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Review: Azul, board game of the year?

(Source: arstechnica.com)

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At a local game night this week, my table was playing Splendor. If you don’t know it, the game is a light “engine building” affair in which you gather gems and then use those gems to buy cards that in turn help you by more expensive cards. You do this until you’ve racked up a certain number of points.

Game details

Designer: Michael Kiesling
Publisher: Plan B Games
Players: 2-4
Age: 8+
Playing time: 20-30 minutes
Price: $31.97 at Amazon

Ars Technica may earn a commission on this sale.

The game has few rules. Still, the new player at our table was bug-eyed as each of them was explained. When told that the symbols in one corner of the card were the cost to purchase, while the symbol in another corner was its effect, and the number in a third corner was its point value, a look of glazed bafflement descended upon him. When told that each player could choose between taking three gems of different colors or two gems of the same color—but only if four or more of that color gem were available—he looked like his mind had been blown apart. When told that each player could never have more than 10 chips in front of them at the end of a turn, he looked like he was going to leave the table.

Now, Splendor is in fact a straightforward game—which probably explains how my new friend was actually able to beat us all despite his constant protestations of “not getting it”—and a good one to boot. But the experience was a reminder that even light rules, especially for new gamers, can feel overwhelming rather than “interesting” or “exciting.” (This is doubly true when the rule has no visual indicator. Splendor has no way to show you that you can hold only ten tokens, for instance; you must simply remember it.)

In board gaming, rules can (sometimes) be a beautiful thing. Complex experiences sometimes require complex rule sets. Take Star Wars: Rebellion, for instance, a game that offers true galactic scope but requires four hours to play and two complete manuals to learn (the introductory “Learn to Play” manual is itself a whopping 20 pages of dense type). But these will always be niche experiences, and there’s something to be said for games that find a way to create interesting puzzles with a rule set so slim that it feels almost inevitable. These will always do a better job at bringing new friends and family to the table, and thus such titles are an essential part of board gaming.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Azul.

Game of the Jahr

This week, Azul won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres, a “game of the year” award given out by an association of German critics. To my mind, the win was well-deserved—and one I expected ever since I first played Azul last November. That’s because Azul features a truly minimal rule set (and one with almost no exceptions), quick setup and teardown time, and gorgeous production. Are we looking at a new “instant classic” for gateway board games? Yes, we are.

To set up, you simply give each player a game board and a scoring marker. In the center of the table go either five, seven, or nine “factories”—in reality, beautifully decorated cardboard coasters—depending on your player count. A bag containing 100 delightfully chunky tiles is plopped onto the table, and four tiles are blindly drawn and placed on each of the factories. That’s it.

(Ease of set up might sound like a small thing, but I recently played another light game, Bärenpark, which took 10 minutes just to get started because a whole host of tiles had to be sorted both by shape and then by descending numerical value. The game was terrific, but this is the sort of setup one hopes to avoid in quick “after-dinner” games with kids).

Play is likewise simple. On each turn, a player will choose all of the same-colored tiles from a single factory. The remaining tiles from that factory will be pushed into the center of the table. The chosen tiles will then be added to the player’s individual gameboard, which features five rows of different lengths. (The top row can hold only a single tile, while the bottom row can hold five.) On a blank board, you can put your chosen tiles in any row; the trick, however, is that each row can only hold a single tile color. Once you have started a color, the only way to complete that row is with more of that color. End up with more tiles than you can place, and the extras go to the bottom of your player board, where they cost you points at the end of each round.

Play proceeds around the table, with each of the factories being slowly depleted. But surprise! The middle of the table, that spot into which all the extra tiles get pushed on each turn, is itself a factory, and one that acquires new tiles every turn. The only downside in choosing from the middle is that the first person who does so must also take the first player marker, which will cost you a point or two at the end of the round but will allow you to go first in the next round.

When all tiles have been chosen, the round ends. Any row on a player board that is completely full of a single color is cleared out, with one tile in that color being moved to the spot printed for it on the “wall” section of the player board. (Any row that is incompletely filled with tiles remains in that state until filled in a future round.) That is, if you fill your fourth row with four blue tiles, at the end of the round, one of those tiles will slide to the right and fill the blue space in that row on your wall. The clear corollary of this rule is that you can’t put blue tiles into the fourth row again since they have no spot left to fill on the wall. This means that with each round, available placement spots for your chosen tiles are reduced, making everything tenser and tighter as the game progresses.

As tiles are being moved over onto the main board, scoring occurs. Each tile scores a point for every vertically and horizontally adjacent tile, of whatever color. (If it touches nothing else, each tile is worth a single point.) If the newly placed tile is part of a contiguous column of three tiles, for instance, it scores three points. If the newly placed tile is the cross-piece between a row and a column, you score both of those directions separately and add them together. In other words, you aren’t simply trying to fill your board with tiles; you are trying to fill your board with tiles in particular spatial patterns that score you the most points as the game progresses.

A new round begins by placing four tiles on each of the factories, and play continues as before. At game end, extra points are awarded for completing full horizontal lines, full vertical lines, or for filling every tile of a single color on your wall—complicating the spatial scoring puzzle.

Complexity emerges

The theme here involves production of Moorish-style azulejos tiles, which were historically adopted by King Manuel I of Portugal to decorate his palace. This theme is nearly nonexistent apart from the visual design of the boards, pieces, and factories—this is a pure abstract game—but it was nonetheless an inspired choice, because the game really pops on the table. It also avoids stale gaming tropes about dungeon delving, gem collection, and trading spices (kill me now).

Designer Michael Kiesling has been crafting games for several decades, and it shows in the sheer simplicity of Azul. The fact that this simplicity does not result in a “simplistic” game is a testament to Kiesling’s skill.

The effect of these simple rules is a gradually escalating sense of tension. On each round, you have the potential to score more points, because the length of the rows and columns you fill on your board keeps increasing. But at the same time, you have fewer options for placing tiles because each row can only be filled once with a single color. This creates a delicious sense of moving from simple exploration at the beginning (choose anything! it’s all good!) to focused planning by the end (don’t take that pair of red tiles or I will cut you!).

At first, the game feels like a delightful exercise in multiplayer solitaire. By the end, however, you need to keep an eye on your opponents’ filling boards in order to deny them opportunities to precisely fill their rows with desired colors. There’s nothing more satisfying that forcing someone to take a pile of blue tiles from the center as their last turn of a round… when they have nowhere possible to place them! You also need to keep an eye on your opponents because the game ends after one player completes any horizontal row on their “wall” of tiles. It’s important to know how much time you’re likely to have so you can decide if you can complete two different colors on your wall of tiles, or if you’d be better served quickly finishing a vertical column.

Azul isn’t for everyone; there will also be people who claim they can’t stand abstract games. (Though I would argue that many “themed” games are actually just abstracts with pictures on top, not truly thematic exercises.) And it certainly doesn’t deliver that sort of “epic” feel of many longer and more complex games.

The experience delivered here can best be summed up with the phrase “emergent complexity.” The ruleset is simple, but as you play, you intuitively see the need to plan spatially on your wall board, deny opponents what they need from the factories (which can be a leeeeetle mean), choose your endgame bonus targets, and take the first player marker (and its penalty) or leave it alone. The game is puzzle-y, spatial, and tactical, filled with set-collecting goodness, pretty bits, and the kind of gameplay that welcomes everyone to the table.

In the end, Azul feels like something more than a tasty snack and less than a full five-course meal. It’s an ideal weeknight game, or a game night opener, or a family title—and it’s easy to find “just one game” stretching into two. Perhaps that’s why Azul is currently the top-rated family game and top-rated abstract game among the tens of thousands of titles ranked on BoardGameGeek, and why its recent win was well-deserved.

More Info: arstechnica.com

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