2 Chits, 3 Giggles
Azul is the Spanish word for blue, but it is also short for 'azulejos' which is the term used to describe tile work of a style popularised in Spain and Portugal. It might not surprise you then to learn that this game, by the Spiel Des Jahres winning designer Michael Kiesling (Tikal, Mexica) is a tile collecting game, which sets each player the goal of trying to lay out a wall of beautiful tiles in order to score points by their strategic placement. DIY just got a whole lot more fun!
Right off the bat, let's talk about the game's look, because for all the game's popularity, this has to be one of the most striking looking games in a while. It is so easy to make this game look beautiful as evidenced in many Instagram posts and tweets out there. Even we here at C&G got in on the act. The use of Jolly Rancher-esque pieces, their glossy feel and bright and bold colours are hard to put away without wanting to bring them back out again soon after.
For all it's good looks though, Azul also happens to be the sort of game where your goal, as told by the game's rule book, is never accomplished. You see, you're supposed to be embellishing the walls of your King's palace because he was so mesmerised by the beauty of this style of decoration that he employed you to deck out his crib, except the end of the game arrives before you even get close to doing such a thing. In fact it is damn near impossible to accomplish without some serious cooperation, which unlike Patchwork or Caverna, will infuriate those wanting some grand goal to aim for. Frustrating? Probably. Expected in such a game? That's up to you to decide.
Azul plays out in a very simple manner. You set the game up (and subsequently each successive round) by filling up a number of circular mats, adorably titled factory displays, with a random selection of four of the square tiles. On your turn, you will choose one location on the table with tiles on (which include the factory displays or the centre space between all of them) and choose one type of tile to take from that location. You must pick up all of that type of tile from that spot, and if you chose to take from a factory display, all remaining tiles there will be moved into the centre. The tiles you picked must now be added to a single empty (or matching) pattern line, which are empty spaces next to each row of your wall (which is where you want to move tiles to in order to score points.) You will only be able to move these tiles over to the wall if the pattern line is filled up so being able to grab enough of a single colour to fill one up is the goal really, but if you take more tiles than you have space for, the surplus tiles fall to the floor (a line on the bottom of your player board) where they will score you negative points for the current round.
The next phase occurs when all the tiles have been picked up from the table and involves moving the tiles from your pattern lines onto your wall and then scoring them. Each player has an identical player board, which has the same wall configuration; a 5x5 grid where each row and column has one spot for each type of tile in, like some sort of tile related sudoku. If during the first phase you manage to fill up a pattern line, you can now take one of those tiles (discarding the rest) and put it on its matching spot in the row on your wall. Once you've filled up a spot, you can never place any more of those tiles on that row again, so as the game progresses, your options for which tiles you can take become limited, which is one of the cores of the game's strategy.
The points you get depend on how many adjacent, connected tiles there are on the one you've just placed. For example, if you've placed an isolated tile that isn't adjacent to any other tile on the board, this scores you a single point total, but if you've placed one with two tiles directly above it, and one tile to the right of it, you'll score three points for the vertical line and two points for the horizontal line. If you've played Qwirkle, this scoring mechanism might seem familiar to you.
The final round is the one in which any player manages to fill up a single row of their wall. Players score extra for every completed row and column on their wall, and if anybody has added all five tiles of a single type to their wall, that will also net them a bunch of bonus points. This means that sometimes ending the game at the right time can determine your victory or not, as somebody planning too far ahead will often not see their strategy pay off in time. It's a game where you'll often want to eke in one more round, and there are plenty of games that this applies too like Imperial Settlers, Oh My Goods! and many more. Because this is a common feeling, I think games like these deserve their own category, so I am coining the following phrase which from now on we will refer to as JORM (Just One Round More!). This, therefore, is a JORM-y game.
As briefly touched upon earlier, the strategy here is a combination of making effective use of what's available to you as well as planning ahead. The factory displays hold the tiles, but will only usually get you a maximum of two tiles due to the probabilities at play (with five different tiles it is very rare for three of the same type to get lumped onto a single mat) and so this gives you more control over what you get and will reduce the risk of scoring negative points at the end of the round. However, waiting for tiles to group together in the middle can get you a lot of tiles at once, but can potentially leave you with surplus tiles that you can't place. Another interesting aspect of the game are the pattern lines. By not filling them up during the first phase, you cannot place/discard any of those tiles and are stuck with them during the next round, leaving you with less space to place picked up tiles as well as less options for what you can take. Additionally, planning ahead is crucial for maximum point scoring. Adding tiles to your wall 'willy nilly' (one of my favourite slang terms) is not an effective way of scoring points. You really need to maximise each opportunity to place a tile next to the most adjacent ones. Without doing so, you and your opponent might end up with similar walls and similar bonus points, but their constant monitoring of this factor will get them a lead over you by the end.
It is the combination of these very simple mechanics working together, as well as for me personally the right amount of luck involved, that makes this a really interesting game. You will usually breeze through the rounds, and even that one friend who takes their time choosing really won't be able to deliberate too long over their choices, but all the decisions still matter. In my experience of this game, I've found it to be quite a surprise, particularly when it comes to predicting who will win and how many points you'll score. You can play it both with casual players as well as more eager ones, due to its ease of play and its rewarding of those planning ahead, but nobody really feels left out at any point.
This game has been talked about a lot in the gaming community, with many proclaiming it to be the latest classic. While I do understand the fuss, I'm surprised with the sheer level of love for it, as to it me seems like a really good filler or gateway game but nothing out of this world. Filler is a very apt description for it ever since I saw two guys play the entire thing in a very compact ten minutes at a board game cafe recently, which is probably the most impressive thing I've ever encountered in my board gaming career. I feel like an expansion (not the joker tile set, which is already out and adds a 'wild' tile set which can be placed anywhere but doesn't score end game bonuses) could elevate this game above its light classification and probably encourage me at the very least to give it another shot, but those of you looking for a game to get their friends into non mainstream titles, you may have hit the jackpot here.
In summary, this is a beautiful game, very deserving of its popularity with a lot of potential reach. It may not be a classic, because as it stands its long term replayability doesn't seem to be huge, and there will be those who find it too light and dislike the lack of control you have over your objectives, but as a gateway game it hits the spot perfectly and I highly recommend it as a palette cleanser after a game like Great Western Trail or to warm up before a nice heavy game of Gloomhaven.
Review by Russell Chapman