Painted, decorative tiles, the azulejos, were first introduced to Portugal by the Moors and quickly became an obsession in their architecture, art, and design. You can still the influence of beautiful mosaic walls when you walk down streets in old Lisbon or visit various cultural sites around the country.
In Azul, players take on the role of tile-laying artists tasked with beautifying the Royal Palace of Evora. They select tiles from different suppliers in an attempt to create the most elegant and awe-inspiring walls. If they do their job well, they will earn accolades and their stellar reputation will be known around all of Portugal. However, failing to plan can result in taking excess tiles, allowing them to fall to the floor and cost you negative points.
Depending on the number of players, you place factories out in a circle around the table. Each factory gets four tiles placed on it, grabbed randomly from a bag. The factories are capable or producing five different types of tiles that can be used to construct your Wall in the palace.
Players all have their own board with a Wall, Pattern Lines, Floor Lines, and a Score Track. The Pattern Lines are where you’ll do the planning for the construction and design of your Wall. There are five Pattern Lines with one to five spaces in them. The Wall itself is where your design will take place. There are five columns and five rows. Each one has only one appearance of each different type of tile.
In turn order players will visit a tile factory of their choice and take all of the tiles of a certain type, adding them to one of the Pattern Lines on their personal board. If there is space for all the tiles taken, they have planned well, but if there are more tiles than the space in the Pattern Line (or for some reason they don’t want to place them all), the extras will fall to the floor costing them points at the end of the round.
It rarely happens that four of the same type of tile end up on one factory, so there’s usually going to be leftovers. Those tiles not chosen are placed in the centre of the circle of factories. As play continues, the tiles in the centre will start to build up, instead of visiting a factory, players can take tiles from the centre, but the first player to do so also gets the first player token for the next round. While that’s not a terrible thing, it takes up a slot on your Floor line costing you points at the end of the round.
Speaking of which, the round ends when all of the tiles have been taken. As you get down to the last few groupings, you can start to see the potential for screwing your opponents emerge (or alternately, you can see that you’re about to get screwed). It doesn’t always happen, but often the last couple players will get caught with a big group of tiles that have nowhere to go on their Pattern Line. Ending up in that position, just leaves you having to minimize the damage as much as possible. It stinks, but you better be prepared for it to happen.
Once the round ends, any completed Pattern Lines get moved over to the Wall in the appropriate space and you score points. You’ll get points for each tile in the column and row of the new tile placed. If you’re crafty in the way you plan your Wall, you can rack up some big points, but there is also end game scoring that can play a factor in the tiles you take.
You track your score on your personal board, subtracting points for tiles that fell on the floor. Any Pattern Lines that weren’t finished remain, but aside from the tile moved to the Wall, completed lines are discarded. The factories get refilled and you’re ready to start the next round with the person who took the first player marker making the first factory visit.
A game of Azul ends on the round where a player completes an entire row. It’s usually pretty predictable when that’s going to happen. The first two rows are relatively easy to add tiles to each round, so games often don’t last much past the fifth round, making Azul a tight little puzzle.
There is a final scoring as the last tiles are added to your Wall. You’ll also earn end game points for having complete rows, columns, and if you’ve managed to collect all five of one of the colours (a very satisfying feat).
Azul is one of those games where everything can go in your favour, or your best laid plans can blow up in your face. To accomplish great things, you have to push your luck a bit and go for tiles that your opponents may also be pining for. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and take a negative score for the potential bonuses it can earn you.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t care about board games, in which case…who hurt you?) you’ve probably seen a lot about Azul in gaming media. Heck, we’ve already talked about it in the past, with Nicole sharing her first impressions. There’s good reason for that. Azul is pretty to look at, fun to play, filled with interesting decisions, and never outstays its welcome. It’s the kind of game that you want to play again as soon as you finish a round.
Despite its simple rules, there are a lot of opportunities for strategy. You can assess the board and how your opponents are likely to play…then throw a wrench in their plans. Azul scales well between the two to four player counts. With a full complement, there is a lot less predictability of what will still be around when it comes back to you, but the downtime is minimal and it’s still and enjoyable romp. With two players, it’s a real Chess match. You gotta out think your opponent and also get a little bit lucky.
Overall, I would highly recommend Azul. If you’re one of those people that must try before you buy, the good news is that most board gamers I know are snatching up copies as soon as they hit store shelves, so you won’t have to look hard to find some willing to teach you the fine art of mosaic wall building!