with a suggested starting layout, which should make the game more streamlined.  Once you have gone past that first game, there is a long route and a challenging layout, as well as rules for creating random ones.

For two to four players white assistants can be added.  They can be used by anyone and add a little to the game too.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

This is a tough one.  Giving someone a gem start could well be too much.  Allowing additional starting Lira or another bonus card is probably a better approach.  In fact I think I may well try this in the next game I play.  Edit: My son got a one Lira starting bonus and romped to a win.  He was happy and that makes me happy too.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

We have been close to this twice.  As the game gets towards the finish, it is possible to work out how many turns it is going to take you to reach your final gem and, thus, how likely you are to win.  The game is tight and frustration at losing does not compensate for the exhilarating experience of a close race, (apparently).

Beyond the game

My son and I are great fans of They Might Be Giants, my wife less so.  Repeat playing of Istanbul, (the game), while repeat playing Istanbul, (the song), is inadvisable.  Incidentally, I own another version of the song by Ska Cubana which is good, but not quite good enough.

What do I think?

A lot of games I have been playing lately have very tight finishes, where the difference between winning and losing can be just one turn.  Istanbul is no different. Games finish when a player gains their 5th ruby, but everyone gets to plays out their final round of turns.  This means that last gasp ruby grabs, can leave the player activating the end game staring down the barrel of a tie-break loss.  With a few games under your belt, you soon begin to realise that being short by a Lira or a rug on a turn can make all the difference.

This is the nub of the game: it’s an efficiency race of routes and resources, with multiple paths to victory. You may be only moving one or two squares each time with a single transaction, but in your head, you will be playing multiple turns ahead and calculating cash and goods ins and outs, like a stock controller on a three day caffeine binge.  What will my stock holding be in three turns time?  Can I pick up a ruby and an assistant at the same time?  If I go to the mosque will someone have gone before me and pushed up the cost of the Mosque tiles? I have come to recognise this as the type of play style that works for me.  I’m going to define it as agonising micro decisions.

But, but, and indeed, but:- don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an agonising game.  Its a fun game! Those micro decisions can be made while you are waiting for your turn.  There may be pauses now and again, when the decision tree needs pruning but, in the main, the game will pass like a time lapse movie.

This is a game that hits my family-play-time-sweet-spot because it plays in under an hour.  It doesn’t have complicated rules and doesn’t rely on an optimum player count.  It’s a keeper for me and I recommend it.

Look out for the smuggler by the fountain.


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