I once took a personality test—one of those team-building kinds of things—and it suggested I was different. As in I actively sought to be different from the crowd. I’m not so sure that it is active on my part. I rarely take things on faith or as a given, certainly. But I don’t try to be different for its own sake. So, when Azul by Next Move Games was catching a lot of attention last year I was as intrigued as anyone. It was clearly a pretty game. But a pretty face and hype is not quite enough to convince me to buy a game. I want to be clear, I was not eschewing the game because it was popular. I was just looking at a lot of options and couldn’t decide. Analysis paralysis even before I had found a game to hit the table.
At any rate, I went to my FLGS to buy another game and they were out of it. But they had one copy of Azul left so I figured, “what the hell?” and decided I’d try it.
I’m glad I did! I remember posting to my Instagram account that the hype was real. In the 6 months that I’ve owned the game I have played the game more times than I can count. Not that I really log my plays anyway.
Azul by Next Move Games (a trademark of Plan B Games, Inc.)
Designer: Michael Kiesling
Artist(s): Philippe Guérin, Chris Quilliams
Publisher: Next Move Games
Prominent Mechanisms: Drafting, Tile Placement
Theme: Abstract Strategy
Awards: Winner—2018 Spiel des Jahres
What is Azul?
I said it earlier, but I don’t want to presume that everyone knows what Azul is. It’s an abstract strategy game for 2-4 players where you draft tiles from several options and then move those tiles onto a wall you are designing. You score more points by moving tiles onto your wall that are adjacent to other tiles (like the way you score in Qwirkle, if you are familiar with that game). If a player fills a row with 5 tiles, the game ends. Players calculate their final points and the player with the most wins and gets to clean up while the others go off and sulk.
The inspiration for the game came from the Royal Palace of Evora. The story goes that King Manuel I was impressed by Alhambra and ordered that his own palace in Portugal be decorated similarly.
What’s in the Game?
Typical of any given abstract strategy, the components of Azul by Next Move Games are few:
- 4 scoring markers
- 4 double-sided player boards
- 100 resin tiles (20 each of 5 different designs)
- 1 starting player tile
- 1 linen bag
- 9 factory displays
- 1 rule book
It is cliché of me to say, but you really don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Azul had a good initial impact on me. The box art is nice with watercolor art and the blue colors are not overdone despite the title of the game being a translation of “blue”. The box is not over-sized, and the game is reasonably hefty for its size. The back of the box provides enough information to encourage a would-be player to open it up and see if the game plays as elegantly as it looks (spoiler: it does!).
Deep(ish) Dive into the Game
I am not going to dwell on the theme. You could argue that it has a theme to it. You are trying to tile a wall with tiles made available to all players from various factories. But this is an abstract strategy through and through. And I love abstracts!
When you draft the tiles from factories (or from the center of the table) you must be mindful of your personal goals. Do you need to fill a red row? You’ll want to draft those if you can. Alternatively, you must also be mindful of others’ goals. Do they want red too? Or perhaps they are after blue. Now what do you do? You’ll have to consider the whole picture and adjust your strategy accordingly. Drafting those blue tiles may not net you any points this round. But you may block the other players’ abilities to net points too. Better yet, you may force them into accumulating negative points!
Laying tiles in Azul is particularly interesting to me. Depending on which side of the board you are playing with you either are prescribed where a tile may go, or you have carte blanche to create your own design. The caveat to laying your own design is that no particular type of tile may be repeated in any column or any row. Think of it like a Sudoku puzzle where a number is not repeated in a row or column. This drives a stronger need for longer-term planning. This is a game of perfect information* and you will do well to consider everyone’s previous moves. They may be telegraphing their goals and you don’t want them to outscore you unless you like losing. Woe unto the player who pays little attention to his opponents’ moves.
*In game theory, a sequential game has perfect information if each player, when making any decision, is perfectly informed of all the events that have previously occurred, including the “initialization event” of the game (e.g. the starting hands of each player in a card game).
~Wikipedia article on Perfection Information—https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_information
As I alluded to previously, the player who becomes disengaged in Azul does so at her own peril. A myopic focus on your own strategy may force you into drafting several unfavorable tiles towards the end of the round. Especially if you are the last player in a round (pay attention to who went first…this changes each round and does not go in any order). On a particularly bad round you can get as many as 14 negative points! It behooves you to pay attention and keep your head in the game. Don’t believe me? Play the game a few times your way and get back to me.
Little to none. You will not be making deals with other players so there is no negotiating or backstabbing or collusion to be found in Azul.
I hesitate to say that Azul has infinite replayability. However, I am always willing to play it if the conditions are right. I have played it with 2, 3, and 4 players. The sweet spot for me is with three players. Playing with two is fun but it loses some of that strategy I was talking about before. You only need to consider one other player. That is fun. But not as fun. Playing with four is also a lot of fun. But in a 4-player game the inevitability that someone will end up getting screwed with an unfavorable final draft is very real. Playing with three is a nice mix of observing and responding to multiple strategies. You can also still get exciting scores in a 3-player game.
Referencing back to my initial impressions, the aesthetics and box quality are amazing. The plastic molded insert is great for keeping everything in its place and is something that a lot of publishers forego (I wish they wouldn’t). The resin tiles are beautiful and shiny, and the scoring markers are a simple (translate that to “elegant”) black wooden cube.
But the player boards themselves leave a lot to be desired. They are heavy cardboard and they are as beautiful as any other component in this game. But they do not lay perfectly flat. They tend to warp slightly. If you play on a slick surface the boards are easily shifted (lightly bumping a corner can spin the board). Since the boards are flat (mostly) the slick tiles can also slide around easily if the boards are bumped. Even just sliding the tiles from part of your board to another can cause issues. This becomes frustrating quickly.
My recommendation is to use a tablecloth (and to lock your pets away if they are prone to jumping on your table) during games.
Azul by Next Move Games is a modern classic. It is a staple in the modern board game collection that I don’t see myself getting rid of anytime soon. Add this to your collection if you have not already. Enjoy it with your kids. Invite friends over for drinks and Azul.
This game is incredibly versatile. I would like to share an anecdote with you, so you can understand what I mean. When I was a kid I remember playing Super Mario Bros. on my NES with my grandmother (that’s right…she was cool like that). She let me be Mario (again, she was cool). But when I took the first warp zone in world 1-2 she looked at me and said, “Oh. You don’t play for points?” My grandmother was a gamer’s gamer! She didn’t just play to play. She played to win. Competition was important.
In Azul, you could ask your table if they wanted to play for points too. Remember, if anyone gets 5 tiles in a row then the game ends. So, at a minimum, the game will go five rounds. A player could draft tiles and put them in the top row each round and finish the game quickly. Would they win? It depends. But you could suggest a house rule (house rules are a slippery slope, be careful!) that you may draft a tile that would end the game only if you have no alternative. You could play for points the way my grandmother did with OG Mario!
- Super Replayable
- Highly Engaging
- Easy to Teach
- Frustrating Player Boards
- Rules a Tad Confusing
My overall rating for Azul by Next Move Games is 4.6 out of 5.