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.

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