When I haven’t been playing Azul lately, I’ve been thinking about the next time I can play Azul.
The best games – board games, card games, video games – are almost always those that revolve around a core of simplicity. That’s the case with Azul, the latest creation from German designer Michael Kiesling and the winner of this year’s Spiel Des Jahres, the most coveted award in board games every year.
Each player starts by drafting titles from a series of “factories”. Players can only draft all tiles of one colour, however. Any leftover tiles go into the middle, along with the token that determines who goes first next turn.
Those tiles then get drafted into one of five rows. When all the tiles are drafted, if you’ve filled a row completely with a single colour – and all the tiles have to be the same colour – then one tile moves across to its respective spot on the board and points are scored.
There’s just a couple of things that get in the way. First: once you draft a certain colour into a row, you can’t draft any other tiles into that row.
Second: say you draft (for example) four blue tiles, because it’s the only choice you can make. But what if you only have one row available and it’s only got one space left? Then one tile goes into the last space in the row, while the rest are placed on the bottom of your player board, where you get penalised according to how many tiles you waste.
Added bonus: the first player token always goes on the bottom of your board, so you’ll always take a small hit if you want the honour of drafting first next turn.
So far, it seems pretty straightforward. See tile, draft tile.
It’s once the scoring clicks that Azul goes from pretty board game with cool tiles to one of the best board games in years.
It works like this. Each tile that gets placed scores one point. You then score points for the amount of connected tiles vertically and horizontally. Say you place a tile that creates a T-style tetromino. That’s five points: three for the longer side, two for the shorter.
As your board fills up, you’ll start to get situations where tiles regularly earn five, six, seven points. And at the end of the game, each horizontal row gets you a bonus 2 points. Completed vertical rows earn a bonus 7, and you get 10 points for every colour on the board of which you have five tiles.
But here’s the catch: you’ll never fully fill your board. Ever. The game ends when someone completes a horizontal line, meaning games will typically last five or six rounds.
And so the plotting begins.
Getting the second and fourth lanes of your tiles is always helpful to start. It means you can aim for the centre pieces at the end of the game, when you’ll have more connected tiles, thereby accumulating more points.
But everyone can see your player board. And you can see everyone else’s. You know what they need. They know what you need.
How much do you mess with your opponents? Do you try to end the game early if you get a good start – or do you concentrate on delaying your opponent for maximum bonuses at the end of the game?
This is what makes Azul. The best board games are often ones about choices rather than mechanics. You’re playing your opponent, far more than the tiles on the table, and the game only gets more savage the fewer players you have. With a full group of four, it’s more about taking what you absolutely need rather than trying to screw other players over. With two players, it’s more about constant interference.
It scales beautifully, something many board games struggle with.
It’s easy to see why Azul was this year’s Spiel Des Jahres winner. It’s pure abstract strategy. Two player games can be done in 10 minutes; a four player game should take no longer than half an hour, but usually less once everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s colourful. The pieces are fun to play with in your fingers, and the mechanics offer just enough strategy to get people plotting.
It’s truly, truly brilliant. That brilliance doesn’t come through until a few things click. But once you understand the flow of the draft, and the ways in which players can be screwed trying to get tiles onto their player board, Azul can be truly nefarious. And that’s often the mark of the best board games: simple mechanics, but not so simple that players are bereft of choices.
The base player board has plenty of variety by itself, but you can flip it for an alternate version. In this mode, players are able to choose the spots at which tiles are drafted onto their player board, rather than having fixed positions for each tile (as can be seen in the photos above). Tiles can’t repeat vertically or horizontally, so you still need the same diagonal pattern, but it mix things up nicely.
But you don’t need it. The base Azul game is outstanding on its own. Whoever translates this into an app first is going to make an absurd amount of money. But don’t wait for that. Get the board game now. It’s one of the best games – video or otherwise – released in years, without question. You can grab it from Amazon for $53.