As we stay on the lookout for great games to play with the family during the holiday break, we check out Azul. Designed by Michael Kiesling and originally released by Plan B Games in 2017, it gathered both attention and acclaim in the years that followed, being globally distributed by the likes of Asmodee to make sure it sits on store shelves all over the world. Should you pick it up? We certainly think there’s plenty of reason to do so.
While we did notice all the critical acclaim for Azul upon its launch, picking up quite a few awards and shooting up the user-voted rankings for the best board games out there, we didn’t play it until now. It’s very abstract by design, so when faced with the box you’re not immediately grabbed by its theme or have a good grasp of what you’ll be playing.
Azul is historically grounded in the use of “azulejos”, which are glazed ceramic tiles that were especially prominent in Portugal under king King Manuel I. Although I’m assuming most people aren’t intimately familiar with Portuguese history – myself included – this translates to Azul in that your task is to build the best looking pattern you can on the walls of the royal palace during a game where you keep drawing tiles – which are the heart and soul of this game and present players with a lovely puzzle-esque game that is usually over 30 minutes or so.
Designed for two to four players, a game of Azul features five (or more) rounds. Players take turns as they grab tiles from either the central pile or one of the factories, and a four player game will have more factories than a two or three player game. Factories have four tiles at the beginning of a round, whereas the number of tiles in the pile is determined by how often people take tiles from there.
When taking tiles, either from a factory or the central pile, you automatically gain all of the other tiles of that same color in the factory or pile, and if you went with a factory then all of the remaining ones get added to the pile. A factory has four tiles, so the dynamic of which choice is the more attractive one can quickly shift – with an added rule that makes the first player to grab from the central pile (which is empty at the start of the round) the first player to go when you start the next round.
In a round, you keep going until all the tiles on the table have been claimed, and placing a tile in your wall is done by completing the row of tiles in front of it with tiles of the same color. Rows are one to five tiles long, and the row of five is the hardest one to fill as it will almost always take several tile-grabs. Complete a row, and you get to place a tile on the wall – which ultimately is where you score points. If you end up with excess tiles of that color for your row, however, then those count as points against you for that round.
Rows that are only partially filled remain so for the start of the next round, which means you can make up a lot of ground quickly in a later round but it can also lead to excess tiles if you’re not careful. Complete a row with blue tiles, and you get to place a blue tile on the palace wall – but doing so also blocks you from placing any more blue tiles on that row in subsequent rounds. Once a player gets all five tiles in a castle wall row, the game is over.
At the end of each round, you’ll add up points, but once you get to the final round there are a lot of bonus points to pick up for getting full rows, full columns and a full set of tiles of the same color – with each combination being worth more than the previous one. Play your cards (or tiles) right, and this can be a round of big scores where you suddenly walk away with a big win even after lagging behind.
It may look complex on paper, but Azul is easy to play and quite forgiving towards mistakes. You’ll initially make them, but because they’re not heavily penalized you stay competitive in the game, and before you know it you’ll be strategizing the best of them. That’s another thing about Azul – there are many paths to success in the game, and going with your intuition can be just as smart as thinking hard about your every move. Some players will be plotting and looking at what others are doing, while others will just focus on their own game plan.
What helps is that Azul is a very aesthetically pleasing game. The tiles are nice and shiny and look like they resemble what could be used on a real ceramic wall. The game boards are colorful yet elegant, and the tile bag isn’t just an afterthought either – it matches the look and feel of the game itself.
Azul isn’t just well designed from a visual perspective though, it’s also a lot of fun to play. There are countless strategies you could follow, and plenty of alternatives if they fall through. You might grab tiles from a factory just because you want to load up the central pile with tiles of the leftover color, for instance – but you’re at risk of other players grabbing them before your next turn. This makes for gameplay that also changes depending on how many players are in the game, further demonstrating there’s not just one way to play here.
As abstract as Azul looked when we first saw it, we were surprised it was so easy to digest after playing a few games. There’s definitely a learning curve, but Azul’s rules are newcomer friendly. Despite that, there is a lot of depth to explore and you’ll automatically get better the more you play. Combined with a relatively short play length and an easy setup process, that makes Azul a great option for both families and seasoned board game enthusiasts. Combined with an elegant visual design, this will look wonderful on any table where you’re playing games during the holiday season.