Azul

Designer: Michael Kiesling

Artist: Philippe Guérin and Chris Quilliams

Publisher: Next Move Games

I am so used to seeing… Kramer and Kiesling. This is different (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

Azul probably needs no introduction. The game is stacked with accolades and has won numerous awards. What is more impressive to me is that it has won 2 awards: Spiel des Jahres and Deutscher Spiele Preis in 2018. These two awards are quite apart in terms of the crowds they cater to. Spiel des Jahres has inched more toward family gaming and the trend is that the Jury tends to select lighter and easier games. Meanwhile, Duetscher Spiele Preis, or the German Game Prize select games that agree with the lifestyle gamer which are generally more complex. For Azul to win both awards would indicate that the game is light enough to be embraced by the typical German family, yet having enough depth to attract the serious gamer. The most recent game to win both prizes occurred in 2009 when Dominion bagged both awards. Dominion is considered the granddaddy of all deck building games and is actually moderate in complexity. So that award was well-deserved for DSP but a more awkward selection for SdJ. Still, that was a decade ago and a case can be made that the SdJ is skewing more and more toward lighter family games which makes Azul’s win even more impressive. Having now played the game at least half a dozen times, I think both awards are justified and the game is outstanding for not only casual, family style gaming, but also for your heavy Euro gamers.

Azul is an abstract game that is all about drafting tiles and arranging them in specific patterns to score points. What’s unique about the game is how the tiles are drafted, organized and prioritized to maximize scoring. Not surprisingly, the rules are quite simple. On the middle of the table, are several discs known as the factory display and the number of discs in play depends on player count. Each round, 4 tiles are randomly drawn from a bag and placed on each factory display disc. These tiles are brightly colored acrylic tiles that come in five different colors and patterns. During a player’s turn, one can pick up a group of similar tiles from a single disc while pushing the leftover tiles to the center of the table. That means that for each disc, only one player can select from them because any remaining tiles will be pushed into a common pool. In subsequent turns when tiles are also in the common pool, player are free to pick up a group of similar tiles from the common pool. The important point of this tile drafting phase is that all tiles of a similar color or pattern must be selected. So if there are 5 blue tiles in the common pool and if you select blue tiles, you must pick up all 5.

The fun starts when you have to decide what to do with the tiles. Each player will have a personal board to put tiles. Tiles are place in 5 horizontal columns with increasing number of slots starting with 1 on top and 5 at the bottom. Each slot can only contain one tile and that means that row one can only have 1 tile and row 5 must contain 5. When a group of tiles are selected from the factory display or common pool, they must go into one row and one row only. Any excess tiles must be discarded to the factory floor where they will be penalized with negative points. So, if your row 5 already contains 4 blue tiles and you pick up 3 more blue tile, you can place only one tile in this row and the remaining 2 must be discarded to the factory floor. Of course, if your row 3 is empty, you could place all 3 blue tiles there to complete that row.

In this way, tile drafting and placement continues until all tiles are drafted from the factory floor. The round is then over. Players then check their tile placement and for every horizontal row that is completely filled, one representative tile of that type is moved over from the row to a 5×5 grid. The movement of the single tile from each completed row to the grid will score points based on adjacency to other tiles. Any negative points are also tallied during the end of each round. There is one restriction for placement of the representative tile in the 5×5 grid: no line or row can contain tiles of a similar color. So, this is very soduku-esq in that no row or column can have the same number. Your job is to place these tiles so that no two tiles of a similar type or color may touch each other.

The game continues until one person completely fills a horizontal line on the 5×5 grid which then ends the game immediately. In essence, this means Azul can last somewhere between 5-21 rounds, though it probably rarely exceeds 5-10 rounds per game. When the game is completed, players score bonus points for each completed line, column and for each complete set of 5 tiles of a similar type on the 5×5 grid. That’s it.

Like most abstracts, rules do a poor job of describing the actual experience of playing the game. In Azul, this is also true. The game is light and rules are simple, but there is tactical brilliance that is most evident in a 2 player game where each player has full control of their choice and how they can impact their opponent. Ideally, each tile selection must benefit not only your board, but if possible, must also impede your opponent’s choices. It is quite elegant at the two player level when you have this simple back and forth between players. It is immediately clear to me that some of this brilliance is muted or lost at higher player counts where there is less control on what tiles are available when your turns come around and also how many people will be impacted by your choice. Things are just much harder to control and I think you end up playing more to your own board rather than defensively to block others. With two players, it is easier to do both.

The simplest example of a defensive play in Azul is choice denial. You pick up a tile your opponent wants and deny them the opportunity to score points. This denial can be pretty devastating as a single move to deny someone can result in a huge loss in points, particularly end game point and so it is not to be ignored. You can also force your opponent to pick up groups of tiles that they can no longer place on their board. For example, if the horizontal line on the grid already has blue, your opponent cannot pick up blue for that row. If you force them to select blue and there is no legal placement on that horizontal line, then all the tiles are converted into negative points. You can position your selection such that your opponent is forced to pick up multiple tiles that they cannot place. It’s mean, it’s cruel, but it’s also very satisfying when you leave a 5 tile group for your opponent to place in their factory floor! Of course, everything comes at an opportunity cost. So, balance must be struck to ensure that your offensive and defensive plays maximizes your own score too.

Azul is great and Michael Kiesling is deserving of all the praise for his design. There are already 2 spin-offs for Azul that uses the same tile drafting system, but with different scoring methodologies. I have played Sintra, but still greatly prefer the plain vanilla Azul. There is something to be said about simplicity of the original design that already carries considerable depth. Additional complexity in my book is not always necessary. Still, I think the spin-offs are well regarded and I am happy that the entire Azul family is getting its due. This one stays in my collection right alongside Knizia’s Keltis series. Both games in the series have the same flavor, depth, pace and I hope, durability.

Initial impression: Great!

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