Introduced by the Moors, azulejos (originally white and blue ceramic tiles) were fully embraced by the Portuguese, when their king Manuel I, on a visit to the Alhambra palace in Southern Spain, was mesmerized by the stunning beauty of the Moorish tiles. The king awestruck by the interior beauty of Alhambra, immediately ordered that his own palace in Portugal be decorated with similar wall tiles. Azul brings you, a tile laying artist, to embellish the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora.
Azul is as the introduction above explains, a game in which you are an artist that has been tasked with ensuring the King’s palace in Portugal is of a similar beauty to that which he witnessed on his visit to Spain. Despite the historical back story of the game, that’s where the historic elements of the game end, and the actual game itself is more of a puzzler style game. Up to 4 players must strategically order tiles from a number of factories that is determined by the number of players, and decorate one wall. The winner of the game is decided by a point scoring system that takes into consideration the line patterns you’ve achieved in your wall tiling.
Players must take tiles from the factories in the middle of the play area. Each factory contains 4 tiles that are pulled out of a bag at random and placed onto the factory marker before the game begins. When a player chooses a tile from a factory, they must take all the tiles of that colour from that one factory and place any remaining tiles into the middle of the circle of factories. Each player will then proceed to take tiles from a factory, or if a player see’s some tiles of interest in the middle pile of discards, can take all the tiles of one colour from the discard pile, but must also take a counter with the number 1 on it.
This is a bonus and a hindrance. It’s a bonus in that once a round has been completed and each player has had one pick of tiles from the factories, the player with the number 1 counter now starts the next round. However it’s a hindrance because this 1 counter is placed in the players excess tile area on the player’s board which gives the player minus points depending on how high in the excess tile ladder the counter is applied.
The tiles that you select in your go are placed onto your player card. Once you lay down a colour on a row, you can then only apply more tiles of that colour to that row in future rounds until you have enough tiles on the row to transfer to the palace wall. For example in the below image, the first row has one tile space, the second row has two tile spaces and so on. If you pulled 1 yellow tile from a factory and put it on the first row, that row is complete and upon all players goes at picking tiles, that row is complete for you and you can transfer the yellow tile over to the palace wall. The lower rows that need more of the same colour tiles to complete, still only results in one tile of that colour being applied to the palace wall, the other tiles are put back into the tile sack for when the factories run out tiles to be reapplied. So again in the image the bottom row is complete with 5 light blue tiles, but when the move to the palace wall phase takes place, only one of the light blue tiles actually is applied to the wall. You can then try to collect 5 tiles of another colour and apply that colour to the palace wall if you wish.
The idea is to try and get as many of the same colour tiles onto the palace wall as you can as in diagonal rows as these score bonus points. There are other permutations for scoring points such as tiles placed above or below a diagonal row resulting in a multiplier depending on how many tiles are in the diagonal row. It does take a while to get your head around the potential points that are available.
Once a player has completed one row on the palace wall, the game ends. And this is where we encountered a small problem with the game. Because it’s quite easy to do this if you are only collecting one colour for the top row. At the end of each round you can apply a tile to the palace wall. This occurred on our first play through of the game because we weren’t over sure of the point scoring mechanism, which when reading back over them, is actually pretty simple. So a game in which there is potential for plenty of tactical picks and dumps into the discard pile, and the advantage of having first pick next round despite a potential negative point on your score became redundant because we had finished the game so soon. This also meant that the player that did finish the game off by doing this also had the most points despite it only being 1 point per tile for them. The rest of us were busy filling up our rows with tiles and putting next to nothing onto the palace wall that we didn’t have points to beat him, which is pretty ridiculous.
Had more time been taken there were opportunities to score points for diagonally placed tiles, vertical tiles connected by 2 tiles of the same colour scoring extra points with potential point gains of 4 points per tile placement if we’d played further.
Despite our play through of the game being really short, it was still a pretty fun game. The tactical element to the game if played correctly is apparent as you might be able to really ruin someones day by picking from a factory and dumping excess unwanted tiles to the discard pile that other players require, resulting in them digging into the discard pile but taking the sacrifice of potential negative points in the end game if no one else digs into the discard scraps.
The instructions are thoroughly clear to be fair, we just weren’t overly sure of how much we could do in our attempts at playing. The instruction booklet has easy to follow images and guidance, it was just our bad. The tile pieces are nice and weighty and it doesn’t feel like any of the production was done on the cheap. Once you’re into the flow of creating the palace wall, the game board becomes rather pretty with your rows of tiles taking shape. As for the gameplay it is actually pretty simple once you take a firm grasp of the scoring system. Your almost essentially playing Connect 4 in a way, but rather than having all the colour pieces you require at your disposal, you’re dependant on your fellow players not digging into the factory that holds the best number of tiles you require. It has a high replay-ability value even in one arranged game session as the games themselves won’t last that long even if all the players are aiming to fill their rows up more rather than rushing to decorate the palace walls. I could see potential problems explaining the game to new players at first, as I can imagine they’ll all be in the same boat of clearing that first row on the palace wall to get the game over quick thinking that this is the way to win.
All in all Azul was a pleasant, puzzling experience that can certainly boast a spot in a games evening you might have planned. A game that can be played relatively quickly, but might take a few attempts at explaining the scoring system to new players. Just stress to them, it’s not the fastest to fill a palace wall row that wins, but the most points scored.