W. Eric Martin
As is often the case at Gen Con, I played almost no games during that convention, and of those games that I did play, one of the three was under embargo since it's a SPIEL release about which not much information had been released. Thus, on the Wednesday prior to the start of Gen Con 50, I tweeted this image:
Now the truth can be told...
The game is Azul, a Michael Kiesling design from Plan B Games that fits firmly in the publisher's Spiel des Jahres-friendly line of games with beautiful bits that work for both families and more experienced gamers, a niche that started with Century: Spice Road and continued with, um, Century: Golem Edition. Okay, I'm not sure that one game — even mirrored the way Century has been — can establish a line, but based on two plays I feel comfortable stating that Azul is in the same wheelhouse as Century. Let's see whether you agree once we get past the basic info that Plan B Games has already released:
Introduced by the Moors, azulejos (originally white and blue ceramic tiles) were fully embraced by the Portuguese when their king Manuel I, on a visit to the Alhambra palace in Southern Spain, was mesmerized by the stunning beauty of the Moorish decorative tiles. The king, awestruck by the interior beauty of the Alhambra, immediately ordered that his own palace in Portugal be decorated with similar wall tiles. As a tile-laying artist, you have been challenged to embellish the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora.
In the game Azul, players take turns drafting colored tiles from suppliers to their player board. Later in the round, players score points based on how they've placed their tiles to decorate the palace. Extra points are scored for specific patterns and completing sets; wasted supplies harm the player's score. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
Promotional table covering not included!
Azul is for 2-4 players, and at the start of each round, you fill up five, seven, or nine discs (depending on the number of players) with tiles drawn at random from a bag, then place a first player marker in the center of the table.
On a turn, you choose either a disc or the center of the table, then collect all the tiles of one color from this space. If you choose a disc, you push all the remaining tiles into the center of the table; if you're the first player to choose the center, you also take the first player marker. You then choose one of the five rows on your board — with those rows having 1-5 spaces in them — and fill as many spaces as possible with those tiles. Once you have a particular color in a row, you can place only more of that color in the row (until it is filled and emptied). If not all the tiles fit or you took the first player marker, place the excess tiles or the marker in a discard row on the bottom of your player board.
Players take turns until all the tiles have been claimed. Each player looks at the rows on their board, and from top to bottom they move one tile from each completed row into the grid on the right, placing all other tiles that helped you complete this row in the game box. In the basic game, the grid boxes have images on them, and you must place the tile in the matching space; in the advanced game, the grid boxes are blank, so you can place the tile in any empty space in the grid row next to the tiles — except that you cannot repeat a tile color in a row or column in the grid.
Ready to move three tiles into the grid in the basic game
Each time you place a tile in the grid, you score points for all the other tiles in the row and column of the grid that are connected to the tile just placed. Thus, in the image above, I'll place a blue tile in the second row, then score 3 points for the connected tiles in that row and 3 points for the connected tiles in that column. When I place the black tile in row #4, I'll score 4 points for the column, followed by another 5 points for the column when I place the red tile. After you score all of your just-placed tiles, you lose points for the first place marker and any discarded tiles. All incomplete rows stay as they are on your board!
You then draw more tiles from the bag to set up for the next round, adding discarded tiles to the bag when needed. The rounds continue until any one player has placed the fifth tile in a row in their grid; since you can place at most one tile in a grid row each round, the game must last at least five rounds. After scoring for this final round, players score bonus points for each completed row and column in their grid as well as for each set of five matching tiles. Whoever has the most points gets to watch all of the other players eat a tile as punishment. (Legacy game!)
Endgame bonuses shown at bottom right
I played the game twice with final tiles and non-final game boards and other pieces, both times with the same three opponents. The rules weren't clear when we started the first game, and we futzed around a bit, asking questions and clarifying how the flow of the game works. We finished and were like, okay, sure that was a game.
After we finished playing something else, I insisted upon playing Azul again because I like playing things multiple times. Playing a game once from a position of ignorance is fine for learning how a game works, but it's not great for learning how a game plays. In this second game, now with the advanced board, I was already playing smarter, paying attention to what others were collecting in which rows to have some idea of which tiles I could possibly float around the table, Magic-draft-style, to pick up on the next turn. I could better anticipate what others might do and plan accordingly.
The results of game #2
The problem is that everyone else was playing better as well. All of us scored higher in this game compared to the first one. Taking the first player marker wasn't seen as a drawback, due to the automatic -1 point, but instead as a valid option to take what you needed before too many tiles piled up that would cost you points. You could see opportunities for sticking people with tiles because when someone starts a round with multiple half-filled rows, they have room to take far fewer tiles, so you're happy to force them to swallow a half-dozen tiles at once, especially when doing so keeps those tiles away from someone else.
Like Century, Azul strikes that family/gamer balance in which you can play casually or thoughtfully, and the game will work equally well in either case. Just expect to get soaked until you can start smartly lining up your plays in advance...