It’s the mid 16th century! The beginning of a golden age of interior decorating in Western Europe. Recently returned from a tour of Alhambra’s finely decorated palaces, King Manuel I of Portugal has some exciting ideas for revitalising his palace. Using colourful Azulejos – the distinctive Spanish/Portuguese tiles well known for their bright and patterned look, the King desires a bathroom that will be the envy of his court, and the world!
2-4 Players| 30-45 Minutes| Designed by Michael Kiesling
In Azul, players take on the role of distinguished bathroom tilers, each vying to secure the contract to renovate King Manuel’s palace bathrooms (and maybe kitchens!) by competing to create the most complete tile demo wall within the time given by the king. Ok, let me be straight with you – Azul is very much an abstract tile placement game. King Manuel and his palace are hardly important to the game or this review. The important thing that the theme brings to the game is an amazing draw for gamers and new players via an eye catching table presence. Azul aims to provide a mass market, entry level gaming experience and is a strong member of the set of new, modern games looking to topple titles like Monopoly, Cluedo, Trouble and the like as the evergreen icons of boardgaming.
How does it work?
In Azul, players will draft and place tiles on their player board, earning points during each end of round scoring phase as well as gaining points at the end of the game for a few bonuses. Each round begins with a number of factories in a circle (varies with player count) being setup with four randomly drawn tiles each.
Starting with the first player, each player in turn will choose a factory to take tiles from. The player takes all of a single colour from that factory and moves the rest of the tiles into a pool in the middle. Players then allocate the tiles to a single row on their player board. After the first turn of the round, players may alternately take tiles from the pool of leftovers in the middle.
Once all the tiles available that round have been taken, each player scores their bathroom, moving tiles from completed rows across to their wall and getting points for making rows and columns of placed tiles. The game finishes at the end of the round that a player first fills a row, meaning the game will last at least 5 rounds (typically the game is 5-6 rounds).
What do I think?
I’ve played Azul at all player counts, and I’ve played it lots of times with 4 players. The gameplay, group meta, and strategies have visibly evolved during these plays. Becoming more familiar with the mechanics and how actions affect yourself and other players plays a big role in how players behave and how the game is played by the group. I’m impressed that after so many plays Azul is still a compelling draw for me, and with its simple rules it is no problem to break out and teach some new players the game.
The Good Stuff
- Azul has a simple rule set, with gameplay increasing in scope and complexity as you play the game more (as you grow your understanding, more strategies reveal themselves).
- The variant gameplay option (the reverse board side) presents a new interesting challenge for seasoned players.
- Despite there being little to no variability between games (the only randomness is tile draws and they don’t significantly affect strategy), each game feels fresh and interesting. Player actions have a significant effect on how the round plays out so there is no rote strategy.
- For an abstract strategy game, the theme is strong and the vibrant components draw in players.
- Sessions are surprisingly vocal for an abstract strategy game. There is almost always multiple people eyeing off sets of tiles and so there is generally a lot of commentary regarding stolen pieces.
- Scoring is straight forward, I’ve rarely been required to re-iterate how it works after the first round.
The Bad Stuff
- For new players, it can take a few games to figure out how to optimise scoring. This means that without detailed strategy advice (which takes the fun out of discovering the game) a new player will need a few games to ‘catch up’. For groups that cycle through a lot of games this could be an issue (other games that don’t suffer from this are likely to be enjoyed more by new players).
- Initially drawing tiles from the bag is fun but it quickly becomes tedious. I think some sort of Pez dispenser style solution could be developed.
- It rarely makes sense for games to last more than 5 rounds, when they do, it usually just allows the leading player to get further ahead. This is sort of an engine building problem – it may seem to each player it is in their best interest to let the game continue (get more points). However often the player with the strongest ‘engine’ will gain the most points and increase their lead. I think if the bonus points for making a row was greater (it’s only 2 points) then the players would be more motivated to end the game as it could help them win.
- Deep / advanced strategy becomes highly obvious, and is very player interdependent. With several experienced players the game becomes quite mechanical, there are less and less meaningful decisions to make. As you become more experienced you can see there is a ‘best move’ to make. If this move is a block, and all players are rational, it will be left to the last player who can do it and so a lot of the time you are forced to play a sub-optimal (for you) turn in order to block other players. Counter to this negative – play speeds up as decisions become more obvious, making for a smooth game.
- The Joker Promo – it makes the game worse, despite how great it looks.
- The cardboard first player token. I know there is a new proper tile one but I don’t have that.
I have mixed feelings about Azul. While I think it is a good game and I enjoy playing it, it feels to me like a borderline filler game. It’s very easy to get playing, is usually a satisfying experience, and looks great, but there’s not much to it after all is said and done. I have an obvious preference towards heavier games so I’ll always enjoy them more, but for some reason I can’t discount Azul, and find it especially useful for playing with newer gamers or as something lighter to cool down with after a longer game. As a final comment – while I wouldn’t pick Azul for my game of the year, I would pick it for family game of the year, and I hope it does win the Spiel des Jahres and goes on to enjoy evergreen success as a modern staple.