An existential relationship crisis in a box
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2017
Playing Time: 30-45 Minutes
Azul is a tight, focused abstract game wherein you’re building a 5×5 tableau of up to five different colors of chips (which look like candies). On your turn, you’ll take all of a particular color/type of square chip from one of the circular coasters in the communal play area. Everything you didn’t take goes into the center, which players can also take from. The center gets progressively more enticing, but comes with a -1 penalty to whoever reaches into it first.
You’ll use your candies to fill out rows of 1-5 squares on a personal play board, and once the row is filled, at the end of the round you can push one of the candies onto the 5×5 grid, which is what scores you points. A color can only appear once in each row and column, which means that by game’s end, there are colors you won’t want, which creates strategic considerations beyond your own as you survey you opponents’ boards.
The round ends when all chips are taken, and the game ends at the end of a round when someone fills out an entire row on their tableau.
They don’t taste like real candies, so minus points there. Otherwise, everything has a warming aesthetic that is decidedly abstract but never less than pleasing. To many, it’s quite stunning.
I think the standard play board is also double-sided (that may be a more recent printing). The reverse side has a more advanced mode, which is a welcome change of pace for regular players.
“I’ll Always Be Happy to Play It…”
Azul is a widely-covered game, so I don’t have a ton new to say about it mechanically. Instead, I’m writing this review to work out my feelings about not just Azul, but games like it. Azul is undoubtedly well-crafted. The mechanics and rules interlock into one of the more elegant and satisfying puzzles in the hobby. Azul will also have a wide appeal to numerous gamer types. It has earned its success.
However, I can’t help but feel that there’s something hollow here. Maybe I’m expecting too much. Azul is the palette cleanser between meatier games…right? It’s been treated like a “main course” at a couple meetups I’ve been to, and it’s frankly not a main course game. It’s never going to soar to the heights that so many more ambitious games in the hobby will achieve. Again, though, that’s likely expecting too much. It’s a great abstract that fills you up, so to speak, more than a filler without overstaying its welcome.
One more anecdote, though. Twice in the last month, I’ve been mulling over what game to play with a few people, and we settled on Azul. But I use “settled” deliberately, because it wasn’t the game any of us were excited about, it was simply the one that we could all agree upon. It’s the significant other you end up staying with for too long, not because anything’s wrong, but because you can’t find something wrong other than knowing that you’re not in love. But if nothing’s wrong, is it you? Are you the problem?! Is she actually perfect for you? Is your soul a black void where love goes to die, and you’ll spend your life wondering if you’re even capable of transcendent joy?!?! Is there a point to ANYTHING? COME BACK RACHEL, COME BACK!!!
Ok, so I lost that analogy a bit, but hopefully you get my point. There will always be room in gaming for games that everyone is happy to play. Azul is one of the current standard bearers for that type of game (and yes, someone out there hates it; I’m talking about the rule, though, not the exceptions). But I also see a weird downside occasionally with this type of game, because it’s safe, in a manner of speaking. I don’t play board games for “safe.” I play for excitement and hilarity and mind-breaking conundrums of both mechanical and interpersonal complexity. And yet, if you ask me if I want to play Azul, I will happily, and truthfully, answer yes.
So there’s just enough cognitive dissonance with that, that I’m not sure how to resolve it in a review. But hey, it’s only a board game, so if this is what I’m deliberating over, I’m doing pretty well.
Not Nasty Until It’s Brutal
Azul seems like a game where you can just stare at your player board, but savvy veterans know that – especially as you enter the last couple rounds – you should be looking at your opponents’ tableus, so that you can angle to stick them with some massive glob of tiles that they don’t need, thus giving them a bunch of negative points.
One small issue I have with this design is that it goes from 0 to 100 in brutality in an instant. There’s no real in-between point. And it also means that the early game has a higher chance to bore players who crave direct interaction, just as the late game has a higher chance to horrify players who prefer to focus solely on their own tableau. I can live with this personally, but it’s very noticeable once you play Azul with enough different players.
Azul has a couple popular expansions, Stained Glass of Sintra and Summer Pavilion, and is likely to have more and more in the coming years. I haven’t played Pavilion yet, but have gotten to play Sintra on a handful of occasions. Sintra is like your rebound relationship, the one who looks and sounds suspiciously like Rachel, but is just different enough that you convince yourself this time it will be different. Time has healed your wounds and you’re ready for love. Yup, ready for it at any moment…just whenever it wants to show up. Please?? I mean, you cleaned up your wardrobe and have been working out and everything. You’re on the right track, and there’s no reason you can’t take this next step with a beautiful expansio, er, I mean person, er no, I mean expansion, that is deserving of your love. Just ignore that voice in your head saying that nothing’s changed and you’re doomed to die alone. Ignore it forever and just lose yourself in the stained glass pattern of her sweater…
Existential crises aside, the Sintra expansion is a cool permutation of the core Azul concept. It won’t make the game appeal to anyone new, but it will reinvigorate the experience for many who play frequently.
As mentioned, I haven’t played Summer Pavilion yet, but having seen some play throughs and reviews, it mostly just seems like more Azul. More complicated, but the same basic ideas. It may be the perfect fit for those who think Azul is a bit too light, but again doesn’t seem like it’s going to win over new converts or turn away existing fans.
Who Won’t Like This
Jealous ex-lovers who see in Azul a cruel reflection of their own internal failures. More generally, it lacks any discernible theme, so if you need a narrative to latch onto, you won’t find it here. I’m sure someone out there is bored with the mechanics, but I struggle to identify a “type” that won’t like it.
To attempt to resolve the weirdness above, I have a mild issue with games that are pleasant but ultimately not too memorable, the ones where I can’t find a definite fault but also can’t get excited about them, the ones that get played more than any other despite being no one’s favorite. However, Azul is super pleasant, enough so that it manages to leapfrog most of those concerns. Savvy gamers will watch opponents’ board for strategic possibilities, which gives it just enough interaction to remove it from the completely insular games in the hobby, and its length always feels just about right, separating it from fillers that don’t satisfy quite enough and others that are pleasant but overstay their welcome by 15-60 minutes. In short, it’s a puzzle I’m happy to come back to again and again.
Disclaimer: No ex-girlfriends were drunkenly texted during this review.