If you’re like me and thought all board games are abstract, well, you’re both right and wrong. The term abstract game is now a genre term that reasonably means the game contains minimal luck, usually two players, and little to no theme. Think of Chess and Checkers as prime examples of abstracts, or more recently Azul. A 2-4 player abstract game designed by Michael Kiesling and published by Plan B games.
In this game players put on their overalls and travel back in time to build a fabulous new wall for the King of Portugal. That was me squeezing all the thematic juice out of Azul. Instead of an entertaining or thoughtfully storied experience this board game opted for complex, yet arbitrary scoring system that determines a winner by skill, intelligence, and masonry. Was it worth the sacrifice? Let’s find out.
How to Play
For setup, everyone gets a player board, a score marker, and then several (depending on player count) four-tile piles are placed in a circle around the middle of the table, these piles are referred to as factories. Between these factories, is a middle factory that has tiles added to it during play, the first player marker is placed in this middle factory – which I’ve lovingly named the trash factory.
The player board is where most of the game takes place. On the left side, it has five steps borrowed from the end of a Super Mario level – each step is known as a pattern line, a 5×5 grid on the right which is called the wall, and one final row at the bottom of the board named the floor line.
On a turn, a player picks up every tile of one colour from any of the factories, trash factory included. If the player chose an orbiting factory, then they smile with style while the other defiled tiles, file into the vile tile exile – aka the trash factory. Otherwise, the first player to grab tiles from the trash factory also grabs the first player token, placing it on their floor line.
The collected tiles are then added to a pattern line following these conditions:
- At any moment, a pattern line can only hold one colour of tile.
- The tiles collected are added to a pattern line from right to left.
- Any tiles that don’t fit on the pattern line fall onto the floor line.
- If a wall already has a tile, then tiles of that colour cannot be added to corresponding pattern line.
- Collected tiles may be placed directly onto the floor line despite having open pattern lines.
After all the tiles have been picked up, the building and scoring phase takes place. In this phase, you take the right most tile of each completed pattern line and add it to the wall, removing the remaining tiles on the pattern line from the game. You score the tile by either getting one point, if there are no other tiles connected to it, or by getting points for itself and how many tiles it connects with in a line horizontally, vertically, or both. Lastly, you take increasing penalty points for every tile on the floor line.
The factories are then refilled and play resumes with the person who last picked up the first player token. This continues until the end of a round where a player completes a horizontal row. Then after-game scoring kicks in, and players get points for completed rows, completed columns, and completed sets of the same colour tile.
The great thing about Azul being an abstract game is that I don’t need to tell you how good it looks on the table. Or how the beautiful resin tiles crackle when you shuffle them in the soft cloth bag. Or how the setup only takes seconds. Or how easy it is pick up the rules. Or the consistent feeling of building and accomplishment you get from filling up pattern lines and adding tiles to your wall. No, I don’t need to tell you any of that, because we need to talk about the core of this game: strategy.
The first thing you need to understand about Azul is that there is a variable end condition, the game can end at any moment after five rounds. This means you must plan on leading at the end of the fifth round or be able to stop an opponent from ending the game.
Combined with after-game scoring it creates a fantastic balance of both short and long-term objectives. In the short term, you’re trying to keep your score total above your opponents, but to maximise points in the long term you need to line up columns and get specific tiles to complete sets. Once you understand this, you realise the falsehood of the empty grid at the start of the game. It promises you the freedom to do what you want, when in reality you need to choose which colours and columns to focus on from the very start. That’s if you want any chance of completing these longer-term goals.
The long-term objective of getting a set of one colour isn’t all it seems either. The more you fill the wall with one colour, the harder it becomes to place that colour, as it can only be used in specific spots. The longer the game goes on, finding and filling lines correctly becomes increasingly difficult.
That’s the overall strategy and it’s easy to focus on when you’re not playing, however the decision-making process on a turn to turn basis isn’t that straight forward. There’s a lot more going on. For instance, you need to think about the economy of tiles. You’re often faced with the choice of waiting for tiles to fall into the trash factory or use a few turns to grab the tiles from the surrounding factories. A third option may be a lot of tiles of a single colour in the centre that isn’t immediately of use but could cheaply fill up some of your longer rows.
Another tough decision is measuring the worth of completing rows of unwanted colours by end of the round, against getting tiles and completing rows of the colours you want. Having leftovers from previous rounds can be extremely damaging. They will block you from adding new colours to your board, leaving you with a lot of tiles, and nowhere to put them.
Now let me introduce you to your opponent: a human sized spanner ready to jump into your works. On top of everything else, this board game is about blocking and stealing tiles and forcing your opponents into bad pick-ups, saddling them with as many unusable tiles as possible.
It’s beautiful isn’t it? You’ve just read six paragraphs about a single decision: which colour tile should you pick up? It’s strategy equivalent of cramming Smithers onto the Spruce Moose, and for this my hat is off to the designer.
I’ve mentioned it above, but one of the things that may put people off Azul is how mean it can be. Not only is blocking a core mechanic, but the board game also uses negative points. Anytime a game takes away player progression it better be for a good reason, otherwise there’s significant psychological ramifications: it makes players feel bad. Being an abstract game Azul doesn’t have a good reason for this negativity. Furthermore, a player is usually not doing well when they receive these points, so a lot of the time it’s just adding insult to injury.
On the topic of psychology, there’s a weird effect in Azul where I felt myself unconsciously go for the tiles I deemed prettier, even if the move was detrimental to me. With enough plays I’m sure I’d grow out of this, but nevertheless it’s an interesting and unusual phenomenon that impacted how I performed.
Another minor issue is how the tiles are scored. If it’s not connected to anything or only connected to a row or column then you only count the placed tile once. However, when it’s connected to both a row and a column, you count the placed tile twice. This small but subtle difference isn’t exactly intuitive, and players can get confused. The problem is compounded by players usually doing their own scoring in private, making it hard to pick up if scoring is done incorrectly.
The more players in the game, the worse it becomes. More people picking up tiles and impacting the board state between your turns, increases the difficulty of planning and makes the game feel more random. Conversely you have less of an impact on the board state, as there are more tiles for everyone to pick from, blocking becomes less important. Also blocking one person allows the other non-blocked players to gain an advantage. In turn, this makes the game less strategic, as it’s impossible to keep track of other players moves and motives.
Still sticking with four players, there is also an issue with unwanted tiles. If there’s one type of tile that no one wants it just builds up in the trash factory. This creates a horrible lottery at the end of the round where one player is forced into picking up eight or more tiles, usually leading to many, many negative points, knocking them out of the contest.
This game put a spell on me. I found myself often getting lost trying to figure out my best move. I hated it for that, but I also loved it. I love that it engages me so completely that I feel like I know how the sailors felt falling for the siren’s song.
Azul is the best tile laying game since Carcassonne, it’s incredible, and incredibly accessible. It’s easy to learn rules – when using visuals – belie its depth and decision space. It loses some edge when playing with more people, and it does have some meanness which could put some people off. Personally, I found it refreshing, it’s not something I want in every game, but I thought it worked well here. I’m giving this game my famous Critical Hit rating, meaning that you should check it out. Now, for some reason, I have an urge to re-tile my bathroom.
This was one of the harder games I’ve had to review, without a theme there was no inspiration! I even had a Shooter McGavin moment explaining the rules. Anyway, if you haven’t got Azul yet, why not? Let us know.