Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra (Brandon Kempf)
Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra
Designer: Michael Kiesling
Artist: Chris Quilliams
Published by Next Move Games
On November 11, 2017 I played my first game of Azul. Immediately the thoughts of “modern classic” and “elegance” started pouring into my head. Much like the great designs of Reiner Knizia, Azul simply stepped out of the way of the players and allowed them to work the system. It was a simple, it was elegant, and it was interactive in a way that modern games just don’t seem to accomplish anymore. Because of this design and ease of play -- all while packing it in such quick decision spaces -- Azul rightfully won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award for 2018. It may be the best selling board game of the last few years, with Next Move/Plan B reporting sales of above 325,000 copies even before that red SdJ Pommel was placed on the box.
On October 30, 2018 I played my first game of Azul Stained Glass of Sintra, and was immediately drawn back to why I liked the “original” Azul so much.
First and foremost, Azul Stained Glass of Sintra feels like it was the original game. What I mean by that is that it feels like it came first and when it was presented to the developers they chopped it up a bit and gave us the perfectly streamlined Azul that we got last year. I could be completely wrong, and most likely I am, but that’s exactly what it feels like to me. It lacks a bit of the streamlined feeling that you get from Azul. A lot of folks are going to like that, and they may use nonsense descriptors like “gamer-y” or “thinkier” when describing it. But a lot of folks aren’t going to like that, as it takes what made Azul a nearly perfect game and obfuscated what made it so endearing to so many people.
Theme-wise we go from ceramic tiles to stained glass. We are trying to complete windows in Sintra, so we’ve moved from Evora to Sintra, but we have stayed in Portugal. We’ve kept the same drafting mechanism and placement mechanism that was so beautifully integrated in Azul. So when you take glass from a factory or from the center, you take all of that specific color from that specific spot. If it’s a factory, the remaining pieces go to the middle of the offering, you then place it in a row, all the tiles that you can. After this point, we diverge a bit.
You see, Sintra, which is just the easier way for me to refer the newer game at this point, has a variable board setup of sorts. There are eight different windows on each player board, and each window wants a different set of glass. Some may want five of one color, others a mix. Above your player board you have a glazier. This piece restricts where you may place your glass shards. You may place glass in any of the windows directly below or to the right of the glazier, moving the glazier to the window where you placed. You can see how we are getting away from the ease of play here. Instead of only one color per row and being able to place anywhere, your choices become more limited in Sintra. The glazier also introduces another new choice for the players. Instead of taking glass on your turn, you can pass and reset your glazier fully to the left of your player board, sometimes you’ll do this out of necessity and other times it will be more of a stall tactic. In Azul, if you take extra tiles that you cannot fit on your board, they break and go to waste which will lead to negative points each time you take them. The same goes in Sintra, except it seems to have a bit more agency with it, so it feels more punishing. Each extra glass you take that cannot fit on your board will break and you will go down a notch on a track for each one of those. At the end of the game you will lose points based on how far down that track you go, from 0 to -18 points. Take enough excess glass, you’ll proceed down the track pretty quickly and lose 18 points. After you lose your 18 points, your marker on that track resets to zero and you start down that path again. I’ve been there and done that, and while it doesn’t alway mean that you will have an awful score, it does make it a lot more difficult to be competitive.
When a window is filled -- when it has all of its glass -- you have completed that window. You will bring one of those tiles that you have used in that window down to your player board and place it on the spot that reminds you to flip that window over, there are reasons you would pick one color or another and we’ll cover that in final scoring. After that, you score points. Each window has a static point value assigned to it on the bottom of the player board, you will score that many points, plus any points for windows to the right that have been completed previously. Each of the six rounds of Sintra has a color assigned to it, that color will score you a bonus point per glass of that color that you complete this round. So points can be swingy, sometimes you will score one point for finishing an entire window, other times you can score upwards of 15 points, it’s all about your planning and knowing when to finish and went to take the right color tiles to do so. After you complete a window a second time, it is removed from the game, so at most per window you can have two tiles on your player board.
Six rounds, that’s how much time you have to do all the window building that you need to do in order to score as many points as you possibly can. A round ends just the same as it did in Azul, when all of the tiles have been picked. End of the game there are two options for scoring, each will get you more points to kind of off-set that negative you may incur along the way, or maybe just reward you for good play. They both involve the tiles you bring down into your windows after completing a pane. One way is a simple multiplier, you take the color of glass you have the most of on the bottom of your player board and you multiply that times the number of completed (two pieces) windows on your player board. The other way is just a set completion scoring where the player boards have squares for those completed pieces of window and you score based on how many pieces of glass you have in each square.
It’s amazing to me how much adding one more decision point can change the feel of a game so much, and that’s what the passing choice does here. There are times where your Glazier hasn’t moved more than two windows and yet, the offerings for you to take are not what you need or want, so you delay by passing, making the other players take those glass shards, but this can also put you behind in terms of number of glass taken and thus slow you down so you really don’t want to do that unless you absolutely have to. Make no mistakes, there are times where you will absolutely have to. You may be sitting there staring at 10 red pieces of glass and only one empty red space on your board. You need to pass, and you need to have others need those pieces or have planned worse than you and have to take those pieces.
The two games are similar, there is no getting around this fact. The question is, are the differences enough to warrant a completely new game? I think the answer falls right in the middle -- for some, like me, these differences are enough, to others, though, that won’t be the case, it’ll just be too similar.
Sintra is an absolutely beautiful game, where Azul pieces were often compared to Starbursts, you can probably best compare the glass pieces to Halls cough drops, colorful and translucent. Play in a nice well lit area and the pieces will kind of give that feel and look of stained glass. If color blindness is an issue, the fine folks at Next Move have tried to fix that for you with a couple of different options, including textures on the pieces and a backside of the factories that has a space to lay out the pieces in specific spots denoting which pieces they are.
Gameplay wise, Sintra does feel to have a bit more depth than Azul, but sometimes I do wonder if that depth is an illusion? Maybe I’m just conflating depth with just having a couple more choices. There is something to say about a game that makes you forget just how simple the game really is, and it’s another thing for a game to constantly remind you of things you have to think about. Sintra is less subtle than its predecessor in this way. The changes are in the forefront and they are noticeable and they make you think about them as you play. Even just that simple choice of ‘Do I pass and reset my Glazier?’ is there each and every turn.
I think in a perfect world, I would have discovered Sintra first. We, as gamers, seem naturally more keen on games that go from more complex to less as opposed to from less to more, and those that are successful in getting more complex are usually a system of games that gradually add more and more to them. Maybe that’s what happening here, who knows, maybe there is something else in Portugal for us to cover or enclose and we just haven’t seen it yet.
Personally, I like Sintra and will save a space for it on my shelves right next to its predecessor. I think those who like the more variable side of the board in Azul will like the variable setup here in Sintra, and I think that folks who like to have a bit more control or choice will like Sintra as well. The game is just as interactive as its predecessor, and still has that “mean” streak as some have chosen to call it. I personally don’t think Azul is a mean game, players can most definitely be mean, but the game itself is not, it doesn’t force that meanness on anyone.
Part of my newer review style is going to be assigning a letter grade to each game as if I were a teacher grading a paper. For me a game like Azul gets an A, and Sintra is going to get a B+. For me the simplicity and and elegance of the original, beat out the newer choices and extended game play, but both are worthy games that should be on the shelves of folks who like lighter strategy games that allow for as much interaction with the other players at the table as they want to allow. Wonderful production values across the board and a rule book that leaves little to nothing to interpretation mean this game, while still being a step up from Azul, can be played and enjoyed by gamers across all backgrounds and playstyles.