The first thing you’re likely to notice about Azul is its beauty, and that is what the publisher intends. But Azul is more than just a pretty face. Inside this box are hidden depths.
How It Works
Azul is an abstract game for two to four players. Players are trying to collect sets of tiles to fill in empty spots in their mosaics without collecting too much waste. The player with the most points is the winner.
To begin, each player receives a player board. Factory tiles are placed in the center playing area dependent on the number of players, and four tiles from the bag are placed on each factory. The first player tile is placed in the center of this area.
On a turn, a player must take tiles from one area. An area can be either a factory or the center of the table. A player must take all tiles of a single color from the area. If the area chosen is a factory, all remaining tiles from the factory are pushed into the center. The first time tiles are taken from the center, the choosing player also takes the first player marker and adds it to their floor (worth negative points at the end of the round).
After a player takes tiles, the player must add them to the rows on the bottom left of their player board. Each row may hold only one color of tiles, and that color must not have already been filled in the corresponding row on the player’s mosaic. Players may only add tiles to a single row on each turn. If more tiles are taken than needed, the excess goes to the player’s floor.
The round ends once all tiles are claimed. Then scoring begins. Scoring happens from top to bottom of the player’s rows. If a row is complete, the player moves one tile from that row to the mosaic. The player scores points “Scrabble style” for tiles placed, one point per connected tile horizontally and one point per connected tile vertically to the tile just placed. (If the tile just placed is not adjacent to other tiles, it’s worth 1 point.) Tiles on the player’s floor are worth negative points and are subtracted from the player’s score. Players discard tiles from all scored rows and from the floor; if a row is incomplete, the tiles remain there for the next round. The first-player marker is placed back in the center of the table, and the player who claimed it will begin the next round.
If any player has completed a row, the game ends. Otherwise, a new round is played. At the end of the game, players score points for completed rows, columns, and colors in their mosaic. The player with the most points wins.
Designing a “gateway” game, the kind of approachable game that shows new players what modern board gaming has to offer, sounds on paper like an easy task. Just make a game with simple rules. DONE. But it’s not that easy, because in order for a game to be a gateway to new players, you have to get it to appeal to someone likely to introduce it to new players. And therein lies the difficulty. Making a rules-light game probably isn’t that big of a deal, but making a rules-light game that appeals equally to your grandmother and your gaming group is a tough nut to crack. But I think Michael Kiesling has cracked it with Azul.
Azul combines simple options with grueling decisions. What you can do is easy to understand. What you should do is another matter entirely. Each turn involves taking all the tiles on one kind from one area and placing them in a single row on your board. Simple. But it’s not just a matter of taking tiles randomly and placing them in your rows. Good players will plan ahead, looking at what’s available and at what the other players are doing. And this is where Azul is more than just a game with simple rules.
While Azul has personal player boards, the telltale marker of multiplayer solitaire, it has a great deal of player interaction. Every tile you take is a tile you keep from another player. Every tile you leave in the factory areas is a tile you are giving your opponents. Since you can take only one kind of tile per turn and from only one area and place it in only one row, it’s impossible to achieve all your plans at once. So each turn, you weigh your options, and you have to choose: what is the best opportunity for me now?
But the best opportunity for you now is rarely straightforward. It might be ideal for you to take the red tiles and the blue. The red are available now in the quantity you need, but you might notice your opponent doesn’t need red tiles but desperately needs blue. Are you willing to take the risk that if you nab the blue tiles, the red tiles will be waiting for you the next time it’s your turn?
This is one of my favorite aspects of Azul: it can be a fairly laid-back game of completing your own mosaic at your own pace, or it can be a cutthroat race against your opponents, each of you trying to read the other players and shrewdly get the tiles you need. In this respect, it’s similar to the best evergreen gateways like Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne–again, games equally at home with your grandmother or your gaming group because they accommodate both breezy and strategic play.
Yet even more than other gateway games, Azul has a bit of a bite. Each round, players score points for the tiles they manage to add to their mosaics, but they lose points for any tiles on their “floor,” excess tiles that they were forced to claim. If you want to play aggressively, rather than bolstering your own score, you can tank an opponent’s. Most other games that are classified as friendly to casual or non-gamers are more forgiving: yes, Aunt Fran might have blocked the one route that made your network connections easy in Ticket to Ride, but you can still take the long way around. By contrast, it can be a little demoralizing in Azul to see your floor fill up with the excesses of either poor planning or malevolent opponents. Yet despite this potentiality in Azul, and even seeing it happen to some players, almost all the players I’ve played with have taken it in stride and still come away with a positive view of the game.
I think another of the best parts of Azul is the gradual ramp up in depth. The rules are simple, so you can begin playing the game immediately. Players may not know what they’re doing, but it’s hard to go too wrong in the first round, just choosing tiles that fit your rows or that are a “bargain” and scoring a few basic points. And then the second round begins, and you immediately see, Oh yeah–we had tons of blue last round, which means there are fewer in the bag–of course there are fewer out this round. And you begin your next ramble of choosing whichever tiles strike your fancy–and then you remember that each color can be represented only once in each row. And you realize the ways you have boxed yourself in a little, and the game becomes a little tighter, a little more constraining. And it gets more and more constraining as the game goes on, as your rows fill up and you have to skillfully maneuver the minefield that is the Azul factories: you don’t want to leave too many opportunities to your opponents, but you also recognize that you can’t take certain tiles without earning penalties yourself. Again, this is something you don’t necessarily see when you first start a game of Azul; it gradually dawns on you as you play. And this is brilliant. The game has a natural arc to it, and it provides quick feedback to allow players to learn.
And there’s also enough depth that you learn from game to game. You become more familiar with the rhythm of the game, and with what scoring potential each tile has. You begin to balance opportunism with long-term planning, and your mosaic gets a little better with each play. At least, ideally. You’ve still got your pesky opponents to worry about.
Azul supports play for two to four players, and I like it at all counts. In fact, I don’t think there’s a count I prefer it at. There’s a little more control in a two-player game, and I think two-player is probably the most cutthroat way to play, but I still enjoy it. Three- and especially four-player games can be a little more tactical, but I find it fun trying to get into other players’ heads and predict their moves while scheming my own. Azul also has double-sided player boards, one with a preprinted mosaic and one with a blank mosaic. Personally, there’s enough to think about with the preprinted side that I haven’t found it necessary to play on the blank side, but it’s there for players who want it.
No discussion of Azul is complete without a discussion of the components, which are simply excellent. The small Starburst-sized resin tiles are colorful and satisfying to take and place and look beautiful on the table. The factory “coasters” are well illustrated and perform their function well. The player boards are thick and sturdy, and if the cube is a bit workmanlike compared to the rest of the components, it at least performs its function well. The draw bag is big enough to accommodate the tiles and give them a shuffle. All told, the components here are worthy and serve to elevate the game. Much like Splendor, another newcomer to the evergreen gateway pantheon, Azul would be a good game without these stunning components, but it likely wouldn’t receive the attention it has gotten. Azul combines form and function in a pleasing package that is nevertheless affordable–a big win.
I really like Azul–it’s simple, it’s clever, and it’s a game that has gone over well with everyone I’ve taught it to. My only reservation about it is the same reservation I have about most abstracts, and that is that the game is great fun to play while you’re playing it, but it leaves very little in the way of pleasing aftertaste. Azul is pleasant, even good, but not much more. A game of Azul is fun, then it’s over, and you’re likely to be on to the next thing. It’s possible to make clever moves, and to feel good about them, but they’re not the kind of moves that are likely to go down in your group’s gaming annals, like the Great Ra Gambit of 2015 or That Time Regret Won the Winner’s Circle Race in Two Moves or The Time We Magically Played Eight Cards in a Row in The Mind. Azul is pleasant, fun, and engaging, but it’s not the stuff memories are made of. Of course, not every game needs to provide epic moments to be worth its place in your collection, and it’s probably enough that Azul is so consistent at doing what it does well. I would just expect the stuff that sticks with you to come from the chatter that happens before, during, or after the game rather than what happens at the board.
And that’s fine. Azul is a game that consistently provides a great experience for a wide range of players. It’s a game I’m always happy to play and will even suggest, and I don’t have to endure the boos or blackballs of sour gamers every time it’s mentioned–a big win. Even though I’m a merciless collection culler, Azul is a game I intend to keep, and I expect it to be in frequent rotation at family get-togethers because it’s the kind of game that’s easy to share with those you love. It’s a fun and engaging game that gives you an excuse to sit down with people whose company you enjoy and spend time with them, having fun yourself in the process. There’s nothing wrong, and a great deal right, with that.