Much like video games, board games can be made to tell a story, to be fun to play, or in some cases, to look extremely beautiful. It is a true testament to the skill of the designers that Azul, from Next Move Games, an imprint of Plan B Games, manages to, in some ways, hit all 3 of those notes at the same time.
Azul is a game designed by Michael Kiesling and centres around the tiling of the Portugese palace of Evora. The king of Portugal, Manuel I, has ordered that the palace be tiled in a similar way to the palace of Alhambra in Spain. You and the other players take the role of tile layers, who must take turns to draft tiles from different suppliers to embellish the palace walls.
The first thing that it is easy to notice about Azul is how stunningly beautiful it looks. From the moment you pick up the box to the moment you set down the last tile of the game, you will never not be looking at beautifully made tiles and board art. Each individual tile in the game is amazingly well crafted, even the stark simplicity of the plain coloured tiles when placed next to the intricate design work off the other 3 types of tile.
Each player starts out with a tile board that both features their section of the palace that needs tiling and helps to keep track of each individual player’s score at the end of each round. You start the game by placing a certain number of circular ‘factory’ displays in the centre of the table, depending on the number of people playing the game. Then the starting player puts 4 tiles on each circle, and the game begins.
Each player must then take all of the tiles of one colour off of any factory display and place them on one of the scoring rows on your player board. You must take all of a single colour from any given area; you cannot leave any behind, and you must place them all on a single line of your board. Any leftover tiles get placed into the middle of all of the factory displays, and any player can choose to take tiles from there instead of a normal display, but the first person to do so must take the player 1 tile and lose a point at the end of the round.
Once all of the tiles have been chosen, each player scores the tiles they’ve chosen by moving them over to the right side of the player board if the tiles come from a complete line. As well as scoring tiles you’ve placed, you also have to lose points for any leftover tiles that you have to place onto your board that you didn’t have enough room for. Once all players have scored, the player with the ‘player 1′ marker sets out a new batch of tiles, and a new round begins. This repeats until someone completes a horizontal line on their score chart, which ends the game.
While the design of the tiles/boards, and the above description for that matter, might make it seem like an abstract puzzle game, Azul is actually more about mathematics at its heart. See, while it is important to place tiles in the correct way, it is also important to know exactly how many turns it will be before a player ends the game and how your score compares to theirs in that scenario. While you might be working towards a lot of points in a turn or two, another player could easily end the game next turn, meaning that you may not end up with enough to win the game. You have to be really aware of not just what all the different players’ scores are but also how many turns you have left to actively make points.
A big part of the reason for the necessity of being ready for the game to end is the fact that there are certain points that you can only get right at the end of the game during the last scoring round. Each horizontal line equals 2 bonus points, each vertical line equals 7 points and having 5 tiles of any specific colour on your board can net you a whopping 10 points at the end of the game. This can throw a wrench into the game for players who are not keeping a close eye on both the different players’ scores and their board states.
Which tiles you end up taking, or at least the tiles that it would be strategically best for you to take, depends not only on the tiles that you’re trying to score but also on the tiles that you know other players need. While you might think that purposefully taking tiles you don’t really need and ending up losing points is a bad idea, it can actually mean the difference between victory and defeat. For example, if you were to take all of the yellow tiles, you might prevent another player from gaining both a vertical line, as well as all 5 yellow tiles needed to gain 17 points at the end of the game. So while you have lost, say, 4 points by taking tiles you didn’t need, you have ended up in a better position than you would have been by taking the tiles you actually needed.
When this is laid out in front of you in such basic terms, it might seem like the game isn’t that much fun. I mean, who enjoys math, right (…me)? But honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. While it might seem like there is a lot to consider when you look at it on paper, all of these thoughts occur during the course of a game at a much quicker pace than most players even realize. It is a lot of fun to take away the last tile that someone needed to end a game just when they were in a good enough position to win, then flip it on them by using that tile to increase your own score instead. As well as that, it can be fun to secretly amass enough ‘end-game’ points to surprise the other players with a win out of nowhere.
After you’ve been playing for a while, you find yourself getting excited about the moves you can make to get the advantage over your opponents. You’ll start developing strategies to try out, constantly changing as you and other people delve deeper and deeper into a game that is so mechanically deep that it might as well call itself the Mariana Trench. It is partially due to the depth that the game can be so challenging at times. It is shockingly easy to get so involved in your own board state that you don’t even notice someone making a game-ending tile score, but this is in no way the fault of the game. Every time this happens, you know it is always your own fault.
A good example of the depth is the carefully plotted number of factory displays. While at first the number doesn’t seem particularly important, it does have a pretty meaningful impact on the way the game plays out. Obviously, when playing a round of Azul, no player wants to end up taking the ‘1st player’ marker and having to lose points, which is why if no one willingly takes the tile, it always ends up going to someone who didn’t have it last time, meaning that no one player is forced into taking it round after round. It is small things like this that really make a difference in how enjoyable the game is and almost feels like a part of the mechanics meticulously added to refine the game’s overall quality.
As well as the regular game modes, there is also a variant style of play that functions effectively the same as the regular game but gives you a blank slate to score tiles onto instead of previously ordered colours. This basically turns the game into a combo of Azul and Sudoku, which can be a fun switch-up to the regular rules. Even if you end up never touching the variant style of gameplay, you’re more than likely going to get hundreds and hundreds of hours of entertainment out of Azul. Just when you think you have explored everything the game can really be or do, you play it with someone new and their unique way of seeing the game will change everything you thought you already knew.
Designer: Michael Kiesling
Artist: Philippe Guérin, Chris Quilliams
Publisher: Plan B Games