Azul board game: A four-sided review

Azul is an abstract family board game for two to four players. It takes less than an hour to play, works at all player counts and is a doddle to teach. Anyone can play, but there’s also plenty for a serious gamer to get their teeth into.

Released in 2017, it won the 2018 Spiel des Jahres (alongside numerous other top awards) and is ranked in the Top 50 games of all time at Board Game Geek.

Inside the striking box you’ll find four large (24x24cm) double-sided player boards, nine round beer mat-sized boards, four wooden cubes, 101 thick plastic tiles (one a start player marker) and a cloth bag to put them in. The colourful art and design are taken from Moorish art and architecture, giving it a unique look. While the board quality is average, the tiles (which look like Bakelite) make the game stand out on the table.

The overall production is both tactile and gorgeous, which has helped the Azul board game become one of the biggest releases of recent years. And at less than £30 its good value for money – especially as the tiles seem practically indestructible. But does the game play match up to the design quality?

Teaching the Azul board game

The rulebook barely stretches to five heavily illustrated pages and is simple to teach as that might suggest. Plus, there’s no hidden information, so you can easily walk players through the first rounds giving advice.

Setup sees 5/7/9 factory displays (read: beer mats) placed in a circle in the middle of the table, depending on player count. The 100 tiles (20 in each of five colours) are placed in the bag and four randomly placed on each mat. Everyone grabs a player board (they’re identical), and one player the start player marker.

The start player now chooses one of the mats and takes all the tiles of one colour from it, pushing any other tiles that were on it into the middle of the table. They also place the first player marker in the centre of the table with the unwanted tiles (if any). They then place the tiles they chose on their player board.

Instead of taking tiles from a mat, you can instead take all tiles of one colour from the middle of the table. The first player to do so also takes the first player marker for the next round. This tile goes into one of your negative score slots (see below), but can definitely be worth doing. You always have to take tiles, and always all available of the colour you choose in the place you take them from.

Placing your tiles

The player board has five lines to put them in, of 1,2,3,4 & 5 spaces respectively. Each line can only hold tiles of one colour, and all tiles placed in the same turn must go in the same line. If you take three black tiles and only place two in a line, the other one is going to be wasted. You can have more than one row of the same colour – you just can’t place tiles taken in a single turn in different lines.

Wasted tiles are where the game comes into its own. More on this later, but for now know your board has seven spaces at the bottom for these wasted tiles. The first couple will lose you one point, the next ones two and the last few three. So, it is possible to lose 14 points in each round of the game.

Once all tiles have been taken, players simultaneously score. Any line you’ve filled is emptied, with one of the tiles moved to your 5×5 grid scoring area. It will immediately score you points, but will also score bonuses at the end if you’ve completed rows, columns or colours. You take off any negative points, then refill the mats and go again. Play continues until, after scoring, a player has completed at least one row (usually five to seven rounds). The player with the most points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: The Azul board game is the poster child for simple yet emergent game play. The fact each colour can only be scored once per line starts to limit you – especially as completing a colour is desirable, as its worth 10 points. But all your options recede as the game goes on, just with harsher penalties connected to bigger/riskier scoring opportunities. You can try and rush the game in five turns (by quickly completing a row), but this is hard to score well. So in a simple game structure there are multiple paths to victory – but none easy to pull off.
  • The thinker: The reverse of the player board has a blank grid. Each line can still only have one of each colour. But you can choose where they go within that line as you complete them. For me, this opens up your options in how to build your score. But it also limits how much your opponents can easily predict which colour you may go for (they can, but it needs more thought). This extra layer makes an already satisfying game even more so, and in such a simple way. And as it lasts a little over 30 minutes, and sets up/packs down easily, it is a near perfect filler.
  • The trasher: When I first started playing I thought great, another boring abstract. But as the options shrank and it became clear someone was going to get screwed – boom! The real Azul revealed itself. As rounds progress, you start to see how many turns (so sets of tiles) you’ll have to take. But you can rarely be sure until near the end. It’s then a balancing act of what you need versus what you can possibly take. And equally importantly, what will leave your opponents in the deepest doo-doo. Once you start to understand this, you realise that planning a big score is pointless without weighing the consequences of some big negative points. And then you understand just how clever the game is.
  • The dabbler: Firstly, this game is beautiful. From the art to the tiles, it’s the perfect package. Next, it’s easy to learn – and with a theme that would very rarely put a non-gamer off. It works as a very quick two-player game or a slightly longer game with more, but never outstays it’s welcome. And finally it generates conversation and banter: you can chat about what to take, revel in each other’s misfortunes, but till congratulate clever moves. It can be a mean game, sure – but it doesn’t feel as if you’re being picked on. so, all round, this is a real winner.

Key observations

You’ve probably guessed which side of this I’m coming down on… but there are some naysayers. One obvious (and understandable) objection is the meanness. Azul isn’t a game you can play co-cooperatively, as it’s built around the tension of being stuck with tiles you don’t want. So, if you really don’t like games with in-built conflict, Azul may not be for you. But it’s good enough I’d still suggest giving it a go.

Other criticisms are similarly viable. Some players don’t like abstract games; others want their conflict to be clearly personal. Others must have a longer, more complex game; or one where you can plan more in advance. Again, to each his own. These are not criticisms – more statements of what a player likes and dislikes. So again, if you fall into these camps, the game may not be for you.

As one player said, rating it 2-out-of-10: “I can see why this game is so popular, but it’s not for me.” Fair play to them. But at the time of writing, just over 100 people had rated Azul as a three or less. More than 20,000 have rated it 8 or higher.

Conclusion: Azul board game

As someone who dabbles with game design, it’s releases such as Azul that remind me why I bother. Game design is an oft thankless task. You slave for hours on something you think is worthwhile in the hope it will make at least a splash. Just wanting people to enjoy it, knowing the chances of making any real money are slim to none. You have to think of it as a hobby, even if you hope for more. Then you watch another film tie-in Monopoly sully the shelves of your local ginorm-o-store and think – why bother?

This is why. Because, one day, I may put together a bunch of ideas that 20,000 fellow gamers think is outstanding. That sells enough copies to actually register as a blip on my bank statement. Played by gamers and non-gamers alike. And sure, before you say it – I know it’s incredibly unlikely. But if you can equip an army of monkeys with typewriters, why not dice and cards…?

* Looking for more games? Check out 150+ more board and card game reviews.

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