Two off the Top Review
Time: 20-25 minutes
Times Played: 10+
Over the course of my short time span of writing reviews, I typically have one queued up and ready for the Monday where I post and anywhere between two to ten sitting and awaiting final editing before they’re posted. Sometimes I might sneak a review in due to it being the flavor of the month (PAX) or an upcoming arrival (Venus Next), but for the most part, everything is set in stone…
…or was, until I got my hands-on Azul.
The first thing you’ll notice about Azul is the box art and within it, the components. Everything is colorful and eye-catching; the production quality is top notch and the thick tiles are directly inspired by the Moorish tiles found in Spain and Portugal. I also love that the back of the box gives you a quick rundown of how to play the game, which is awesome. I wish more games had this as a feature. It was a major selling point on purchasing the game.
After we were done being dazzled by the artwork and color that Azul offered, we played a two-player game. Then we did a best of three. Then five. Then seven. Then we played the variant on the back. Then we invited friends over. We fell in absolute love with it.
The basis of Azul is that you are an artist that specializes in tile-laying and you have been commissioned to display your artwork on the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora. Depending on the number of players, there are a set number of factories available each round that have a random assortment of four tiles (pulled from a drawstring bag) laid upon them that can be used to create your art.
When a player wants to take a tile(s) from a factory, they must take all of that type available. If there are two blue, one red, and one black tile and the player wants to take the blue tiles, they must take both blue tiles. The remaining tiles (the red and black) are moved to the street. Street tiles can also be taken once they start to appear but the same rules apply. The first player to take from the street will go first in the following round but will also lose one point for going to the street first (sub-par quality of tiles I suspect). There is a marker that designates this so it is not forgotten.
The tiles that you have just chosen are now added to your player board and placed in a single row. There can only ever be one color per row so once you complete a color, you will not be able to place that color there again. There are five rows, increasing from one tile to five tile requirements. At the end of a round, if a row is completely filled in, that color tile is added to the player’s wall. If tiles are grabbed that don’t fit your wall, they are placed in the row at the bottom of the player board that designates “broken” tiles that will lose you points. The more broken tiles you have, the more points you will lose this round.
This continues until all tiles are gone from the factories and streets. Once that occurs, scoring happens. Players can score themselves and the score tracker for each player is attached to their player board. Each tile is worth one point for placement but if placed adjacent to other tiles, they will score an additional point for each tile in an adjacent horizontal and/or vertical line. Any non-completed rows will carryover until the next round. Tiles that were removed from your player board are placed in the box lid and only added back to the game when the draw bag is empty.
Play continues until one player completes one horizontal row on their board. Once that happens, the game ends and the players tally their scores. Horizontal rows are worth an additional two points, vertical rows are worth an additional seven points, and having placed all five of one color is worth ten points. The highest score wins.
Azul is definitely an abstract game at heart but the production quality alone really makes you think that maybe you are a part of a design team for a palace. Maybe you are trying to piece together the perfect tiled wall for your benefactor. Azul has more of a thematic setting than Santorini, Patchwork, Blokus, or Photosynthesis, which may not be saying much as the bar is set exceedingly low for abstract strategy games, but at least there is something here that at least feels like you’re doing more than shuffling colored tiles around. Add all of that with the mechanic for losing points due to dropping tiles and the theme is a touch above transparent.
I think that abstract games get a bad name because there’s no “hook” to get people initially invested. A lot of times, the subject matter and how you resolve the “conflict” aren’t enough to draw people in. You’re not bringing dinosaurs back to life, you’re not eradicating a disease that is enveloping the globe, and you’re a submarine captain trying to sink a rival submersible. Which is fine. Sometimes I just want to play a game to play a game. I don’t need a rich backstory.
I do think one of Azul’s greatest strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The production quality of the game, while extraordinary, are also without a doubt a key contributor to the cost of the game. Board games, unfortunately, are not a cheap hobby to get into and when pressed to pay upwards of $40 for one game, many people will be hard pressed to purchase an abstract tile-placement game that plays in under thirty minutes over something that has more teeth to it, such as another recent release, Pandemic: Rising Tides.
A few other negatives to take note of are that after only ten or so plays, we already are having the boards warp and with how flimsy everything is (as you’re just placing tiles on top of the player board), having them warp and become more susceptible to being knocked around and messing up your hard work is not something that will keep this game in my good graces. Let’s couple that with the score tracker being on top of the player board, which makes sense, I get it. It allows all players to score on their own which in turn speeds up the entirety of the game but again, it’s not a set-in place track so any bumping of the player board could send your score marker flying. I would also be amiss to not mention what two people from my gaming group mentioned as things they did not like, which would be the lack of numbers on the scoring track. The track counts in increments of five, which is great for the later game when points start stacking up but can be a pain for the beginning when your score is low and for when inevitably the table or board shake and your score tracker is knocked around.
We also wish Azul included two draw bags as opposed to the one, so instead of placing discarded tiles in the box lid, they would go in another bag ready to be used when needed. It’s a small issue but honestly the longest part of any of our games is transferring tiles from the box lid to the bag.
I also think Azul might be plagued with a runaway issue due to whoever is the very first player having a distinct advantage and I think this is a case in games with new players, which is obviously true for most games. Once players have an understanding of the game and the strategy, our wins have not appeared to have been dictated by the first player to make a move. This situation is really only an issue in two player games and looking back at the games that we’ve logged, statistically, I am proven wrong with five wins by the starting player, four losses by the starting player, and one tie. This is only referring to two-player match-ups and to be fair, include some of our first ever plays where strategy was not optimized. Even with data showing otherwise, I still feel as though the advantage exists and now that I am logging all of our plays for 2018, this is something I can definitely look back upon in 365 days.
Okay, all the negatives out of the way so let’s be blunt: I love this game. I absolutely love this game at two-player, I really like this game at three-player, but at four players, I’m indifferent. At four players, going for the street tiles happens more often and if it doesn’t, tiles tend to pile up and a player or two is left with an eight or nine tile haul, especially in the later game when spots have been filled and vacancies are at a premium. I want to like this. The player interaction and being the cause of an opponent losing eight points to end the round fits right in with our playstyle but it’s more sad than anything. I actually felt bad for my opponents being left with such a lackluster haul.
Azul might be our new favorite two-player game. Patchwork, Mr. Jack in New York, and Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small are some of our go-to games for relatively quick excursions but Azul is becoming a quick contender. Will it have the longevity to stay with those two heavyweights is a question I can only speculate on but I would not be surprised to see Azul end this new year as one of the most played games in our collection.
Azul is a game with simple mechanics, simple components, simple set-up, and simple strategy. As the game play’s so quickly and is so elementary to learn, it makes each and every play more rewarding than the one prior to it. This is a game that I know will be a hit with my non-gamer groups, particularly my parents.
Could there be analysis paralysis due to the game requiring planning ahead? I don’t think so. After the first and second games, most people have a feel for the approach that Azul commands and can typically plan their turn as the other player makes their move. As the tiles are random each turn, there isn’t much to do between rounds except hope for the best. With there being an equal amount of every tile, there’s never an issue with seeing one color more than another either.
As with another abstract game I’m fond of, Photosynthesis, Azul can be a mean game and I actually think it can be meaner than Photosynthesis. Hear me out. In Photosynthesis, your moves are made in plain sight and everyone is aware that you are blocking a player out for a suns rotation or two. While you might be peeved at it, you knew it was coming and while you did not gain points, you did not lose any either. But Azul on the other hand all takes place on your player board, so taking a piece(s) that your opponent needs doesn’t necessarily look like a direct dig at them but everyone knows the move was made due to your opponent’s board. As the first move of a round you might get a groan or some muttering under the breath as there is time to recover but leaving your opponent with five tiles they cannot use on the last turn that nets them eight negative points will leave require people to check their emotions at the door.
Personally? I love it. Games are meant to be fun and competitive and what is competition if I cannot directly contend with my opponent(s)?
Azul’s player boards are double-sided and the backside offers a blank mosaic wall to complete. This offers a little bit of a change as the mosaic is no longer static. We would have much rather had a bigger board or a different static mosaic so you could pit one against another. Maybe in time the variant will grow on us but after our first few run-throughs, it didn’t add enough spice to make us want to do it again. For full transparency, we were playing the variant incorrectly and only allowing one color per column and not one color per row AND column. We hope to rectify this soon in our future playthroughs. Shout out to /u/jrallen7 for the correction!
I think the major issue is that it just seems to take too long. We replenished the bag at least twice as much as a normal game, as everyone tried to maximize their points value.
With all that said, there is still one big question that remains unanswered: Does it bug us that you don’t actually complete the tiled mosaic?
Answer: Not at all. I think that’s why I want to keep playing over and over again. That sense that I did not accomplish what I set out to do and there is more I could have done or a better approach I could have taken. If I completely finished the mosaic, it would be like a puzzle that I have completed and would not want to do again.
Every so often I play a game that just invigorates and reignites my love of board games and Azul has done just that. I cannot think of a better way to conclude 2017 and start 2018 than with this sense of energy and excitement. In short, I cannot recommend Azul enough.