Inspired by Potugese ceramic tiles, Azul is an abstract strategy game in which players create decorative walls in order to gain the most points. As someone who can take issue with some of the more banal themes behind European-style board games, just hearing the concept for this one made my eyes roll into the back of my head. After having played a few times, the theme still doesn’t excite me at all, but the game sure is fun to play.
Each player gets a scoring board broken up into four sections. Along the top is the scoring track. On the left is your primary play area, where you’ll place like-coloured tiles in the respective rows during each round. On the right is the wall, where you’ll place a piece on the appropriate square as you fill in their corresponding left-hand rows. Finally, there’s a row for dropped tiles, which reduce your score.
In the middle of the table are factories, represented by circles that contain four randomly drawn tiles. On your turn, you will choose a factor and take one set of tiles of the same colour from it to place on your board. You can place them anywhere along the left-hand rows as long as they match the colours that already exist on your board. Any unused tiles go into the middle. Players will continue drafting until there are no tiles left on the factories or in the middle.
Then it’s time to score the round. If you completed a row on the left, place a tile of that colour on its corresponding space on the wall and score a point. Give yourself an extra point for any tiles its connected to vertically or horizontally. If you drew tiles that couldn’t be played on the left, place them below along the dropped tiles track, where you’ll lose points for making a mess and breaking supplies. Play continues like this until someone creates a horizontal line on the wall. Once that happens, scores are tallied up, including a few bonuses that can be earned at the end of the game, and the highest point-getter wins.
I still find the theme to be a bit of a reach and not that great of a selling point. Yes, the tiles look great and they feel good in your hands as they’re built like dominos, but thematically it’s a stretch to give this abstract strategy game flavour. Thematically-speaking, why would you only take one type of tile from a factory and ditch the others, especially when the game ultimately requires you to draft all of them at some point? What is the whole left column supposed to represent? Why do I only need one tile at the top to put it on the wall, but five of that same type to put it on the bottom?
Once you get into the action though, it doesn’t really matter. The drafting and tile placement systems in place create some very interesting scenarios. Filling out the top row seems tantalizing, as you only need to draft one tile of that colour to score a point, but it’s also a fast lane to ending the game long before you’ve hit a good point total. On the bottom end, you can stall for time and create vertical rows for extra points, but a bad round of drafting and tile placement can leave you with no spaces to place odd-coloured tiles, forcing you to drop them on the floor. I really enjoy the number of options you have for drafting and tile placement, giving you a lot for your mind to crunch on.
This one is not going to spark much in the way of table talk, but if you like strategy games that give you lots of options, Azul is a great fit. I still don’t like its theme, but when I’m in the moment and plotting my next series of moves, building a pretty Portugese tile wall is the least of my worries.