What's Eric Playing? #230: Azul
For my three-year bloggiversary, I’m giving away a copy of Azul! Check it out!
Well, on the plus side, in between reviewing a bamboozle of Kickstarter games, I’ve had time to get in a few games that I’ve purchased, as well. Some will take me a while to get to the table (Saloon Tycoon: The Ranch, Roll Player expansion, Spirit Island), but Azul is sort of a perennially easy game to play, so I’ve dropped it on the table enough times that I can get a review done, albeit a little late after the first hype wave.
In Azul, we are tile-laying artists (sort of like sandwich artists, I assume) tasked with fancying up the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora. There’s a pattern and an order to things, and we’ll do much better if we build our tile wall in a smart and sustainable way. Will your construction be magnificent and please the court? Or will your best art just end up on the floor?
So, give every player a player board:
You should flip it to the side without grey tiles on the right square. The other side is an advanced variant that adds in even more Sagrada-esque gameplay. Each player should also take a scoring marker and put it on the 0:
Now, set out the Factories:
- 2 players: 5 Factories
- 3 players: 7 Factories
- 4 players: 9 Factories
Those will be where you end up placing all the tiles:
You should put them in the tile bag:
Shuffle the tiles around, and place four randomly on each Factory, and add the First Player token to the center:
I got one made for me before I found out the second edition would have an actual first-player token.
Once you’ve done that, choose a player to go first and you’re ready to roll!
Alright, so a game of Azul is played over several rounds until the game-ending condition is hit. Each round has a drafting phase and a scoring phase. Let’s talk about each in turn.
So, you see the tiles on the Factories — on your turn, you may take all tiles of one color from any Factory or the center and add them to one row on your Player Board’s left side (the uncolored, staggered side). There are a few rules to this:
- You must take all tiles of that color from the Factory or center. No leaving tiles behind.
- If you cannot fit all of the tiles you’ve taken in that row, the extras are placed on the Floor (the row on the bottom of your player board) and are worth negative points.The Floor fills left to right, and is additive, not cumulative. More on that during scoring.
- Any tiles remaining on a Factory are dumped into the center. You may dump them in as unceremoniously as you would like or feel like those tiles deserve. They may be taken by players in subsequent turns.
- If you are the first player to take tiles from the center, you also take the first-player token from the center. Add it to your Floor (so, negative points), and you’ll go first next round.
- A row may only contain tiles of one color. No mixing and matching with this one, and you cannot remove tiles from an incomplete row. They’re stuck there until it’s completed. Note that multiple rows on your board may have the same color at once. It’s just a restriction so you don’t have a row with blue and black tiles or something weird.
- If you’ve already added a color to your wall from that row, you may not add that color to that row again. Basically, more on this during scoring, but if you’ve already completed Row 3 with black tiles, you cannot add a new set of black tiles to Row 3. Where would they go?
That’s most of it, to be honest. Once all tiles have been taken, proceed to the scoring phase.
This part’s a bit complicated, so bear with me. Starting at the top of your player board and working towards the floor, do the following:
- Is the row complete? If yes, keep going, if not, skip this row (do nothing) and start again with the next row. The tiles for an incomplete row stay until the row is completed.
- Add the rightmost tile from the complete row to its corresponding spot on the wall. It goes in the same row as the row you completed.
- If it is not adjacent to any other tiles, score 1 point. This will happen sometimes.
- If it is adjacent to other tiles, score the blocks of adjacent tiles. You’ll score the vertical block and the horizontal block, as follows:
- The tile is not adjacent to other tiles in its column or row: 0 points. Don’t worry; you’ll still score for the other orientation.
- The tile is adjacent to other tiles in its column or row: 1 point for every tile in that connected row or column. Do not count tiles in the same row or column that aren’t connected to the placed tile. A fully-connected row would score 5 points (0 + 5). A fully-connected column would score 5 points (5 + 0). A tile connected to a tile vertically and another two tiles horizontally would score 5 points (2 + 3).
- Remove the other tiles from the row and add them to the box lid. Remember, you only do this if the row was completed this round. Once you’ve done this, start at the top for the next row.
Once you get to the floor, subtract the points indicated above the tile for each tile on the Floor and add the tiles on your Floor to the box lid. You can’t go below zero, which will probably be a small comfort to you if you’re at risk of doing so.
If a player has completed an entire row of their wall, the game ends. Move on to End of Game. Otherwise, set up for the next round. Draw new tiles from the bag to fill up the Factories, and if you run out of tiles in the bag, put the tiles in the box lid back into the bag and draw back up from there.
END OF GAME
Again, once a player has completed an entire row on their wall, the game is over! You’ll get some bonus end-of-game points if you fulfilled certain criteria:
- +2 points for every complete row on your wall;
- +7 points for every complete column on your wall;
- +10 points for each set of 5 of a color you have on your wall.
The player with the most points wins! If there’s a tie, well, the player with the most horizontal rows completed wins.
PLAYER COUNT DIFFERENCES
At two players, it’s a bit more give-and-take since you’re essentially drafting the tiles. At four, it’s more of a free-for-all since you can’t necessarily guarantee that you’re going to have the same options when it comes around to your turn again. There’s more entropy in a four-player game, which may appeal to certain types of players, where I find two-player play to be a bit more strategic. There are also more tiles being moved around at four, so it’s possible for the center to get pretty large, pretty quickly, unless there are players attempting to keep it to a reasonable size. I don’t really have a strong preference for any player count — it’s fun at all of them, just for different reasons. I’d mostly recommend being mindful of who you’re going to play Azul with, and approaching your groups with care based on the kind of games that appeal to them at different player counts.
- I usually try to complete a column first, and then go for five of a kind. Those are both pretty good ways to earn a lot of points towards the end of the game. Bonus points if you can complete two columns successfully, as that also earns you a lot of points on placement.
- Keep an eye on other players’ boards. You’re best off if you take things that other players don’t also want so that you avoid contention with them. Otherwise, neither of you totally get what you want and you’re left fighting over a compromise while others benefit.
- Taking the first-player token isn’t always a good idea. It’s negative points and it fills up one of the lower negative points slots, meaning that the more tiles you take the more points you’ll lose. You can pretty quickly lose a lot of points if you’re not paying a lot of attention to your floor row — I’ve seen someone lose 11+ points in a round.
- If there are three or four of the same tile on a Factory, that’s probably going to go pretty quickly. I usually just take it if I’m first player — there’s almost always somewhere to make that work. Sometimes you get lucky and the first player just can’t take it, so, well, .
- Getting five of a color complete on your wall sufficiently early in the game can be a problem. If you do that, your opponents can conspire to ensure you get unplayable tiles and get stuck dumping a bunch of tiles to the floor. That’s not … excellent. I usually shoot to finish a five of a kind towards the end of the game (or during the same round that I end the game, if possible).
- Four-player games have a bit more risk. Be careful. At higher player counts it’s possible for 5+ (even 7 or 9+) tiles of the same color to be in the center if players aren’t paying attention. Try not to let the center tile count get that high unless you can absolutely guarantee you’re not the player that will end up with it. If there’s a risk, you might pay a high price.
PROS, MEHS, AND CONS
- Pretty painless setup. Pass out some player boards, grab some tiles, put them on the Factories; you’re ready to go!
- Even though the scoring is obtuse, the first few rounds are relatively low-stakes so mistakes don’t matter as much. You’re not going to be scoring that many points in round 1, so it’s probably okay for you to make some minor scoring mistakes then, if you’re going to make them. Just make sure everyone understands the rules by round 2.
- Very nice art. The tiles are mostly very good-looking, even if they do kind of look like delicious Starbursts. It’s bright, colorful, and striking, and definitely has a good table presence. I would almost love to do a Circle the Wagons-type deal where instead of Factories, you make a giant circle of tiles around the center in groups of four and just use that as the presentation for the game. It’d be hard to segment, but valuable.
- High-quality components. The tiles are really nice. They’ve got a good weight, a good texture, and the bag is also pretty nice. The player boards are so-so, which is okay, but the tiles themselves are excellent.
- Plays reasonably quickly. It makes a pretty great lunch game, all things being equal. You can bust it out, play with three of your coworkers, and you’ve only spent 30 – 45 minutes. It’s a nice length for a game.
- It can be mean, but it’s hard to be directly mean. If you set up the center so that someone will get stuck with it, it’s decently likely that that someone will end up being you, so you’re mildly incentivized to, well, not do that. Just like real life, being a jerk doesn’t always pay off.
- The blank tiles are kind of strange. It’s a bit more frustrating since they started selling “upgraded” versions of the blank red and blue tiles that have designs on them. It feels like double-dipping and I’m not super excited for that? Oh well, I’ll just keep my regular Starbursts.
- The first edition first-player marker is not great. It manages to successfully compete with Ex Libris for Bad First Player Tokens. Ex Libris has these wonderful meeples (and cube) of all sorts of fantasy types and then a single white “crystal ball” as the first-player token. Azul had a small cardboard token. Azul’s major loss here is that Ex Libris doesn’t really need to use its first-player token, while Azul certainly does, and quite often. That said, they fixed it in the second edition and have included a nice tile-quality first-player token, so, props to them for seeing the issue, noting it, and addressing it. This is more of a heads-up in case you end up buying a first-edition (doesn’t have a Next Move Games logo, I think) copy.
- The scoring is pretty obtuse. I’ve had … every person I’ve played it with for the first time get confused. All of them, every time. That can be catastrophic as unlike other games there’s no easy way to recalculate your score from scratch (since so much of it depends on your board state at placement). If you get off track badly enough, you’re basically tanked. I’ve been attempting to give better tutorials to new players, but honestly the best thing to do is just to walk them through the first couple rounds of scoring and tell them to make sure they proactively ask questions if they get confused about anything.
- On the same note, sort of, I do prefer games where you can recalculate the score. One frustrating thing about Azul is if anyone makes any scoring mistake then it’s unrecoverable, and a fair number of games are pretty close. I understand due to the way the game plays that it’s not possible to retrace your steps, but that + an already difficult scoring system does make the game more challenging for new players than, say, Kingdomino.
OVERALL: 8.75 / 10
Overall, I think Azul is great! It’s got a nice blend of luck and strategy, the component quality is excellent (and reminiscent of Splendor and Sagrada, both games that I would say occupy a similar space), and it’s a lot of fun to play. The major thing that will draw a lot of people to it is the art, but it’s getting lauded by many now for its gameplay. I enjoy the gameplay, sure, but I find the scoring mechanics to be a bit difficult for newer players to get used to, leading to some frustration down the road. It’s nothing that can’t be overcome, but it may be something worth noting, as I think it’s a nontrivial hiccup in an otherwise very smooth and very fun game that may even end up being game of the year. It’s still occasionally a bit hard to find new, but if you’re looking for a very nicely-produced strategy game that you can play with the whole family, Azul is certainly not a bad choice; it’s an excellent one!