22 January 2018
More fun than tiling your bathroom!
It was only a matter of time before someone took term ‘tile-laying’ literally and designed a game about – you guessed it – laying down tiles. Azul embraces this prosaic premise and takes it to a wonderfully colourful place, delivering ambitious gameplay on its way.
‘Azul’ – Spanish and Portuguese for 'blue' – comes from the word ‘azulejos’, decorative tiles used by Portuguese monarch Manuel I. This sets up the game, giving players some background information to justify tiling walls – beyond this, though, the theme is entirely window dressing. This is fairly insignificant as, at its heart, Azul is a quick abstract game with beautifully-made tiles.
At a first glance, it might seem that there are a lot of luck elements within the game. After the initial random drawing of tiles out of a bag, however, the game becomes pure strategy. Players can collect tiles of the same colour from one of the plates, moving remaining tiles to the centre. Alternatively, they can also pick from the centre, once at least one tile has been moved there. Once taken by the player, the tiles are moved to the ‘pattern lines’.
Already, this simple action of picking up tiles and placing them on the player mat has a myriad of possible tactical decisions. Players might take a risk and discard several tiles to the middle, in the hope that enough tiles of the same colour will accumulate by the time the turn returns to them, allowing them to pick up a lot of them at the same time – but there's always the chance their opponents might get those tiles ahead of them. The order in which the tiles are transferred to the ‘pattern lines’ is important, too. Which colour is best to build first? Which colours are other players going for? Which combinations need to be picked up to avoid excess tiles going to the ‘floor line’ and hence earning a player minus points?
The scoring part of Azul is equally tactical. Transferring one tile from the pattern line to the ‘wall’ earns players a single point. Put tiles adjacent to each other instead and you'll score one point for each tile in a horizontal and vertical row attached to the newly-placed tile. This means that points can rack up quite fast with thoughtful sequence of placements. It also eliminates a possibility of a runaway winner, because one cleverly added tile to the wall can bring in enough points to catch up, even in the last round. Winning in Azul depends entirely on the player and the set of decisions they make during the game.
This is not to say that Azul lacks player interaction and opponents cannot influence each other’s moves. In the drafting stage of the game it is quite easy to steal tiles form under an opponent’s nose or, alternatively, leave them with tiles they do not want. This confrontation is most pronounced in a two-player game, where Azul turns into a tense chess-like game of push-and-pull between the players.
Despite the simplicity of its mechanics, Azul’s rules can feel fiddly and confusing, especially with its scoring. Azul is the type of game that will ‘click’ after playing it once, and the second time going players will make more strategic and better-informed decisions. Luckily, one game of Azul, even with four people, lasts about half an hour, so it is very easy to play just one more.
Azul is everything one would want from an abstract game; it looks instantly beautiful on the table and its gameplay is challenging and addictive. The game is really good at rewarding players for their thoughtful moves and placements, and, despite one minor luck element, there is a real breadth of choice and decisions to be made throughout the game.
Breathtakingly beautiful and tactically exciting, Azul will be a great addition to any board game shelf. While its premise is seemingly mundane, this is a game unlike any other.
Designer: Michael Kiesling
Artist: Chris Quilliams
Time: 30-45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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