Published by Plan B Games - 2017
Designer: Michael Kiesling
Head Artists: Philippe Guerin and Chris Quilliams
2 - 4 players ~ 30-45 minutes
Review written by Luke Muench
People are quick to assume that I fall under the ambiguous and recently somewhat negative label “hipster”. I tend to not like a wide variety of things the general public praises, actively fighting against any residual nostalgia fighting for air at the back on my mind, and I’m often asked why I can’t just “turn off my brain and enjoy stuff”.
In truth, I often wish I could find more joy out of the things others do; for one thing, it would mean I’d be a lot happier a lot more of the time. So it’s a pleasant surprise when a game like Azul comes along. While it’s monumental critical acclaim and 2018 Spiel de Jahres win does little to excite me (aside from a sort of minor-academic tickle), the brilliant game hidden within it’s glossy and colorful exterior deserves every bit of it’s acclaim. Azul is downright brilliant; elegant in function and hilarious fun in practice.
And no, I didn’t like it before it was cool.
… Is That It?
“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” - Darth Vader
Azul, in premise, is mind-numbingly simple; each round, you collect colored tiles to try and fill in the pattern on your board. On your turn, you’ll take all tiles of a single color from one of the circles on the table, pushing the remaining pieces to a central pool. Once you start filling a row with a specific color, you cannot fill it with any other color until it’s completed. If, at the end of a round, you have filled one of the left-most rows to capacity with a single color type, you get to place one of those tiles on the appropriate place on your pattern.
Abstract puzzling at its most banal? Yes, or at least it seems that way on the surface, with every review and picture online doing little to shake that impression. Yet as the praise kept pouring in, I felt it my duty to give it try, if only to have an excuse to talk some sense into the rambling masses. Surely there was some sort of drug coated across these little, shiny squares that had gotten into everyone’s blood-systems, surely there was a noxious gas hidden within each box, brainwashing anyone who dared open it, surely…
Only when you start to handle those tactile little pieces of plastic do you begin to grasp the true mastery and understanding of game design hidden within those cardboard player mats, for there is so much to grasp and grapple with turn to turn it will drive you batty. I don’t think I’ve won a single match of this game, yet I absolutely adore what it does.
Picking and Choosing
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” - Gandalf The Grey
Each decision in Azul impacts everyone at the table, creating a sort of rippling effect where actions have deeper, drawn out meanings that you may not see the full ramifications of until several turns later.
The first and most obvious decision is which color you choose to put where on your board. Do you think you can gather five of them this turn, or are you going to play it safe and just fill in your two-slot row now? Every row is a precision commodity, allowing you to harbor only so many of a given color, but they’re also a perilous restriction. The moment you place a red tile in a row, you are dedicating that row to red until it is completed. You better have a means of doing just that, or else you’re going to be seeing red for many turns to come as you rage over how you can’t just… I just want to put it… Come ON, why can’t I complete this freakin’ row?
The reason is because every other player is aware that you need those last 2 red tiles to get points for that row, and they just so happened to take them, even if it is a subpar move for them. Blocking other players is a huge part of how Azul is played; it’s a mean, cutthroat, often laugh-out-loud hilarious affair.
In one memorable game, I was awaiting my turn to scoop up the last blue tile I needed for my fifth row, which was going to score me a ton of points. As each player when about their business, a drop of sweat dripped from my brow in anticipation. It was only when my neighbor looked at my board did he decide to remove that precious commodity from the table. One. Turn. Before. Mine. And in that moment, I erupted in a flurry of heated exclamations too saucy to be repeated here. And I loved it, every second of it; this game made me feel that intense loss, and all because of the actions I had taken as well as those of my blood-thirsty opponents.
Easy Come, Easy Go
“You never know when some lunatic will come with a sadistic choice.” - The Green Goblin
But the truly evil, the most diabolical players, are those who orchestrate the massive loss of points possible in any given game.
There are two ways of losing points, the first of which may seem quite tame. As players take tiles, any leftovers are pushed to the aforementioned central pool, slowly building until one player can’t help but pull from the tantalizing pot of riches. When they do so, they also receive the first player marker, a prize that is promptly placed in the first of their negative points slots.
This does two things; firstly, it provides small but meaningful factor to consider as you play; will you sacrifice a point to go first next round?. And secondly, removing that first player token is like opening a floodgate, with the other players throwing themselves into that ocean of tiles, now freed from the threat of lost points. Quickly, this becomes a game of chicken as everyone sees how long they can wait before succumbing to the temptation of those five tiles of a kind while also recognizing that if the next player chooses to pull, you’re going last next round, an awful punishment in its own right.
The second and most damaging way of losing points is when, inevitably, players begin to pull tiles that they can’t legally place on their board anymore. In this case, any and all overflow tiles become negative points, splaying out on the bottom of your board like a line of bullet wounds. Take enough and you could lose up to negative fourteen points in a given round. In the immortal words of Phil Swift, “That’s a lotta damage!”
What’s more, forward-thinking players can begin to orchestrate such outcomes, so if you’re not careful, you could be stuck with a pile of eight tiles with no place to go. This past Origins, my buddy Quinn went from being in first place to just barely pulling up in third, as he was forced to take the full negative fourteen points in the final round of the game. It was hilarious, brutal, and engaging for everyone huddled around the table, desperately trying not to be the player who was bound to get skunked.
What’s The Score?
“If winning weren’t important, nobody would keep score.” Al McGuire
If there was one thing that could be defined as “complicated” in Azul, it would be scoring. At the end of each round when adding tiles to your pattern, each tile earns points equal to itself and any additional tiles in the same row and column. So while at the start of the game you’ll be earning single points, towards the end you’ll hopefully have orchestrated a board capable of forking over massive amounts of points.
Additionally, you’ll earn seven points for every completed column at the end of the game and ten points if you collected all five tiles of a given color. Lastly, a completed row will only earn you two points, but this is also the method of ending the game; the moment a single player completes a row, that means that the round you are playing will be the final round, leaving up to the players to determine how long a game will last.
A Winner, Through and Through
“The dude abides.” - The Dude
Azul is a beautiful game that anyone can pick up and play with ease, but with the design and choices that allow for competitive play. It has just enough player interaction to keep everyone on their toes, but each individual has their own little puzzle to solve. The flipside of the player boards, which removes the color restrictions of the boards, allows for some truly crazy and interesting plays, but can easily stump the unobservant player. It plays quickly and easily, facilitating some truly memorable experiences.
If ever there was a flaw, it would be that a single bump against your player board and all your progress can be flung across the room, which has happened to me once before. Yes, there are accessories to fix this, but it’s still an annoying quirk that can hamper your game.
Also, it should be noted that this isn’t the most color-blind friendly game out there, though replacement pieces have been released to better allow for anyone to tell the tiles apart. Still, someone shouldn’t have to pay additional money to play the same game as everyone else.
Yet if these are the only bad things I have to say about it, there must be something special about this compact, unassuming box full of gorgeous tiles and intense, unbridled emotion. Yes, for once the masses were right; Azul is a gem that should be in everyone’s collection. You win this one, society.
Who Should Get This Game: Anyone who can appreciate Azul’s smooth, seamless gameplay and the colorful style.
Who Shouldn’t Get This Game: Those who can’t stand a lack of theme or games that can be particularly mean at times. Hipsters.