But I don’t have my druthers these days. My time is limited which means my gaming time is even more so. But limitations in life can lead to discovering wonderful experiences. Specifically, I have found that I greatly appreciate smaller abstract games like Tak, Onitama, and Hive.
This brings us neatly to Azul, an interesting and colorful set collection and tile placement game. Will it find a place in my esteem and on my shelf next to the likes of Onitama?
Like most abstract games, the theme in Azul is simple. You are building a wall of mosaic tiles. That’s it. While a short backstory is given in the rule book, it has no implications in the game.
It is easier to teach and learn a game if there is some thematic tie to what you are doing and Azul has just enough to anchor the goal in players minds. You are placing tiles into a grid – placing mosaic tiles onto a wall. So, while the theme is simple it gives players something to hold on to when learning and playing.
The theme may not be that interesting but I will give it marks or doing its job. But we also know that abstract games don’t exist for their theme-ing so let’s move on.
This where things get more interesting for Azul. The game comes with chunky colorful tiles that are drawn from a fun patterned bag. These tiles really are the highlight of playing the game. While the player board and “factory” tiles are nice with good artwork they are simply the means for storing these beautiful tiles.
Azul comes with chunky colorful tiles – a highlight of the game.
Physicality is one of the things that make board games stand out as a medium. They are tactile and physical in a way that many other forms of leisure are not. The tiles in Azul make drawing from a bag, picking them up, or placing them somehow very satisfying.
While the presentation of an abstract game is important, game play is it’s bread and butter. If this area of a game is lackluster, the rest of the package falls apart. This is the linchpin that holds it all together.
The goal of Azul is to place tiles on your player board, scoring points as you do as they connect to each other. Getting them there is where the game lies.
Tiles start out on “factory” tiles in the middle of the table. On your turn you get to pick all of one color from a factory tile and place them in a pattern row on your player board. When a pattern row is filled with one color of tile you will be able to place one of that color on your wall (which is a 5x5 grid). The pattern row that feeds the top row of your grid only needs one tile in it to be full so it can be placed into the grid. The second row, two. And so on down to the fifth row needing five tile in it to be full.
The first play of Azul feels simple, even a bit too simple. But there are a few considerations that come in to play the more often this game is on the table.
All of this adds up to a simple but fun puzzle-like game.
First, scoring. Tiles placed onto your wall will score you more points if they are adjacent to other tiles. This means planning which tiles to take to fill your pattern rows so that you can score the most points as you are placing them.
Second, the “floor” section of your player board. You must take all of one color from a factory so if you are forced to take more than can fit in a pattern row they “fall” on your floor giving you negative points. It is useful to know when to use this as you will see in the third point.
Third, blocking other players. The more you play the more you will be able to pay attention to what other players at the table are going for. You see that Jill needs a blue tile but you don’t have a place to put it? Take it anyway and put it on your floor. This will cost you a point but you could be preventing her from scoring much more than that. Or it can be equally fun to force a player to take a lot of tiles they don’t need so they are forced to place them on their floor. Either use of the floor is satisfying.
All of this adds up to a simple but fun puzzle-like game. And since tiles that populate the factories are randomly drawn, each round is its own little puzzle as you figure out how to navigate the tiles you need to your wall while keeping the ones your opponents need away from them.
I won’t pretend that Azul is an extremely deep game. It is not and I don’t think it aspires to be. While some may measure this a fault I find that it makes Azul fit perfectly into the “evening with friends” category. Or, in my case, an evening with my wife (she requests it more than I do) . And soon, an evening with my kids. The simpleness of the game is it’s boon. In a way, it reminds me of Carcassonne – simple and friendly on the surface but with more experience comes the ability to make it more competitive and cutthroat. I really appreciate games that can do both and make both satisfying.
Add to this the color and tactile nature of the tiles and art and you have a very satisfying game that is easy to learn and teach, fun to play, and a joy to have on the table. It is easy to see why this game got a Spiel des Jahres nomination. For my part, I hope it wins.
A Brief Sagrada Comparison:
I have seen Azul compared to Sagrada many times. While they do have some similarities I think they are ultimately for two different gaming situations. Azul has fewer rules – specifically scoring rules – which makes it more casual. Sagrada mixes up the scoring each game. This means getting your head around a different puzzle each game. So make your selection depending on the group you are playing with.
THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB
I’m a huge fan of abstract games, especially one that speaks to the casual and intermittent gamer. Shorter gameplay, simple goals, concise steps, and nice aesthetics will likely bring an ambassador status game and a violation in one of these may sideline it back into our niche hobby. Azul scores well against this rubric and for that reason I’ve added it to my short list of games next to the likes of Ticket to Ride, Santorini, Tsuro, Skull, etc (games I enjoy and think just about anyone can get into easily enough).
On teaching the game, I find that while each step along the way is simple to learn and perform, it usually takes a couple of turns to see exactly how the decisions during the first steps of the round will affect the scoring in the last steps. Similar to games that focus on cumulative scoring (often drafting games like Sushi Go), the drafting and placement is not necessarily going to be ideal for the uninitiated but it doesn’t take long to see the strategy behind the curtain. I like that it’s not a spoon-fed experience but still something easily unwrapped. Often times I feel like I have to provide strategy tips up front for players learning a game but in Azul I like to just teach the steps and let the players discover it on their own, helping only if they start to fall behind.
Azul is often compared to Sagrada due to the similarities they share, but I’d say on replay I want to compare it more to Qwirkle due to its puzzly placement/scoring nature. Although you are not drafting tiles the same way in Qwirkle, I feel like the hand you choose from verses the draft you pick in Azul have similar options/restrictions. But I believe Azul to be just slightly more accessible to a larger audience as it doesn’t require a player to be as analytical to play well against others — probably due to the draft.
With this game, you get exactly what you expect to get: it’s gorgeous, components are super nice in every way, and it should get plenty of table time if you tend to host various crowds and need a new staple. For the meatier experience I’d probably opt for Sagrada over this one, but hey… why not both? Azul has a lot going for it and makes for nice casual gaming at a very low barrier to entry.