Azul (Brandon Kempf)
Designed by Michael Kiesling
Art by Philippe Guérin & Chris Quilliams
Published by Plan B Games
Azulejo is a form of Spanish and Portuguese painted ceramic tilework. They can be found inside Churches, Palaces, Schools and just about anywhere nowadays. They were originally brought to Portugal in the 15th Century by King Manuel after he visited Seville. He returned and decorated the Sintra National Palace with Azulejo tiles.
Azul, from Plan B Games, tile drafting, tile placement game in which you are competing against the other players to get your tiles placed in the Royal Palace of Evora, in the most pleasing way that will score you the most points.
Setup for Azul is super simple. you figure out how many of you are playing and you put the correct number of coaster like Factories out on the table. Then, make sure all of your tiles are in the beautiful drawbag and you draw and place four tiles on each Factory. Everyone gets a player board and sits it in front of them and a small cube for your score marker that goes on the 0 at the start of your scoring track on your player board. Place the 1st player marker in the middle of all of the Factories and you are now ready to do some tiling.
On your turn you will do two things. You will take all of one color from one of the Factories on the table and the rest of the tiles that remain on that Factory will go to the middle of the table between all of the other Factories. You then will take your tiles that you drafted and you will pick a row on the left hand side of your board and you will place them there, filling up the blank spaces on the appropriate row. Note, you can only place tiles that you have taken on one row. If you have more tiles of a color than spaces on a row, those extra tiles will go to the Floor Line on the bottom of your board and will score you negative points at the end of the round. Sooner or later, someone is going to want some tiles that are in the center, or that first player marker, when they decide that, they just simply take all the tiles of the same color as before. If you are the first person to take from the center of the table, you will also take the First Player marker and it will go straight to your Floor Line. Play goes this way until all of the tiles are taken by the players, you will then proceed to the Wall Tiling phase.
Wall Tiling is all about moving your completed rows of tiles over to the wall and scoring them. You do this from top to bottom. Move the rightmost tile of any completed row to the space of the same color in the corresponding row of your wall, each time you do this, you will score points immediately. After that you will remove any tiles from the blank pattern rows that now have no tile in the rightmost space and place them in the box or off to the side somewhere. If your Pattern Rows were not complete, they stay on the row.
Each tile that you move over to your wall is placed on the space matching it's color on that row and as said before, you will immediately score it. Scoring may be the trickiest part of this game, and it's not all that tricky, just takes a bit to get used to. A tile place on it's own on the Wall with nothing adjacent to it, will score one point. If that tile that was placed has another tile orthogonally adjacent to it, check to see if there are more tiles linked to the newly placed tile, if so, count all these linked tiles, including the one you just placed and gain that many points. You do this both horizontally AND vertically, each time counting the tile that was placed. After you have moved your tiles over and scored them, subtract the appropriate points from the Floor Line and remove those tiles from your Floor Line and place them off to the side and put the first player marker back in the middle of the board.
There are bonus points to score in Azul, I mean, what kind of game would it be without some completion goals, right? If you finish a column in your Tile Wall, you get a bonus of 7 points. If you manage to gather 5 of the same color/design, you get a 10 point bonus at the end of the game. And when you complete a full row in your Tile Wall, you get a bonus of 2 points.
A game of Azul will end when someone fully completes a Wall Tile Row on their player board, meaning they have managed to place 5 tiles in a row. If no one has done that after scoring, load up the Factory Tiles as you did before and play will start with the player who took the First Player marker the previous round.
Azul was kind of an after thought for me during this busy Essen Spiel season. It was a game that always had looked intriguing to me, but it never pushed itself to the front of my "must have" list. It seemed to be a certainly beautiful game, but what was going to set it apart from the myriad of others that came at the same time? It didn't make my Top 5 Titles from Essen Spiel 2017 that I was excited about, it did get a mention though to be honest. But since Essen Spiel has ended and I have had a chance to play a handful of titles that released then, Azul has easily been the pack leader with a half dozen plays across all player counts since it's arrival here.
The drafting of tiles is interesting and there are decisions to be made that can affect how future turns play out because all of the other unselected tiles will accumulate in the middle for anyone to pick up when they think that it's worth taking that First Player marker and thusly the first negative points. Going first can really be a pretty big advantage in later rounds as you search for specific tiles to complete a Pattern Row.
There will be inevitable comparisons to Sagrada and I think that's completely fair. So far though, I think I prefer the openness of Azul. There are no secret scoring goals, you are just trying to tile the wall in front of you and get the best score possible while doing so. The bonus points are huge and completing columns in your Tile Wall is hugely important, those 7 points can loom pretty large in the scoring.
Since there are negative points to be gained in this game, it does benefit you to watch your opponents and carefully plan. You don't want to be the one ending up having to pick up that bunch of 6 tiles that will end up on you Tile Floor, you definitely want to save that for your opponents if possible. In a two player game this is a lot more obvious, and sometimes can feel a lot more vindictive or confrontational, but that's just the nature of the beast with most two player games. You have no one else to curse when you get stuck with something, just the person across the table from you. This gets hidden a bit in higher player counts as those tiles could be picked up or moved by any of the other players.
Of note in a two player game, Azul does end up giving perfect information towards the end if you can see all the discarded tiles and what is on yours and your opponent's player boards. Rarely is a game going to go more than 5 rounds, in fact I can't recall that we have had any go more than 5. I think that adding in the Joker Tiles(which I haven't talked about) and maybe playing the other side of the board will help in two player games. The Joker Tiles simply act like wild tiles and replace two of each color tile at the start of the game. The joker tiles are drafted just like the regular tiles, but when placed on the Tile Wall, it depends on what else is with them to decide on where they go. If a Pattern Line is full of Joker Tiles you can choose which tile to cover in the Tile Wall. If a Pattern Line has another color tile in it, the Joker Tile will fill that spot in the Tile Wall. The other side of the player board allows the players to choose their own pattern to follow in the Tile Wall. You still can only have one tile of each color/pattern in each row or column, but you don't have to follow the predetermined layout that is on the other side of the board. These changes probably will help the two player game from being a bit deterministic towards the end.
Plan B officially has only two games under their belt at the moment, Azul & Century: Spice Road, but this is not their first rodeo as you can tell. They know what they are doing in finding games that will appeal to a massive swath of players. These first two games could be staples in the Gateway Games category in the years to come with their ease of teaching, while still yielding very satisfying and very strategic play. The components are superb in Azul, which is another staple that Gateway Games need at this juncture in the hobby. No one wants to break out ugly games for their non-gamer friends, you want to break out something that is beautiful on the table, and Azul has that covered with the fun chunky tiles and the beautiful presentations as you tile the Palace of Evora. With the Holidays coming up here in the United States and our family visiting family nearly every weekend from here till Mid-January, Azul is going to be a staple in my game bag that I carry around with me to every family gathering.
Also, just because some of the tiles may remind you of Starbursts doesn't mean that you should try to eat them. I'd say 10 out of 10 Dentists will agree on that.