Like Monster Couch and Nomad Games, Acram Digital have taken it upon themselves to bring popular board games to the digital space. Having tackled classics like Catan and Concordia, their next stop has taken them to Istanbul.
As a board game fan, Istanbul has been in my blind spot. I’d heard about it and even had it recommended to me, but never got round to playing it. The Xbox release seemed like a good time to unbox and play.
But it’s in the opening moments when Istanbul: Digital Edition is at its weakest. A tutorial leaves so fast that it barely registers, while an optional Guided Tour of the cards means nothing, as the information has no context. A post office does what now? It’s possible to get additional information on each card, but it’s clumsy with a controller: the UI isn’t clear about what it’s highlighting, and it’s got a dogged determination to never move to the icon you want.
This is so fatal because Istanbul: Digital Edition is far from simple. It’s a game that revels in icons rather than text, and the icons aren’t clear enough: not only are they small when viewing the full game map, but they don’t quite feel consistent. Does the icon mean I have to have certain resources, or can I still get a benefit without them? Things like this are initially unclear.
We’ve deliberately not outlined the point of the game, so you can understand the confusion of what it’s like to first play Istanbul: Digital Edition. But scramble over this wall, and you will be confronted by a title that – while lacking a little in variety – is a concise, clever little worker placement game,
Istanbul: Digital Edition is about gathering five rubies before the other players do. But those rubies don’t come easily; you might need to hand over piles and piles of cash for them, or swap them for resources.
All of this takes place on a four-by-four grid of locations. You and the other players start on a Fountain location, and you can move two cards in any direction, outside of the diagonals. Landing on a location triggers its effect, which comes in a few flavours.
There are locations that hand you resources or coins, so you’re stepping on them with your hand out, expecting to be paid. There are locations where you are purchasing things, rubies included, either with cash or resources: warehouses can be used to buy perks like the ability to reroll dice, for example, and getting a set of these perks unlocks a ruby. And then there are locations with very specific and varied effects, like drawing cards or freeing a family member from prison.
This leads to a constant management of resources, as you decide when to stockpile or when to spend. But each game would be incredibly similar to another if it wasn’t for a couple of fantastic mechanics. Istanbul: Digital Edition only gives you a certain number of workers, and they get left behind on every location you land on. Run out, and you can’t trigger any effects, so you either want to return to previous locations so that your workers can hitchhike on your back, or return to the Fountain to recover them all at the cost of a turn.
It doesn’t sound like much, but this mechanic raises Istanbul: Digital Edition up from the doldrums to something verging on special. Often, you are creating a network of workers that can easily be used as stepping stones to reach far-flung parts of the board. In board games, you are rarely rewarded for retreating, but Istanbul: Digital Edition makes backtracking fun.
The other wrinkle that makes Istanbul: Digital Edition tick is a series of characters that wander the streets. They offer benefits like resource trading and card pickups, but you have to be on their square. Since they move randomly, it adds an extra layer of strategy. Do you move to the square that you planned to move to, or do you pivot and go for the wandering trader?
But even with these random elements, there is a nagging feeling that Istanbul: Digital Edition isn’t changing enough from one game to another. A bit like chess, we found ourselves making the same opening gambits, just because they worked for us. But playing the same moves isn’t fun: it instead shines a light on the lack of randomness and surprise in the game. Not enough was happening to make us deviate from our plans, and that has a slightly repetitious effect on games of Istanbul.
It’s also a bit clunky as a console port goes. It’s not hot on legibility, as we’ve mentioned, but it can also be a struggle to do simple things like use cards, discard a resource or activate an optional effect. These are occasionally mapped to odd buttons (the direction pad gets a workout here), and the UI highlighting just isn’t clear enough. We found ourselves creeping to the TV to try to tap the button we wanted. It’s so clearly been made for touch screens.
Istanbul: Digital Edition is scrappy. It’s a slightly half-hearted port of a portable game, and a lack of console optimisation can occasionally make it feel like picking up M&Ms with chopsticks. The source material, the board game, also suffers from a lack of variety, so the problems don’t only lie with the port.
But there is a reason why Istanbul is so celebrated. Once you’ve learned the value of each of its locations – and the tutorial won’t help you with that information – then things click, and you will feel eventually pull off some sensational plays. Saving up enough gold to buy a ruby, or blocking another player from making a move can be exhilarating, and that’s not something you can often say about a board game port.
You can buy Istanbul: Digital Edition from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S