Wow! Letters and Seals is a terrific expansion to Istanbul. It falls in that perfect zone of replayability where it doesn’t diminish from the replay value of the original (as compared to some expansions which are so much better they virtually take over the original game) and other expansions that are only so-so (where you only play the expansion because you invested the money to buy it). It adds some really fun dynamics to an already very solid game. Here are the added components and my thoughts on each:
As the name implies, the expansion revolves around letters and the wax seals on these letters. Side note: Am I the only one out there who thinks that wax seals are mesmerizing and fascinating? I am kind of obsessed with them (though I’ve never actually made one or seen one in real life). =-) Now, these letters have a very fun worker placement dynamic. When you get a letter, it gives you one seal and a number of a tile on the game board. When you place a piece on that tile, you have successfully delivered the letter to the desired recipient and can flip over the letter which now shows two seals instead of just one. You’ll discover the value of doing this down below.
The Companion is my favorite component of this entire expansion! I lean heavily on my Companion and think of him/her as just that: a companion to do my bidding when and how I want. Now, don’t worry, I don’t at all view my real-life companion in the same way! (Love you, sweetie!) =-) Essentially, at a certain point in the game, you can “activate” your companion and place him with you on your tile. He then can move one space in place of your Merchant and take the action on that tile. As space, movement, and tile access are major strategic components of Istanbul, this really opens up the entire board for thoughtful and planned use of tiles.
I did get other players a bit frustrated with me when I camped my Companion out near the Tea House as an immediate source of revenue stream whenever I needed it. It worked well for me, though!
Four New Tiles
- Secret Society – This is where you cash in on the letters and seals you’ve collected. Turn in six seals to collect a prized ruby (and get some money if you’re one of the first three!).
- Kiosk – Everyone loves the Kiosk! The player who lands there takes a letter and draws kiosk tiles equal to the number of players plus one. Kiosk tiles offer some sort of benefit similar to normal cards but with some really cool enhancements (like turning in one of each good for a wheelbarrow extension!). After the player chooses one, the next player chooses and so on until the starting player gets the last. This space is very beneficial to the player who goes there who receives a letter, two kiosk tiles, and a bunch of love from the other players.
- Auction House – The Auction House is awesome! All you do is take a good of your choice then auction off two cards! Start your opening bid and around you go until the highest bidder gets two cards. I found this tile more valuable earlier in the game when money is scarce. I’ve seen the starting player get two cards for a single coin several times. It’s a really fun tile later in the game when two cards go for lots of money!
- Embassy – Simply gives you two letters. Very valuable if you are pushing letters/seals hard.
The Courier piece functions just the same as the Governor and Smuggler except you get a letter instead of a card or good.
My only knock on this expansion is that it can get a bit confusing remembering the differences between your Merchant, Assistant, Family Member, and the new Companion, particularly how they relate to and interact with each other (e.g., Who needs to pay who and how much? Who can return the Family Member? Who can “activate” a letter?). After a few times playing, this was no longer an issue, but it is a bit of a learning curve for new players to the game.
I love Letters and Seals. It is perfectly balanced and adds a lot of value to the original game. As with most games, I would recommend playing the original at least a couple of times before trying the expansion. I also found that while there is a lot going on at the same time, it wasn’t difficult to keep track of it all. Because of the increased amount of pieces on the board, there is also more money flow (which I like!).
Here’s a link to my original Istanbul review. Keep an eye out for an upcoming review of the Mocha and Baksheesh expansion!
Disclaimer: I received this game for free in exchange for my review, but believe me, I post authentic reviews every time and will be brazenly blunt if needs be.