Review - Azul
Designer: Michael Kiesling
Publisher: Next Move Games
Player Count: 2-4
Azul is a board game based on the process of azulejos, a type of painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework popular in Spain and Portugal. It originated in Persia and spread to Europe in the 13th century. Nominally, Azul sees you take on the role of a Portuguese artist, tasked by King Manuel I with decorating the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora.
In reality, Azul is an abstract tile drafting game, where players race to fill in their personal player board with brightly coloured tiles in the azulejo style.
How to Play
Set-up for Azul is quick. Each player receives a personal player board and a scoring marker which is placed on the scoring track on the player board. A number of “factory tiles”, dependent on the number of players, are placed in a circle, within reach of all players. The first player tile is placed in the middle of the factory tiles. All of the coloured tiles are added to the draw bag (100 tiles in total, 20 of each colour/pattern). Four tiles are drawn from the bag and placed on each factory.
The aim of the game is to score victory points. Points scoring is done at the end of each round. Each tile successfully placed on a player’s wall will score points according to the number of adjacent tiles already on the wall. For example, a tile on its own scores one point, a tile with two tiles directly to the left of it in a row scores three points, and tile with a tile directly to the left and right and two directly above scores six point (three points for the row and three for the column). This might sound complicated but page 5 of the rulebook outlines it effectively with a series of pictures. Negative points are scored for excess tiles, which are placed on your “floor line” (explained below), and for possessing the first player tile. In addition, bonuses are scored at the end of the game for having completed rows and/or columns on your player board, and for having put down all the tiles of a colour/design.
Each round, the first player chooses one type of tile from one factory tile and takes all of all of the tiles of that type from that factory. These are placed on the lines on the player board according to the following rules: all tiles must be placed on the same line of the player board, only one type of tile can be placed on each row, surplus tiles are placed in the floor area at the bottom of the player board and score minus at the end of the round. The remaining tiles from that factory are pushed into the area in middle of the factory tiles. The player to the left of the first player then chooses a factory in the same manner. Players can also choose to take tiles from the middle area, according to the same rules. The first player to take from the middle must also take the first player token, which is placed in the floor line of the player board.
The round ends when all tiles have been drafted. At the end of the round, completed rows of tiles allow players to place a tile on their wall and score points. The game ends when one player has completed a full row of their wall and end of game bonuses are then counted.
The aesthetics of Azul, its beautiful artwork, and its simple rulebook all hide one fundamental thing about Azul, it is ruthless. Azul, particularly at 2-players, is one of the meanest games I have ever played. This might not be immediately apparent because your experience with Azul will likely follow these three stages. In your first game of Azul, you’re likely to have your head down trying to just fill up the lines on your player board so you can place as many tiles as possible, so far so pleasant. Next, you’ll realise that if you plan ahead and try to place tiles that are adjacent to one another, you’ll score a lot more points. Things are still pleasant, players are just moving beautiful tiles around and getting points. The final stage is where Azul shows its true colours. Once players have come to terms with their own boards they’ll start to look to their opponents’ boards.
Hate drafting is a key strategy in Azul and I think it’s fair to say that it has more bite in Azul than in a lot of other games. This is because of the points you lose for floor tiles. Any tiles you can’t fit on a single line are placed at the bottom of your player board to score minus points at the end of the round. What’s more, the number of points you lose per tile increases the more tiles you have at the bottom of the player board. This is a major reason why Azul is so mean and why hate drafting if such a strategic concern. Not only are you trying to deny your opponent the perfect tile to finish a line and score big, you’re also planning out the next three sets of tiles you’ll take at the end of the round in order to leave your opponent with six tiles they can’t place, so that they’ll lose 11 points in one go.
Whether you like Azul or not will be largely down to whether you read the last paragraph and thought “that sounds fun!” or “that sounds like hell”. If players are good natured and willing to get their elbows out, Azul is a very enjoyable experience. If one player would take hate drafting to heart, or if a player feels uncomfortable with interfering with another player’s plans, then Azul might become an unpleasant experience.
It should be noted that, mechanically, Azul is a simple experience. Every turn, players will do the same thing, take all of one type of tile from a factory or the middle of the factories. However, this framework provides endless interesting decisions, risk-reward scenarios, and most importantly, leads to players looking up, seeing what their opponents are doing, and trying to figure out what they’ll do on their next turn, because it matters. Decisions in Azul feel interesting. This means that Azul is a game you can pull out, play in 30 minutes, and feel like you’ve played something with meaty decisions, something short games often fail to capture.
Azul can be played with 2-4 players. What player count works best for you will depend on what you want from Azul. I would be of the opinion that Azul is at its best with two-players. At two-players, player interaction is high, and it is easier to plan moves a few turns in advance. It is also much easier with two-players to keep track of your opponent’s board state, as there are less pieces of information to parse. Azul is definitely at its most strategic at two players and players have a greater sense of agency.
The key problems with three and four players are the increased downtime (with arguably no really gameplay benefit), the lack of agency, since planned out turns are more likely to be thwarted by someone else’s tile drafting (not necessarily because they are looking to block you, but just by chance), and the information overload (particularly at four players) which effectively decreases the level of player interaction.
Having said all this, I can imagine some people preferring higher player counts. As mentioned above, Azul can be a mean game and the increased information at higher player counts leads to a notable decrease in hate drafting. At higher player counts it’s much harder to plan turns in advance, which some players may not do anyway, meaning that players must react to the board state as it comes to their turn. This gives the game a much more relaxed feel. Finally, increased downtime in a game isn’t always a bad thing. If players are looking for a game that allows them to relax with their friends while partaking in a shared activity, Azul at four-players might be preferably to them.
Overall variability in Azul is minimal, with most games feeling similar as bonus scoring never changes (unlike games like Sagrada or Isle of Skye). While player boards are two-sided, allowing for a looser variant to be played where tiles can be placed almost anywhere instead of on specific spots, my experience of the variant was that it made the game less strategic and less interesting.
The setup of each round is highly variable due to the random drawing of a large pool of tiles. Given the large number of tiles, you’re unlikely to see the same initial board state twice. This means that a dominant strategy is unlikely to emerge for how best take you opening turns.
Azul’s theme feels a bit pasted on. It’s an abstract game and the brief paragraph on the theme in the rulebook really feels like it’s just an excuse to have beautiful, patterned tiles. To be honest, I’m OK with that. Depending on the game and the player group, theme isn’t always necessary. Ultimately, it’s a nice idea but not core to the game.
The closest Azul comes to having mechanics related to the azulejos process is picking tiles off factories, though why all other tiles are pushed in to the centre, I don’t know. Also, tiles that don’t fit into the lines on your player board fall to the ground (the bottom of your player board) broken, this is a clever thematic mechanism but is still heavily abstracted.
For the most part, I would imagine that the theme will mostly be ignored by players during games.
Art and Components
Azul is quite simply beautiful. The graphic design is sharp and the colours pop. The game may not evoke the theme too well, but the art and components evoke a feeling of Summer sun and heat, on the Iberian Peninsula. The tiles are the high point of the components. They are highly tactile, in a way I can only compare to playing games with metal coins. They are a joy to hold as you decide on what line to place them, fumbling them around in your hand. This makes drawing tiles each round immensely satisfying, much more so than games like Altiplano or Orléans. This is further helped by the beautiful bag that comes with the game. Boards and factory tiles are made from thick card and the box comes with a functional plastic insert that is in keeping with the style of the game.
I do have some minor criticisms of the components. Firstly, while most of the tiles have beautiful patterns on them, two of the tile types are just blank tiles, blue and red. I’m not sure why this decision was made, perhaps to keep print costs lower or make things clearer. Either way it doesn’t feel right, so it’s a negative point for an otherwise beautiful game. Replacement patterned tiles are available from Next Move Games, but keep in mind if you think you would need to have them, that this is effectively raising the price you will pay for the game and should factor into your value judgement.
A final criticism of the components is of the scoring tracks on the player boards. Scores are marked by moving a small black cube along the track. The graphic design of the track is clear and makes it easy to do scoring, due to the markings of every five and ten points. However, the player boards are very smooth and if the boards are bumped, you can easily lose track of your score. This is a similar problem to the player boards in Terraforming Mars. A solution could have been to have dual-layered player boards like Scythe, however I understand that this would likely raise the retail price of the game. In any case this is a minor issue and rarely causes problems. If it is a problem, numerous third-party sellers have plastic overlays for the player boards available.
Azul won the 2018 Spiel des Jahres and it is easy to see why. Azul is a simple game, that anyone can play, after a brief rules explanation, but there’s enough strategic depth to keep hobbyists interested and to keep players coming back for more. As noted in the gameplay section, Azul is a confrontational game and players should consider whether that is something they enjoy before making a purchase.
Azul is also beautiful. Beauty in a board game is not something players should scoff at. It means it is much easier to get to the table. This is especially important in a game with a low rules overhead, that you might want to introduce to reluctant family members or people with little experience of modern board games. Azul offers a good jumping off point for people new to the hobby despite its rather pasted on theme.