Azul is new, it’s gorgeous and it’s hyped. It was on the hot games tables at BGGcon and constantly checked out of the library, following some mild hype out of Essen this year and I managed to grab a seat a couple of times to try it. Safe to say that thanks to BGGcon and PAX Unplugged, Azul has skyrocketed in hotness. Its designer, Michael Kiesling of the well-known duo Kramer & Kiesling (of Tikal, Palaces of Carrara and Porta Nigra fame), is well known primarily for Vikings, his solo release. Mostly working on European strategy-type games, he’s not strayed far into abstract territory. It makes sense that Azul – a gorgeous abstract strategy game – has some feeling of a Euro game about it.
To give a concise overview: in the middle of the table, there’s a number of “factory displays” (ie. decorative cardboard discs) in the middle of the play space, and this scales for number of players. Each display is populated with 4 tiles from the gorgeous linen bag, and play begins. As the start player decides to select a certain colour of tile from one of these displays, they take however many of the 4 matches that, and the rest get pushed into the middle of the circle created by the factory displays. The tiles selected are placed in the pattern lines section of the board – the location of the tiles is the player’s choice, bearing in mind each pattern line must fill up before the tiles populate your wall at the end of the round. After this, players can select from the displays, or from that middle pool (where colours may have built up substantially in number), again placing their chosen colour in their pattern lines, waiting to shuffle them out onto the wall at the end of the round.
Of course, as the round progresses, and each player has their turn, the offerings of tiles and their numbers waxes and wanes and you get quite caught up in planning ahead – hoping you can get just the right amount of that blue tile, perhaps, to fill the pattern line and have it head out to your pretty tile wall. As the round draws closer to the end (all tiles having been chosen) it can be pretty dicey to wait and pick a large group of tiles, as anything that can’t fit in a pattern line ends up in the awful negative points line at the bottom of your player board. In a time where there seem to be more “multiplayer solitaire” sorts of games than ever (not that I mind them), it’s so refreshing to have a simple and delightful game that keeps you on your toes and looking out for what other people are doing and working toward. I haven’t experienced this sense of interaction with an abstract game in a while.
While the bones of the game are simple – taking tiles, placing tiles, shuffling tiles out onto your wall’s pattern – the timing and results of those actions matter a lot. At the end of each round, when tiles are placed on the wall, scoring occurs – points for tiles in a column and row attached to the tile just placed. Spreading things out will minimize the points here so you really have to line things up to make sure on each round you’re getting the most out of rows and columns for points. And there’s nothing worse than being just the one tile short of what you need in the pattern line to have it empty out and send a tile out onto your wall – makes it tough to not take negative points the following round trying to fill that up and being forced to take more than you need – this comes back again to keeping an eye on what everyone’s doing and taking what you need hopefully at just the right moment!
The puzzle itself of filling your wall is satisfying both tactically and aesthetically, not to mention as you rack up points. I love the restrictions of the wall’s pattern, meaning you can’t have more than one of each type of tile in a row and column. I did play a game of this using the blank wall, which means you really have to keep an eye on which tiles you choose to place where because you can kind of tile yourself into a corner of getting things all misaligned. It really took things to the next level of brain pain.
I’ve so far only played this as a 4 player game, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have heard nothing but rave reviews from folks about Azul as a 2 player game, and I’m sure it could get mean with less churning of the tile numbers out to other players, leaving you and your opponent to take more of the negative points for extra tiles. I don’t know about a 3 player experience, but I’m hoping to try! I’ve got my Azul joker tiles now – they serve as a proxy for any tile type but won’t score, so I think it’ll ramp things up a notch – and I’m waiting for Canada to receive its slightly delayed retail shipment. Then it’ll be a very Azul holidays.
Azul plays 2 – 4 players in about 30 – 45 minutes. Designed by Michael Kiesling with art by Philippe Guérin and Chris Quilliams, it is released by Plan B Games.