From its first appearance in 2017, the original Azul was an immediate hit and it is easy to see why. Designed by Michael Kiesling, with art by Chris Quilliams, Azul was visually striking, elegant and easy to teach with hidden strategic depths that make for a game which is compellingly replayable. 2018 saw the release of a variant of sorts in the form of the Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra. At its core, this sequel was essentially a loose re-theme of the same game with some quality-of-life features and a few more tactical options; notably the ability to pass on rounds, which created more avenues for counter-play. At the same time, Sintra’s board layout was more fiddly in set-up and play and the game did not really offer enough to justify owning both versions of Azul. This year, Next Move games are back again for a third bite of the cherry with Azul: Summer Pavilion.
The new ‘theme’ as the name suggests is of a summer pavilion, with its tent-like sections fanning out into 6-pointed stars. This time round our tiles are diamond shapes in pleasing colours, visually more reminiscent of the original's tiles than Sintra's translucent plastic. Of course, Azul is still essentially an abstract game so it is unlikely that a person who was lukewarm on mosaic floors will become excited by pavilion roofs.
It still very much feels like Azul but Summer Pavilion probably represents the biggest departure so far from the core Azul formula. The central mechanic of ‘take tiles from beer mats’ is still there but with a new wrinkle: each round there is a ‘wild’ colour which cannot be selected from a group but is granted as a bonus tile when you take other tiles from the same mat. To longtime Azul players this may seem like a heretical change to the core system but it does not take long to get used to.
Unlike its predecessors, in Azul: Summer Pavilion, tiles taken are not immediately placed on a player's board but are positioned at the end of the round in a new placement phase. Each coloured star has six placements, with the ‘1’ slot only requiring one of the relevant coloured tile and the ‘6’ slot requiring six of that colour to place. End-game scoring is based on either completing a coloured star or spreading your tiles by competing all of the '1', '2', '3' or '4' slots across all stars. Filling out those last placements in your pavilion are where those wild tiles come in handy as they can substitute for the colour you need. Certain placements during this phase will grant further bonus tiles from a central pool - allowing you to string together plays that enable further placements. Bonus tiles are limited though, so you are going to need to be aware of the order in which you place your tiles on your player board lest your opponents grab the tiles you were eyeing. Another interesting element is that you may carry over up to four tiles into the next round; rewarding forward planning far more than we have seen in an Azul game before.
All of this certainly adds more to think about but does it make for a better game? I’m not entirely sure. It is fair to say there is more tactical meat and counter-play than in previous versions but this comes at the cost of the new placement phase slowing the pace of the game quite considerably. Azul: Summer Pavilion does compare favourably to Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra because it is less fiddly to play whilst arguably adding more depth. However, if I had to choose just one of the three, I would still probably recommend the original Azul over both variants because of its elegance and simplicity to teach. You can't go far wrong with any Azul game, though, and I'd always be happy to play any version that was brought to the table.
(Review by Edmund Ward)