Letters and Seals is the latest expansion to Istanbul. If you’d like to read my reviews of the Istanbul base game and its first expansion, Mocha and Baksheesh, click the corresponding links. Letters and Seals adds a new mail delivery aspect to the game, which can be utilized in a variety of ways. This new gameplay adds more variety to the base game and makes it less competitive to reach certain locations first and also allows for more options to obtain rubies. The first player to obtain 6 rubies (regardless of number of players) is declared the winner.
BoardGameInnovation.com offers clear, plastic overlays for the base game as well as the Mocha and Baksheesh expansion, but at the time of this blog post (January 2, 2017) does not offer them for Letters and Seals. The overlays sit atop the player and location cards to keep cubes and rubies in place, which makes for a nicer experience.
The Letters and Seals expansion includes 5 Companions (one of each color), 36 Letter Tiles, 10 Extra Rubies, 28 New Bonus Cards, 24 Kiosk Tiles, a Courier, and the Embassy, Secret Society, Auction House, Kiosk, and Catacombs location cards. The Catacombs are only used if you’re playing with the Mocha and Baksheesh expansion in addition to Letters and Seals. The Catacombs let you travel to another location, which is helpful when the playing field becomes so large.
The Embassy allows you to take 2 Letter tokens, which are then flipped to the front side. The fronts of the Letter tokens display a number that corresponds to a location card and 1 Seal. When that player visits the corresponding numbered location, the Letter token is considered “delivered” and flipped over, thus revealing 2 Seals.
The Secret Society location allows you to trade in 6 Seals in exchange for a ruby from the Sultan’s Palace or Gemstone Dealer, as well as 3, 2, 1, or 0 Lira depending when you utilize the location. At the end of your turn, you can also choose to trade in 3 Seals in exchange for an additional move/turn.
The Auction House allows you to choose a resource of your choice and then you must bid at least 1 Lira for 2 Bonus Cards. Every other player then has the option to outbid the initial bid and then the original bidder has the option to place a final bid. The winner then takes 2 Bonus Cards from the stack. You can choose to mix all of the Bonus Cards together or just use the Letters and Seals stack.
Visiting the Kiosk allows you to draw 2 Kiosk Tiles plus an additional tile per player in the game. You then choose which tile you want to keep, pass the remainder to the next player who chooses a tile, and so forth until only one tile remains and is discarded. Kiosk Tiles offer a variety of bonuses much like the Bonus Cards.
When you take the Fountain location action for the first time, your new Companion joins you. The Companion doesn’t require assistants to take location actions, but they can only move 1 space at a time. If you encounter the new Courier token, you can pay 2 Lira to draw a Letter token or trade in a current letter token.
I did enjoy having the extra options of the Letters and Seals expansion, but combined with the Mocha and Baksheesh expansion, it’s a little overwhelming to keep track of all of the options available. Trying to collect bags of coffee, letters, keep track of places you’ve visited to deliver the letters, trading in seals, all while collecting other goods and expanding your wheelbarrow is a bit much to keep track of and developing a sound strategy can be difficult. At some point, you either stick to basic actions or just take random chances to see how many rubies you can obtain.
The quality of the components is equal to those of the base game. They’re made of nice, heavy cardboard and the wooden pieces are light, but don’t feel cheap. Unfortunately, I discarded the box to the base game in exchange for a wooden box to it in, so the 2 expansions do not fit. I purchased a larger, wooden box from a local craft store, stained it, lined with felt and labelled it to store all of the components from the base game and both expansions. However, I’ve been told that everything will indeed fit into the base game box if you have yours handy.
Overall, I really enjoy the Letters and Seals expansion, but would prefer to play either with just the base game, base game and Letters and Seals, or base game and Mocha and Baksheesh expansion. Combining all three of them together is too much to keep track of and can make the game unnecessarily long. If I had to choose just one expansion, I’d probably choose Letters and Seals, but both expansions have their merits and are worth checking out.