As interest in board games continues to rise, so too does the interest in exploring new ways of playing those games. One such way is through digital ‘ports’ of those games – translating them PCs, consoles, phones, and tablets.
While digital versions may not exactly replace the feeling of a physical board game, many add subtle tweaks that such as for solo play, campaign modes, online competition, or simply as a more portable way to enjoy the game. This is new territory to explore. Welcome, to the Pixel Provinces.
Since 2014, Rüdiger Dorn’s award-winning game Istanbul has collected fans as quickly as its players collect rubies. Will its digital adaptation be a similar smash hit?
In Istanbul, you play as a merchant leading your group of assistants through different bazaar locations. Each location has a unique action that you can activate by dropping off or picking up one of your assistants. While exploring the bazaar you can gather goods, gain additional abilities, and buy and sell goods or cards, all in the pursuit of collecting rubies. There are many routes to collecting rubies throughout the bazaar, but the challenge comes with planning the most beneficial route for your merchant to take without running out of assistants. You must also remain conscious of where other players are sending their merchants and family members, as you receive or provide benefits to them if you visit a location they’re on. Once a player collects five rubies, the game is over and the player with the most rubies is the winner.
When you start your first game after downloading the app, you get the option of playing through the tutorial or beginning a game without viewing it. Going through the tutorial almost seems like a necessity for both new and experienced Istanbul players, as its in-depth walkthrough of the game is very valuable.
Istanbul had to be seriously condensed to fit on a small screen, and the app can be confusing to experienced players who aren’t familiar with the new layout. Reading or playing through the tutorial is crucial to understanding the altered presentation of location abilities and for discovering how various aspects of the game, such as bonus cards and mosque abilities, are accessed. I personally find going through a game’s tutorial beneficial usually, even if I’m already familiar with how to play the original game, as it acclimates me to the app flow and layout quickly, and sometimes even points out small rules that I’d previously overlooked in the physical game or have been changed somehow in its adaptation. Istanbul’s tutorial is not an exception to this practice, and guidance is very helpful.
For a new player, the interactive tutorial will seem sparse, but it explains the core concepts of the game well. It doesn’t explore many of the game’s more intricate or subtle rules, but the written tutorial provides all the details you need to understand how to play, even including gameplay tips for new players. Although these written rules are somewhat dense, the details are useful for those looking for pinpoint clarifications, and the navigation menu makes finding the relevant sections a breeze.
The developers of Istanbul have taken great care in building an app that is catered towards giving their players a solid experience. Additions that may seem small, like a colorblind mode and varied board set ups, build on each other to give you the feeling that your experience is top priority.
The inclusion of variable board setups are an excellent if sometimes overlooked aspect from the physical game, each of which is tailored towards a different player experience. There are four board layouts that you can choose from when setting up a game: short paths, long paths, random, and in order. The short paths and in order options are built for newer players as they shorten the distances between locations that synergize well together, making it easier to plan out efficient routes. The long paths and random options are built for more experienced players as they separate such locations out, forcing you to plan your moves more carefully over a longer period of time.
Istanbul comes with standard offline and online modes. With offline games you have the option to pass and play with friends or compete against AI players that come in three levels of difficulty – easy, medium, and hard. The AI itself is decent, though waiting for AI players to go through their turn animations can draw out the downtime between turns a fair amount. Luckily, however, you can toggle off their animations in the settings to speed up the game.
Online games come in the form of either asynchronous or synchronous formats. Synchronous games operate on a tight time limit of three minutes per turn, while asynchronous games allow for a max of 48 hours between turns, with the ability to send you notifications once it’s your turn. Both asynchronous and synchronous games also have a safeguard in place for when players aren’t timely with their turns or leave the game: once a player becomes inactive, you are given the choice of removing their pieces off the board entirely or replacing them with a hard AI player so you can continue with the same amount of players. This ensures that dropped players in Istanbul don’t make for wasted effort on your part and is always a welcomed feature in digital games.
Online games also come with a private setting where you can set a game room password so only invited players will be able to join.
The online player lobby unfortunately isn’t highly populated with anonymous games, though there are always a few private games running at once. So if you’re looking for a quick match up with unfamiliar players, the online mode might not be the best option.
Istanbul was majorly condensed to fit all its information onto a small screen, and that’s a factor you’re conscious of throughout each playthrough. The game relies heavily on iconography to describe each place’s action, and the screen is brimming with a sometimes overwhelming amount of iconography because of the small space allotment. It alleviates this problem some by highlighting the available actions you can take so you aren’t focusing on locations that won’t matter to you on that turn, in addition to giving each location an info button that explains its respective action in detail.
The tutorial and location info buttons are helpful during your first few games since the presentation of some actions have been slightly altered from the physical game. You can also periodically find prompts for what bonus cards or mosque abilities will be helpful on your turn at the bottom of the screen, helping guide you along if you’re stuck. There is also an undo button that you can use on each step of your turn, which will be cherished by new and experienced players alike as it’s easy to slip up on smaller screens while planning out your turns. However, this undo option doesn’t apply to actions that have random effects, such as rolling a die or drawing a random bonus card.
Overall, Istanbul is a reliable and effective port of its physical version. While the presentation of game information may seem overwhelming at first, it gets easier to navigate once you become accustomed to the game’s layout and flow. While the online lobbies aren’t regularly bustling with activity, the AI players offset this by providing an engaging challenge while waiting for a game to open. This app doesn’t go over the top with bells and whistles or extravagant features, instead letting the game stand on its own merit. Indeed, Istanbul provides plenty of routes for enjoying the same complex decision making and strategy that made its physical predecessor so beloved.
Istanbul is available on these platforms:
Sara Perry is a contributing writer and aspiring game designer with a love for games both physical and digital. Also cats. She can be best reached via Twitter.
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