Azul, Reef, Sagrada, Tiny Towns Head-to-Head-to-Head-to-Head

All four of these games are premised on constructing some kind of thing on a grid.

Reef and Tiny Towns construct on a 4×4 grid while Azul and Sagrada construct on a 5×5 grid.

Tiny Towns and Reef start with completely open grids and allow for pretty much completely open placement, though those decisions then create constraints on future opportunities.

Azul and Sagrada both begin with templates of sorts (though Azul has a more open possibility), which creates external constraints, both because of their patterns and because of external constraints like placement rules (can only place orthogonally adjacent, etc.)

I set out on this experiment to see if we “needed” to keep all 4, or whether they overlapped to such an extent that perhaps one or more might be dispatched from our collection. But they all play sufficiently differently that I feel like they are very different games that I might want to play under different conditions. Azul is more relaxing than Reef or Tiny Towns, which in some ways feel more stressful because of the internal constraints that you impose on yourself. I love the pattern-matching in Sagrada and Azul, and the essentially puzzle creation in Tiny Towns and the vertical component of Reef.

In short, if you’re into game collecting with the purported intention of playing, much like the pandemic has made us (ok, I’m making M complicit in this — this is essentially my rodeo that he willingly shows up to play in (M here: this is absolutely the case as I, of course, have zero books, comic books, or records that I have not read or listed to)), I think having all 4 in a collection is well-justified.

Here are our overall ratings of the 4:
Petra: Sagrada > Azul = Reef > Tiny Towns
M: Reef > Tiny Towns > Azul > Sagrada

Reef (Next Move, 2018)

Date played: October 31, 2020

Basic details: 2-4 players; 30-45 minutes; competitive

Gist of the game: Players design a coral reef using 4 colors of coral to accrue points based on their coral configurations, identified on cards. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Players begin the game with 3 point tokens, a 4×4 player board, 2 cards, and 1 coral of each color.

3 cards are placed face up for the coral display and the remainder of the deck is placed face-up next to the display.

Reef is played over a series of rounds, with one turn per player per round. On a turn, players must take one of two actions. They can take a card from the display or deck into their hand. A player can have no more than 4 cards in their hand. If a player chooses to take a card from the deck instead of the display, they must place a point token on the lowest-value card in the display.

When playing a card, a player takes the two pieces of coral indicated on the top of the card, places them on their board, and then may score their board according to the configuration of coral on the bottom of the card. Players do not have to be able to score in order to play the card, but they must place the designated coral anywhere on their board. Coral may be stacked up to 4 high, but it is only the top color coral that matters. Some cards require reef to be some exact height, or a minimum height in order to score.

The end of the game is triggered when any one color of coral runs out or the card deck runs out. Once one of those conditions is met, the rest of the round is finished before scoring takes place. Players may score configurations of cards remaining in their hands once, even if that pattern appears more than once in their reef. The player with the highest score wins.

Color commentary: The large plastic reef pieces give the game a fun tactile experience. As should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the blog as regularly as we post, we played the first game incorrectly because I forgot the specific language of one of the rules. In the first game, we took and placed the coral pieces when we drew the card, rather than when we played the card. As I in fact noted at the time we were doing this, “It’s hard to balance taking coral with playing cards. I wish you could do both on the same turn, or at least have the option of doing both, like maybe taking two actions on a turn.” On the other hand, playing it in that particular incorrect game introduces greater strategy, especially as the end of the game nears, in order to get the coral you need now to play more valuable cards later. Playing correctly, there’s still some tension, but a lot less. For a slightly deeper game, our inadvertent house rule could be used.

It’s interesting to balance shorter-term scoring opportunities with playing a longer game for more valuable scoring opportunities later because the coral you have to take may or may not be in any way related to the possible points available from a card. For instance, I had a card that would grant 2 points for orthogonally adjacent greens and yellows both of which were at least 2 high, as well as a card for any 2-high stacks orthogonally adjacent to one another. The pairs of tiles on each card were worth the same points, but playing one first might facilitate additional points that would not be earned by playing the other card first on the basis of which coral each card provided.

Micah won the first game in a 62-63 squeaker. I won the second game 65-60, and in the third game, there was a glut of cards giving purple coral, so the game was much shorter than the other two and I won in a blowout of 52-42. However, M also revealed that he had a path to victory that he opted not to take in order to prolong the enjoyment of playing the game. I feel like I should be offended, but let’s be honest, I’ll take the win.

Thoughts from M: The rules (or at least the way Petra described them to me) make the game seem more complicated than it feels when you’re actually playing. There are lots of things to keep track of, but this game is a ton of fun. It involves spatial recognition, color combinations, and cards conveying two separate pieces of information, all of which I am terrible at, but this game was the most enjoyable of the set of 4 we matched up (a comparison post is in the works).

Petra’s rating: 7/10
M’s rating: 8/10

Rating scale:
10 – super fun game that I can see myself playing frequently well into my retirement years (M’s 10 benchmarks: Lost Cities, King of Tokyo; Petra’s 10 benchmarks: Carcassonne as a bundle of all its expansions and forms, Dinomals, Kingdomino)
8-9 – really fun game that I’m happy to play again and again
6-7 – fun game that might get old at some point
4-5 – fun game to play sparingly
2-3 – game I don’t especially enjoy but will play if my partner really liked it
– game I never want to play again (joint 1 benchmark: SeaFall, which was so terrible we never made it to actual gameplay)

Tiny Towns (AEG, 2019)

Date played: October 25, 2020

Basic details: 1-6 players; 45 minutes; competitive

Gist of the game: You are the mayor of a small forest settlement trying to develop your town through additional building projects, but these buildings require various resources, which you must be strategic about gathering and utilizing.

Players receive a 4×4 grid on which they will build their town. Each building players build will earn victory points, and the player with the most victory points at the end of the game wins.

To set up the game, the cottage card is placed face-up in the center of the table. The remaining buildings are sorted by symbol into piles, shuffled, and once card from each pile is placed face-up alongside the cottage to form the set of possible buildings for the game. The remaining building cards are placed back in the box. The wooden resource cubes (wood, wheat, brick, glass, stone) and building meeples are placed in a common supply area. Each player receives two monument cards, of which they select one and place the other in the box. Each player then receives a monument meeple.

Monuments are special buildings that are unique to each player. They can only be built once, but can be constructed in any round, just like regular buildings. When the monument is constructed, its card is read aloud and its immediate effects are resolved. The monument is scored at the end of the game, just like regular buildings, though the monument have have effects or abilities that will carry through the remainder of the game.

The game is played over a series of rounds. The first player names a resource, and all players must take a cube of this resource and place it on an empty square in their town. After being placed, resources cannot be moved to another square in the town, and can only be removed from the town by constructing a building. Only one resource can be placed per square. After placing resources, players may (but do not have to) construct any buildings they can, matching their resource configurations to the resource placement requirements on the building card. This is done simultaneously, and players announce which building(s) they construct. Once all players have placed their resources and constructed any buildings, a new round begins with first player status passing to the next player.

In order to construct a building, a player’s resources must match the shape/color configuration presented on the building card (but the shape is valid along any 90 degree quadrant). The resources are removed from the board and the building meeple is placed in one of the squares that had previously been occupied by the required resources. A resource can only be applied toward the construction of one building, but players can wait however long they wish to construct the buildings, and may construct multiple buildings in a turn. Once built, buildings cannot be moved. Except for monuments, which are unique to each player, any player may build any building — buildings are common among the players and can be built any number of times by each player.

When a player’s town is filled with resources and they cannot or will not construct any additional buildings, their town is complete. They are out of the game and no longer take turns as the first player. The game ends when all players’ towns are complete. At this point, all remaining resource cubes are removed from the board (except any affiliated with a warehouse-type card) and players lose a point for each empty square in their town. Players earn points for each building according to that building’s guidance and the player with the most points wins. In order to score points, cottages must be “fed” by agriculture-related buildings in the town. Fed cottages are worth 3 points each; unfed cottages are worth 0 points.

Color commentary: This is a game heavy not only on spatial reasoning, but also ability to envision multiple possible arrangements of resources in order to maximize their options and useful buildings for any strategy they may be using.

Both M and I definitely over-built farms in the first game, as each farm can feed 4 cottages and neither of us had more than 4 cottages (but we did have 3 farms each, the other two of which served no real purpose because they don’t score points in and of themselves, they just allow cottages to be scored). We likely overbuilt because they were easy resource configurations to put together, but clearly we were a bit short on strategy in this go-around.

There’s a lot of strategy for where to put buildings when to keep as many options open as possible for future resource placement. There were several times when I realized too late that I had cut off possible configurations even though the total number of spaces was sufficient (but not the location of those spaces). In all 3 games we played, we both spent our first several turns constructing our monument because they tended to make future moves easier to deal with and opened up more possibilities for point accumulation. M’s monument in the second game was extremely beneficial, as he could place buildings in any open space, not just spaces that the resources had occupied. Largely as a result of this, he won that game in a 12-point blowout. Actually, his third monument was also extremely useful, as his 756,982 empty spaces at the end of the game scored 0 points, as opposed to -1 point each, which is what clenched that victory from him.

To do well in the game, it may be necessary to balance helping yourself and perhaps trying to cut off opportunities for your opponent (I think M was going for a simple strategy of maximizing his own points, but when the way he was carrying out that strategy became clear, it was in my interest to try to limit the extent to which he could continue to capitalize on that strategy). On the other hand, we also communicated during the games to try to help each other out (though obviously some of us, namely me, were much more helpful than others of us, primarily M).

The game does have a beat-your-score solo option as well as an expansion. Coupled with the fact that there are multiple buildings within each type and each individual building as a unique resource configuration, there’s a lot of replayability here across various formats.

Thoughts from M: (note from Petra here: M was struck speechless by his 3-game sweep of a spatial reasoning game, including one especially unbalanced game which he won by double digits.) This was a fun game that I believe could be a higher strategy game, but I’m not sure what the proper strategy would be. The meeples are wonderful.

Our ratings of the game:
M’s rating: 5/10
Petra’s rating: 7/10*
*losing repeatedly and by not especially narrow margins 3 games in a row probably does temper my enthusiasm somewhat

Rating scale:
10 – super fun game that I can see myself playing frequently well into my retirement years (M’s 10 benchmarks: Lost Cities, King of Tokyo; Petra’s 10 benchmarks: Carcassonne as a bundle of all its expansions and forms, Dinomals, Kingdomino)
8-9 – really fun game that I’m happy to play again and again
6-7 – fun game that might get old at some point
4-5 – fun game to play sparingly
2-3 – game I don’t especially enjoy but will play if my partner really liked it
1 – game I never want to play again (joint 1 benchmark: SeaFall, which was so terrible we never made it to actual gameplay)

Food Chain Island (Button Shy Games, 2020)

Basic details: 1 player; 20 minutes; no automata

Date played: October 21, 2020

Gist of the game: You are trying to facilitate animals’ meals on a lonely island.

Sixteen animal cards (value 0-15) are shuffled and randomly dealt into a 4×4 grid. Two sea creature cards, whale and shark, are placed off to the side for use during the game.

On each turn, choose one animal on the grid to be the predator and move it one orthogonally adjacent space onto an appropriate prey. The predator can only eat prey values 1-3 below that of the predator. When the predator eats the prey, those cards form a stack, which is treated as a single animal with the identity of the top card. When the predator has eaten its prey, the predator’s special ability is activated.

Some special abilities require animals to move. Animals must move to open spaces, but these open spaces can be outside the original grid area. If an animal moves multiple spaces, it can: move over other animals but must end on an open space; and move in multiple directions, but it cannot end where it began.

At any time during a turn, one or both of the sea creatures’ abilities can be used. Sea creatures are discarded once their ability has been used.

The game ends when you are unable to make a move. If there are three or fewer animals left on the island, you win. Sea animals do not count toward this total..

The game can be made more challenging by trying a different starting grid configuration or by omitting one or both of the sea animals.

Color commentary: This was my first experience with a wallet game, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about Button Shy, and I had a discount from backing a Kickstarter, so I decided to splurge a bit and stock up on interesting looking games in their library. This game takes up a bit of table space because of creating the grid (but by no mean an onerous amount), but you can’t get much smaller packaging than a container about the size of a business card holder. Because of the packing space, this seems super nice for travelling, should such a thing ever be allowed to occur again. I can definitely see myself taking a game like this to Myanmar to play in my hotel room or in the airport waiting a billion hours on layover. Even better if it’s a Tokyo airport and I can eat Tokyo Banana Company snacks while playing, but I digress…

In the first game, I had 10 cards left, but then remembered the sea animals. I used the whale to move one animal to any other space, and the shark to move an animal one space to eat an animal of any lower value, ending the the game with 6 cards. I ended the second game with 5 cards left, and the third game with 4 cards. Bolstered by this progress, I tried again, and ended with two animals left. Victory! With two remaining animals, I ended with the status of “Accidental Matchmaker.”

I know a lot of people prefer interacting with automata for solo games rather than “beat your score” type dynamics, but I’m unconvinced I’ve ever implemented an automata correctly, and I enjoy the simplicity of beat your score mechanisms.

Overall, this is a breezy, quick game that nonetheless makes you think. It clearly took a few attempts to do well, but on each play I feel like I was making more considered and careful decisions about which predators to move. It’s hard once you start having gaps between the cards, because then you might really need to be able to move an animal multiple spaces to make it adjacent to an appropriate other card, but many special abilities only really allow for movement of one space. Special abilities can also work against you by forcing you to move animals you can’t really afford to move, usually further away from all the other animals, or requiring your next turn to occur in such a way that making an appropriate move is actually harder.

Thoughts I think M have if he had played: There’s definite strategy here in choosing which predator to make the opening move with, and what choices you make following on, but there’s also definitely an element of luck as to whether the cards end up initially placed in such a way to make victory technically possible. The rules are super easy to pick up on, and the game does have a fair amount of strategy for such a simple setup and short gameplay. I would also be remiss if I did not note that the artwork was cartoonish and fun. But, most importantly, why do all the cute animals have to eat each other?

Azul (Next Move, 2018)

Basic details: 2-4 players; 30-45 minutes; competitive

Date played: October 18, 2020

Gist of the game: You are a newly-hired tile-laying artist charged with recreating the style of Moorish wall decorations for the Portuguese king.

To create your masterpiece, you are given a game board with a pattern. A number of factory displays (varies based on the number of players: 5 for 2 players) with 4 randomly selected tiles each are placed for all the artists to reach (you might note that our factory displays above have 5 tiles each. Indeed they do, because I read the rules to prepare to teach the game like a week ago and forgot that they’re only supposed to have 4 tiles each. On the other hand, the only player this probably actually hurt was me, when I had to take two consecutive rounds with -14 points because of having to take tiles I couldn’t use). The object of the game is to earn the most points for your display by the time any player finishes a horizontal row of 5 tiles.

Play proceeds over a series of rounds, each of which has 3 phases: factory offer, wall tiling, and preparing for the next round.

During the factory offer phase, each player either takes all the tiles of the same color from one of the factory displays and places the remaining tiles in the center of the table or takes all the tiles of the same color from the center of the table. The first player to take tiles from the center of the table in a round puts the first player marker in the leftmost space of the “floor line” on their board, which will cost them points at the end of the round. Players must then add their tiles to the staging area on their board. The staging area has five rows with ascending spaces — the first row has one space, the fifth row has 5 spaces. Tiles are placed in the staging area from right to left, and all tiles placed in a row must be of the same color (but a row does not have to be filled in a single turn). Once all of the spaces of a row are filled, a tile from that row will be moved to the accompanying space in that row on the wall portion of the player board. If a player has a number of tiles in excess of what they need to fill a row of the staging area, they place these extra tiles in the floor line of the board.

In later rounds, players may not place tiles in a staging area row if the corresponding wall row already contains that color. The factory offer phase ends when all tiles have been removed from the factory displays and the center of the table.

In the wall tiling phase, players move tiles from their completed staging area rows to the wall area. The extra tiles from the staging area rows are then discarded. Players immediately earn points for the tiles they place in their walls. If there are no tiles orthogonal to the tile just placed, the tile earns one point. If there are tiles orthogonal to the tile that was just placed, the players earn one point for each vertically linked tile and one point for each horizontally linked tile (including the tile that was just placed). At the end of the wall tiling phase, players lose points based on the number of tiles in their floor row. These tiles are then discarded, and the first player marker is held out for continued use.

At the end of the wall tiling phase, if no player has completed a horizontal row, players prepare for the next round by refilling the factory displays (using tiles previously discarded if necessary). At the end of the game, when a player completes a horizontal row in the wall, players gain 2 points for each completed horizontal row in their wall, 7 points for each completed vertical column, and 10 points for each color that has all 5 tiles placed in the wall.

There is also a variant board on the reverse side of the player board in which players can create their own wall design, placing tiles from their completed staging rows anywhere on the board so long as no color appears more than once in a vertical column.

Color commentary: Before I write anything else, M insists that I disclose that we split this matchup, winning one game a piece. My victory in the second game was especially sweet for having lost 28 points across two rounds because of tiles in the floor row.

So…in addition to putting too many tiles on the factory displays, we also scored incorrectly. Oops. Perhaps I will review the rules a bit more carefully next time when there’s been a long gap between first becoming familiar with the rules and trying to teach the game. Heh.

I really enjoyed this game, and found it pretty calming. There were times when M took tiles I had my eyes on, but it felt silly to get worked up about something so soothing as pattern matching and tile counting. Across both games I tried to maximize my own points without worrying too much about trying to sabotage M, so I doubt I did anything particularly thwarting that would have thrown off his whole game. I’d be interested in trying the variant board some time, when the color limitations come in the columns instead of the rows.

There are also multiple expansions for Azul, which, having not yet looked them up, I’m finding curious, because I don’t really know how you would alter the game, save for possibly having different patterns you’re trying to create on the boards, but that wouldn’t impact the overall strategy because presumably the same basic rules would apply. I will have to do some research.

Playing Azul also marks a bit of research we’re doing, as we have a few sets of games in which all the games in the set seem fairly similar. We’re going to be playing all the games in the set, writing posts as necessary to discuss games we haven’t covered before, but then also discussing the games in more of a match-up/competition format, comparing strengths and weaknesses and impressions of all the games in the set, so stay tuned for those at some point in the long-term indefinite future.

Thoughts from M: This is a fun game with lots of room for strategy. I played mostly to maximize my own points without really noting what Petra was up to, but the real fun could begin once you start trying to maximize your moves in relation to your opponent’s efforts to do the same. And if Petra is going to start winning games here and there, I feel I will be forced to start improving my strategy. I fear Petra does not know where their actions will lead.

Surprisingly, not much commentary on the art for this game, which is simple and elegant but not especially catchy, except to say that the tiles had the appearance of extremely fancy Starburst candies.

Longhorn (Blue Orange, 2013)

Basic details: 2 players; 20 minutes; competitive

Dates played: October 4 and 10, 2020

Gist of the game: Two competing cattle rustlers try to outdo one another to be the cattle-stealing champion with the most money.

Nine location tiles are placed at random in a 3×3 grid. Each tile receives a specified number of cattle, placed at random (in terms of color) and an action token (also chosen at random, except the sheriff must be placed at Nugget Hill if that token is drawn). A flip of the oversized outlaw token determines which player goes first. The 2nd player chooses the 1st player’s starting position from among the locations with 4 cattle.

On each turn, the outlaw steals cattle and moves the outlaw token to a new location for their opponent to begin their turn.

To steal cattle, the player chooses a color and must steal all the cattle of that color at that location. If the location contains no more cattle at the end of their raid, they must apply the effect of the action token.

Action tokens may be gold nuggets with varying values to be applied at the end of the game; a branding iron, which prompts the player to take all the cattle of the same color on one of the orthogonally adjacent tiles; an epidemic, which removes all cows of a particular color from the board, making them valueless at the end of the game; the sheriff, which causes the player to immediately lose the game; snake oil, which gives the player a second immediate turn; an ambush, which allows the player to steal a random gold nugget or 2 cows of the same color from they other player; or a rattlesnake, which forces a player to take a cattle of each color in their possession and place them in any configuration on the orthogonally adjacent tiles.

To move the token, the player moves the token to a location a number of squares away from the current location equal to the number of cattle just stolen. If all the locations at that distance are empty, the game is over. If at least one location at this distance still has cattle, the player must move the token to this location.

The game ends when: 1) a player activates the sheriff token; 1) a player accumulates all 9 cattle of the same color; or 3) all locations at the necessary distance are empty. Cattle are scored with each cattle worth $100 for each cattle of the same color still on the board. So a cattle whose color still has 4 cattle on the board is worth $400.

Color commentary: This game was part of a recent round of Western-themed acquisitions, and may be just about the shortest period of time we’ve owned a game before playing, at just a couple weeks. If we return to themed months, there will probably be another Old West month on the horizon.

Either I’m unquestionably losing my edge or I’m becoming better at teaching board games to people and M and I are therefore starting on more equal footing, in which case I’m just not very good at games and my previous 24-hour advantage needs to be ascribed to inadequate instruction to M on how to play the game. I’ll probably stop actively thinking about this at some point, but for now it just seems like such a sharp contrast. Talking with M earlier today after reeling from yet another loss, I was reminded of repeated victories in reflex-based games like Loonacy and Frog Pig Pug. I’m not sure if I should feel good about winning games that are less-skill and more-speed, but I suppose if nothing else, I can rest assured that my anxiety makes me twitchy enough to do well at speed games.

In any case, despite my repeated losses, this was a fun game, and surprisingly thinky for a game that can be played so quickly. There’s definitely strategy involved, which is probably the actual cause of my poor performance, because despite studying politics for ages, I’m pretty lousy at being strategic. Is it any wonder game theory was such a challenging class?!

After playing with the sheriff for a couple rounds, we decided on a house rule to never use that token, at it takes some of the fun out of the game to force a loss that way rather than by truly outcompeting the other in terms of cattle stealing.

Thoughts from M: First of all, today’s modern cattle could really benefit from an image upgrade, investing in some Carhartt’s instead of relying on their Rustler jeans to see them through a hard day’s work.

This game is based in part on maximizing scenarios where there are three groupings: 1) denominations (Petra here to translate, at this stopped me in my tracks for several moments while typing this up: quantities of cows of each color) you have; 2) how much each denomination is worth; and 3) denominations the other person has (essentially negative denominations). This is then multiplied by 4 for each color cowple (heh: a cow meeple). When combined with considerations of maneuvering, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.

The sheriff token acts as a kill switch and I can’t decide if that increases the fun or just makes it too easy to win if your opponent isn’t working to avoid it, as there is no end-of-game cattle counting if the sheriff token is activated. Also, the art is great, and reminds me of my youth spend with Rowdy Yates. (M here pre-empting Petra: Rowdy Yates was Clint Eastwood’s character in the classic Western TV show Rawhide. Petra felt it was necessary to clarify this, but I, on the other hand, do not underestimate the cultured nature of our readership and am confident everyone reading this already knew that, especially since the character was referenced in that big screen classic, The Blues Brothers).