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SPIEL '18 Preview: Another Shade of Blue, or Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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One of the most anticipated titles on BGG's SPIEL '18 Preview is Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra, a sequel to the 2018 Spiel des Jahres-winning Azul from designer Michael Kiesling and publisher Next Move Games.

I've now played the game twice on a review copy from Next Move, so let's get a quick overview of how this design compares to Azul. The easiest way to do so is to break the gameplay of Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra — henceforth A:SGS — into four parts.

Part #1

Players draft tiles exactly as they do in Azul. Each round has five, seven, or nine "factories" that start with four tiles on each, with the tiles coming in five colors. A starting player token starts in the middle of the table. On a turn, you choose a color of tile from one factory or the center, then add all of those tiles to your playing area; if you drew tiles from a factory, then any remaining tiles are pushed into the center of the table, and if you were the first to draw from the center, then you lose points and are start player in the next round. Once all the tiles have been claimed, the round ends.

This part of A:SGS feels mostly familiar, with players trying to scoop up the tiles valuable to them based on their personal game board situation while ideally denying tiles to others along the way. What refreshes this drafting mechanism is that players can (often but not always) pass instead of drawing tiles, and in some situations they must pass or else hurt their score.

Part #2

In more detail, each player has a game board constructed from eight "strips" of double-sided stained glass laid out next to one another. You start with a figure placed above the leftmost strip, and whenever you draft tiles, you must choose the strip the figure stands on or any strip to the right, then place all of the tiles on matching-colored spaces on this strip. If you can't place all of the tiles, then you throw away the extras, which will cost you points at game's end. If you didn't place the tiles in the strip adjacent to your figure, then move your figure right to the strip where you did place the tiles.

As you might imagine, you can't repeat this pattern for too long as you'll run out of strips on which to stand or you won't have room for the colored tiles that remain on factories or in the center of the table. Instead of taking tiles on a turn, though, you can move your figure left to the edge of your game board, thus passing on your turn and disrupting the drafting pattern common in Azul. Normally in that game you can look ahead with an idea of who can possibly take what during a round, allowing you to plan for what you might want to take now based on what might be coming later.

In A:SGS, that timing gets broken — or rather modified — thanks to people needing or wanting to reboot to the left. Now you need to anticipate when others might be moving, whether voluntarily or forced, and that ties into your decisions over what to take. Of course, you also get pushed into that decision, sometimes anticipating that you can grab four or five of a color present in the leftmost strip, so you move left in the hope that you'll be able to snag that group — but your opponents are likely keeping an eye on you, too.

Here's the start of round #3 of a two-player game I played with Chad, with the food having just arrived. With my figure on the right side of my playing area and only four orange tiles total on the factories, I don't have good options, so I'm likely to shift left next.

Part #3

When you place tiles on a strip, if you've filled the five spaces on a strip, you pause the game to score points, with you first placing one of the tiles from this strip on one of the two window spaces directly below this strip. You then score the number of points listed in this window (1-4) and you score all the numbers to the right where you have completed a window.

Here's a big part of the trickiness of the design: You want to complete the rightmost rows in order to score for them multiple times, but this means that you're moving your figure right and risking it being stranded due to opponents' actions and therefore wasting a move to force it to the left once again.

Part #4

Another consideration with regard to which row you complete when this: Which color is a bonus color this round? During set-up, you take one tile of each color and randomly place them in the 2-6 round slots on the scoring board, then you draw one tile at random to serve as the bonus color for the first round. Any time that you complete a strip, you score the points for that strip and all completed strips to the right of it, and you score one point for each tile in the strip that matches the bonus color.

Thus, I want to save that giant red row on my left for the round in which red grants bonus points, and I might want to do the same for the yellow and blue collections, but I need to place collected tiles somewhere — and if I do complete the blue first, I'll at least score those three points for that strips twice more when (if?) I complete the two rows to the left of it.

Once you place a tile from a completed strip on the window, you place the other four tiles in a paperboard tower. Once the bag from which you draw tiles is empty, you can dump everything from the tower, then draw again easily from the bag instead of needing to scoop all the used tiles from a flat surface.

After this, you flip the strip face down, revealing the five differently-colored spaces underneath. (You can plan for these reverse sides by looking at the colored dots at the top of the opposite side of the strip.) Once you complete a strip a second time, you place a tile on the (remaining) window in that vertical column, then you remove the strip from play.

After six rounds, the game ends. You then lose points based on the number of times you went first in a round, and you gain one point for each three tiles still on your game board. The big bonus comes from you filling blocks of space on the bottom of your game board. Note the four ornaments on the bottom part of my game board. If I surrounded one of them with four tiles — that is, I completed two strips twice — then I score ten points for decorating that ornament. A collection of three or two ornaments around an ornament is worth 6 or 3 points.

Terrible lighting courtesy of the Atlantic Hotel

After my two-player game with Chad, which ended with him winning our tied game since he had broken fewer tiles, I played A:SGS with three other people. Just as Azul is more cutthroat with only two players, A:SGS is the same. You know that your opponent is getting every tile that you don't take in a round, so you have to account for that in your actions. With four players, you're somewhat at the mercy of everyone since it's difficult to plan for everything they might do — although you definitely want to keep an eye on who might be moving left when since you can possibly claim a huge haul.

I dropped way fewer tiles in this second game, something possibly expected since with Chad I'd scoop one or two extra tiles frequently to make a slightly larger score with the tiles that I could place, thereby making up for the difference while denying him the pieces he wanted.

In our four-player game, I defeated my cameraperson John by only a single point. More playings of A:SGS — the summary description of which is Azul slightly dialed up in complexity — and more detailed comments to come in the weeks ahead...
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