Updated: Dec 21, 2019
This was one of the hit games of this year’s Essen Spiel, and justifiably so. There is a notional theme about King Manuel I decorating a Portuguese palace in Alhambra Moorish style, but this is unashamedly an abstract game.
In Azul, tiles are drawn randomly from a bag and four are placed on each of the ‘factory displays’ (small circular mats that look disconcertingly like cardboard beer mats: a point to beware if ever you are playing this game in a bar). Players take turns to select from any ‘factory’ or from the centre of the table any matching tiles, with the other tiles moved to the centre of the table. Whichever location the player chooses to take from, he must take all the tiles of that colour.
Tiles taken are placed on the ‘pattern line’ of the player’s board in horizontal rows. Each draw of tiles has to be placed in the same row; any that cannot be placed are ‘dropped’ to the floor and score negative points. When all the tiles in the ‘factories’ and in the centre of the table are gone, the round is scored. For each completed ‘pattern line’ row, the end tile is placed in the player’s ‘wall’. The remaining tiles are put in the box lid to replenish the supply when the bag of tiles is empty. Tiles in incomplete rows stay put into the next round.
It is the scoring that makes this a compelling game of tactics. Players score just one point for a single isolated tile in the wall but they score also score a point for each tile they are vertically or horizontally linked to: so a tile making a row of three will score 3 points. Scores can rack up when a tile is placed in a wall so that it scores ‘Scrabble-like’ for both a horizontal row and a vertical column. A 7-point bonus is scored for each completed column and a player will score a 10-point bonus for having a complete set of a single colour in a wall. A small 2-point bonus is awarded for a completed horizontal row, but this also heralds the end of the game.
On a first play, players will merely seek to nab tiles to complete their ‘pattern line’ rows without having too much regard for what tiles will end up where and when in their wall. On subsequent plays, players realise the subtlety of the scoring and will eschew seemingly attractive tile groupings in order to go for those that maximise their score. The game even offers scope for ‘take that’ tactics as players spy what remaining tiles are of greatest advantage to other players and which might even score them negative points if they end up being forced to take them.
Azul is a game that players will find ever more rewarding with every play. Yet because its rules are so simple and straightforward, it is a game that can be very quickly taught and learned. It neatly fills a niche as a game that functions both as a gateway game and a game that provides thoughtful challenge to very experienced games players.
The tiles in Azul are solid and give the game a satisfying look and feel: this is a visually striking game. Having seen the great-looking neoprene mats produced by Plan B for their other games, it feels mildly disappointing that the player boards and ‘factory displays’ in Azul are merely cardboard. Perhaps if this game is as successful as it deserves to be, Plan B will produce neoprene mats as an optional extra. In addition, it would have been useful to have a second tile bag to take the discarded tiles which are recycled partway through the game. I normally complain that ‘first player’ tokens are over-produced and often unnecessary. The first player token in Azul is integrated into play, so does have a significant role. That being the case, it’s a pity it’s just a cardboard square; it would have been better if it had been another plastic tile. Azul would also strongly benefit from improved scoring boards. At present, scoring is done by moving a cube along a track. If the table is jogged, players risk being left uncertain or arguing over what their scores were. This was the main criticism of the player boards in last year’s big hit game Terraforming Mars, so it’s especially unfortunate to see it repeated in Azul.
These are offered as hopefully helpful suggestions for improvements that I’d liked to see addressed in an ungrade or deluxe edition but they don’t seriously detract from what is nonetheless an exceptionally strong and appealing abstract game.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)