Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 30-45 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Winning the Spiel Des Jahres means increased sales for a game, a lot of increased sales actually. For a designer it can mean that they’ve just poured rocket fuel into their career, for some it can also mean that they’re set making versions of the award-winning game for the rest of their career. Alan R. Moon has been happily putting Ticket to Ride versions out for some time now, and splendid they be. Sometimes its not clear how great an idea it is, with Azul there are now two ‘sequels’, its suggested to be a trilogy rather than an endless series, but those sequels are very much variations on the theme rather than expansions. Different enough that you might not like them if you like Azul, same enough that you probably won’t if you don’t. Still, that’s opening with a digression in what is ultimately a review of Azul, the very popular tile laying SDJ winner from 2018.
Gameplay is the sort of simply complex situation that gateway Euros and the SDJ in particular love. Each player has a mat representing a wall that they’re trying to tile. There is a circle of factories that fill up with randomly chosen tiles each turn, players pick the tiles from one or another factory and slap them on their walls. Completing patterns scores points, most points wins. That’s the simple and intuitive shape of the game. Then there are the complex parts, unused tiles pile up as point sucking discards, tiles are placed in one manner then shifted to the patterns in another, the way that tiles can be placed into patterns and scored is not perfectly straightforward. None of it is wildly confusing or problematic, its just about the right level of brain baking for a game of this type.
Azul is an abstract game with a slim theme laid on top. It is not like tiling a wall, just as Ticket to Ride is not like running a rolling stock company and Chess has little to do with the realities of medieval conflicts. There is little reason why a tiler would simply smash tiles to shards on the floor of the palace they were working in rather than do something more sensible with them, or why factories would foist useless tiles onto their only customers, or demand that customers only shop at one of them each day, week, month, whatever the non-specific time period covered by a turn is. Its not a big deal and its far less egregious than in some Euros with richer themes that are less well served, but it is a reality of the game.
The production is delightful, the tiles are thick and satisfying to handle and the patterns created are abstractly lovely. The systems of the game run smoothly and well, there are both simple and deep strategies available and its swiftly rewarding to play. There are many games that proclaim the, quick to learn and tough to master, label as a badge of pride. A game should actually ideally not be tough to master, it should have quick and rewarding heuristics available for players, a game being extremely tough to master is generally a sign of poor design. Azul is not easy to master on a first play, but it is master-able within a handful of plays for a focused and skilled player, which is a far tougher and more important needle to thread.
I’ve often said that there are things which lead a game to win the SDJ, table presence and the creation or presentation of a solid mechanic in a gateway format are two of the biggest. Azul has a solid table presence, accidentally or intentionally its tiles are the same size of Starburst candies, and the ability to swap one out for the other might have assisted its success. Its mechanics are a solid representation of tile laying, but its not an under-represented genre in the Spiel with Qwirkle, Carcassonne and Kingdomino all qualifying. That said, of the nominees in 2018 Azul was the obvious winner, Luxor was a nudge too complex to be a clear gateway game and The Mind while inventive was a little too left-field for the win. Azul is the sort of SDJ winner that its hard to argue against, but its not easy to argue for. It feels a little like Alhambra winning after Villa Paletti, but Azul is following Kingdomino, which is a Spiel winner that needs no excuses made for it. Azul makes total sense as a Spiel winner, but there’s not the feeling that its win was undeniable.
In conclusion, Azul is an incredibly solid game, it’s a tile layer designed using everything a modern game designer has at their disposal. It is an abstract, despite a thin spread of theme on top, but that matters little. It didn’t break the mold and it won’t set your gaming world alight, but it has everything needed to become a well worn favourite, if it isn’t already.