Azul: Master Chocolatier Review

It’s the mid 16th 17-19th century! The beginning of a golden age of interior decorating chocolate in Western Europe. Recently returned from a tour of Alhambra’s finely decorated palaces, King Manuel I of Portugal h….. Uhh. You are making chocolates. And arranging them nicely in their box. But you are NOT eating them. No, no no.

2-4 Players | 30-45 Minutes| Designed by Michael Kiesling

If you’ve been a regular Boardgame Detective reader since 2017, you’ll be aware that I’ve previously written a review for Plan B Next Move’s wildly popular flagship game, Azul. The all new, limited edition Azul: Master Chocolatier is essentially a reskin of the original game, and to honour its release, I am essentially reskinning my previous review of Azul. I will be taking this opportunity to refresh and reflect on my thoughts from 2017. New thoughts will be indicated with an underline, and I will also muse on my recent adventures in 2 player Azul online. Master Chocolatier also includes a small variant to give you a reason to purchase it if you already own the original version (bar preferring chocolate over bathroom tiles), and I will discuss the merits and demerits of that too.

Included – this lovely printed bag to draw tiles from.

How does it work?

In Azul, players will draft and place tiles chocolates 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 chocolates from. The player takes all of a single colour flavour from that factory and moves the rest of the tiles chocolates into a pool in the middle. Players then allocate the tiles chocolates to a single row on their player board. After the first turn of the round, players may alternately take tiles chocolates from the pool of leftovers in the middle.

Once all the tiles chocolates available that round have been taken, each player scores their bathroom box of chocolates?, moving tiles chocolates from completed rows across to their box and getting points for making rows and columns of placed chocolates. 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).

A finished display at the end of a game

What do I think?

I’ve played Azul at all player counts, and I’ve played it lots of times with 4 players. I’ve since played the game recently a LOT at 2 players as well. 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. I actually find this process now to be a joy of mine…
  • 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, and 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. I made this comment in 2017 and I still think it’s true, but I now realise it only really applies to 3 and 4 player games. Counter to this negative – play speeds up as decisions become more obvious, making for a smooth game.
  • It seems just totally completely insane to release a chocolate edition of a game that a) doesn’t contain real chocolate and b) isn’t a legacy game based upon the mechanic of eating chocolates….. Like I just can’t see how you could go through the process of developing this version of the game and miss those obvious things that would just print you free unlimited money.
  • As a variant of the original game, Chocolate Azul is kind of cool. But as a standalone thing it’s kind of weird and doesn’t make much sense. I feel it was a poorly selected theme and not really well executed. It’s not easy to recognise the pieces are supposed to be chocolates (especially the red, blue and black ones), which is kind of a fail.
  • I’m disappointed that Next Move didn’t make any updates to the original game’s packaging or quality of life features. Still individual scoreboards? No tile tower? Same old plastic insert from when the first player tile was a piece of cardboard? Seems lazy.

Thoughts on the Master Chocolatier Factory Variant

Azul: Master Chocolatier includes a small variant on the original game that simply put, adds a bit of chaos to the tile draft. I’ve played with it a couple of times now. During the tile restock, a few random factory tiles are flipped revealing some special powers associated with those tiles. The factories could be ‘magnets’ for certain tile colours, drawing those tiles to themselves from adjacent factories (meaning some factories have more than four tiles, some have less). There are also a few special action factories, such as one that gives you an extra ‘0’ point penalty space for broken tiles chocolates.

If you like the game Azul on a more mechanical and analytical level, I’m not sure you would enjoy this variant. As I mentioned, it serves to add chaos to the draft. I found that playing with this variant, being the first player becomes VERY important, as the right factory in the right place could be an easy 5-chocolate-row fill up. While it is interesting to play with a few times (just like the grey side of the board), I’m pretty sure I won’t really want to use it often, especially not with new players.

Thoughts on Azul as a Two Player Game

Recently I have been playing a fair number of games of Azul in 2 player mode online via BoardGameArena. Playing 2 player Azul has given me a new appreciation of the game as I feel it’s a very different experience to 3 or 4, and can be one of the meanest abstract games I’ve played. When you are playing against a single opponent, the game is as much about blocking as it can be about making a good move for yourself. I may be a bit mean myself but I get a lot of joy out of finding moves that disadvantage my opponent while advantaging me. With only one opponent the ability to forsee the potential course of the next few turns based on your move and opponents behaviour is very possible, and I like trying to ‘corral’ my opponent into making certain moves. I think as a 2 player head to head abstract game, Azul has easily become my favourite and after tens of games a month recently, I am nowhere near getting sick of it.

Tiles for miles

I have mixed feelings about Azul. I’ve grown to truly love 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. Hey look …. I made a correct prediction! It’s great to see this new chocolate version of the game be released for a bit of a 5 year anniversary, if you love the game, or chocolate, definitely check it out!

The copy of Azul: Master Chocolatier used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by VR Distribution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s