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AZUL

Reviewed by Frank Hamrick

AZUL (Plan B Games/Next Move, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 30-45 minutes; $39.99)

 

Azul is a “small footprint game” designed by Michael Kiesling with a surprisingly “simple-to-subtle” play ratio! What do I mean? “Simple” applies to the game mechanics, rules, bits, and play time. The game is clean, with little clutter. Set-up is quick and easy; rules are short and simple; game-play is quick; choices are limited but agonizing. The game can be taught in mere minutes. But don’t take that to indicate there is not much to the game! This simple game packs a powerful game-play punch!  “Simple” doesn’t mean it is weak in absorbing game-play.

This simple game is ‘subtle’ in its game play depth. Azul is one of those games that hides decision-making depth with its simple game-play mechanics. Azul has that surprise element as players discover the fascinating decision-making it entails. Thus, the ratio of ‘simple-to-subtle’ is quite high (for me).

The presentation of the game is the first thing that will impress you. From the tasteful box cover, to the rules sheet (yes, a single double-sided sheet of rules), to the nice screen-printed bag to hold the tiles – you will be pleased. And then, you discover those one hundred beautiful little “chiclet” shaped plastic tiles (some refer to them as “starbursts”). You will hold them in your hand and delight in their feel. These tiles are the heart of the game and more will be said about them later.

There are even elegant subtleties in the insert! First, the insert contains two depressions to hold the nine factory tiles (which I also like). But “nine” is an uneven number. So when you pack the game away, you will stack four of the ‘factory tiles in one depression and five in the other. And, yes, you will find that one depression is exactly the width of one factory tile deeper than the other! Further, at the bottom of the shallow depression there is a special indention for the small ‘first player’ tile. Such attention to detail is commendable and exhibits Plan B’s pride in this product!

The game is essentially an abstract, but it does have a theme, and the mechanics generally fit the theme. In Azul, you are a tile-laying artist in Portugal, competing with others to build the most beautiful wall of “azulejos” in the Palace of King Manuel I of Portugal. During a visit to the Alhambra palace in Southern Spain, the Portuguese King was awestruck by the beauty of the Moorish tiles covering the walls of the Alhambra. Upon returning to his royal palace in Evora, he invited you and other artists to compete in building the most beautiful walls in his palace with these same Moorish tiles (azulejos).

Game preparation is simple. First, the 100 plastic tiles (azulejos) are shuffled in the draw strong bag. then 5, 7, or 9 “factory discs” (depending on whether there are 2, 3, or 4 players) are placed in a circular formation in the center of the table. In the middle of this circle a “first player tile” is placed. Each factory disc is then filled with 4 azulejos, randomly drawn from a draw bag. These tiles consist of 20 of each of five different colors (red, blue, blue/white, yellow, and black). Each player is given a player board and a single scoring marker.

Each player board is divided into five sections. The top section is for scoring and the scoring marker is moved along this track during the game. The middle of the board contains two sections. The left section consists of five rows of squares (I call them ‘warehouse rows.’ Each such warehouse row (pyramid like) is one square wider than the row below it. Thus, the top row consists of a single square and the bottom row consists of five squares. To the right of these ‘warehouse’ rows you will find the “Wall” that you are building. The wall consists of five rows of five different colored squares – with each row containing a square of each of the five colored tiles in the game. The final two sections of the board are at the bottom. On the bottom left (under the warehouse rows) is the ‘floor’ on which excess tiles must be placed and score minus points. On the bottom-right (under the Wall) is a final scoring chart (making final scoring easy to understand).

Game-play consists of four phases: a) Tile Drafting: drawing tiles from the factory discs (or from the area in the center of the factory discs), and b) Warehouse Row Placement. The drafted tiles are placed on a single warehouse row. After all tiles have thus been chosen (drafted) from the factories and placed on the warehouse rows, players will c) Build their Walls. In game-turn order, each player will move tiles from their completed warehouse rows to the corresponding wall rows to the right of the warehouse rows. As this is done (beginning with the top row and continuing downward), d) Scoring will take place. As points are scored the scoring marker is advanced on each player’s board. After each player has thus, moved and scored their completed rows, the factories are refilled from the bag and another game turn begins. The game ends at the end of a game turn when one or more players have completely filled one or more of their wall rows with all five colored tiles, and a final scoring is done. The winner is the player with the most total points.

The game, however, is in the details. Each of these game turn phases is controlled by important rules

  1. Tile Drafting: When drafting tiles from the factories
  • A player may only take a single color from the chosen factory (or center area)
  • A player must take ALL the tiles of the color chosen from that factory (or central area)
  • The remaining tiles are moved from the factory to the center area (and may thereafter be taken from the central area as if it was a factory)
  • The first person to take tiles from the central area must also take the First Player token
  • The First Player token must be placed in the first square of the ‘floor’ row of the player board.
  1. Warehouse Row Placement. As players take a tile/tiles from the factories, they immediately place them on the Warehouse Row section of their board using the following rules:
  • All tiles taken from the factory must go on a single warehouse row.
  • Each Warehouse Row may contain only one of the five colors of tiles during a game turn.
  • More than one Warehouse Row, however, may contain the same color of tile (you can have blue tiles on more than one row at a time).
  • If you draw more tiles than you can legally play on a single row, the excess tiles must be placed on the ‘floor’ line of the player board (giving minus points during scoring).
  1. Wall-Tiling. After all tiles are drawn from the factories and placed on the warehouse rows, the players, in game-turn order, move their tiles to the corresponding row of their wall.
  • Only Warehouse Rows that are completely full may be moved.
  • Tiles are moved beginning with the top row and continuing downward to the bottom row.
  • Only one tile of each completed warehouse row is moved to its matching color in the corresponding row of the Wall.
  • All remaining tiles in the completed warehouse row are removed from the player board and placed in the box lid (they will be added back to the bag once the bag is emptied).
  • Incomplete rows are left on the Warehouse Rows to be completed in succeeding game turns.
  • Scoring (see below) is done AS each tile is moved from the Warehouse Rows to the Wall.
  1. Scoring. Scoring is done by each player as they move a single tile from each completely filled Warehouse Row to their wall.
  • A tile scores one point for each tile in an unbroken row and/or column that is adjacent to the tile just moved. (Thus, if a blue tile is moved to the wall and is adjacent to an unbroken line of one or more tiles on the same row, and/or to an unbroken line of one or more tiles in the same column, the tile will score one point for each tile in that unbroken line – both horizontally and vertically.) The just placed tile, in this case, may be counted twice.
  • All tiles in the same row that are not in an unbroken line back to the just placed tile, do not score.
  • After the player has moved and scored each of his completed rows, he then subtracts the points indicated for all tiles (and first player tile) in his ‘floor.’

When one or more players has a complete horizontal row of all five colors on his wall, the game will end at the end of that game turn. After the tiles have thus been moved and scored on the wall, a final scoring takes place. Each player will score 2 bonus points for each horizontal row in his wall that contains all five colors of tiles. Each player will score 7 bonus points for each column that contains all five colors of tiles. Each player will score 10 bonus points for each color of tile of which he has placed all five of that color on his wall. The player with the highest point total is the winner.

Rarely has a game grabbed my attention like Azul. In my six decades enjoyment of strategy gaming, I have anxiously awaited the release of many games but only a handful (six or seven) have proven to be worthy of the salivating after a dozen or so plays! Azul is one of them. When I first read about Azul. I immediately knew this game would be in my wheel-house, and I have not been disappointed! Here’s why…

I love the beauty and excellence of the components, from the box and insert, to the gorgeous tiles, and decorative tile bag. All was done with attention to both detail and attractiveness.

I love the simplicity of set-up and game-play. The closest thing to ‘fiddly’ in this game is the re-filling of the factory discs between each game-turn.

I love games that can be taught, even to non-gamers, in a handful of minutes. This one can be set-up and taught in under ten minutes.

I love the puzzle-like feel of game-play. The simple mechanics belie the enjoyment of the choices presented in each game turn. I enjoy the subtle decision-making the game provides.

Azul is a longer filler and/or a shorter mid-weight. I happen to enjoy games that fall in this category. It’s 30-45 minute play-time is exactly right for the depth of game-play it presents. It may not be my game of choice when I’m in the mood for an hours-long strategy game, but it is perfect for those nights when I want a light-to-mid-weight challenge, in a 30-45 minute time slot. I rate it a classic, one of the few that will please and fascinate me for years to come. – – Frank Hamrick


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