Azul is a board game designed by Michael Kiesling. The game is for 2-4 players, and I played with 3 players. The target audience is adults interested in patterns and art.
In this game, players select from a central pool of tiles one at a time, filling their own board. Different rows, colors, and patterns offer different amounts of points in the end. The objective of the game is to amass the most points, usually done by making specific patterns. The boundaries of the game are the table that it is played on. The resources are the tiles that each player selects on each turn. The end state is reached when any player fills an entire row of tiles in one round. Thus, players can selectively choose when to end the game since they have control over where they place their tiles in a given round.
The core mechanics of the game are selecting tiles from the pool and placing tiles on your board, resulting in the amount of points you get per round. Players select tiles for three main motivations: amassing points by making a pattern in a given round, blocking another player from selecting their desired tile (for example, if you know the next player wants to finish the game and needs a red tile, you would take the red tile), and trying to fill a row to end game play. The rounds end when all the tiles have been selected; points are then counted and then all tiles are returned, starting the pattern-making over again. Each round acts as a loop, where players can learn what they did well and what their fellow players’ strategies are (since all choices, boards, and points are public), allowing players to refine their tile selection and laying strategies.
One of the biggest successes of the game design is the balance among player skill levels and strategy vs. luck. Because of the design of the game, players who optimize their strategy heavily have fun as well as casual players who don’t try too hard. For the casual players, simply selecting any tiles and laying them on your board will get you a substantial number of points; similarly, players who want to optimize their strategies can usually reap the rewards of planning, yet any other player’s actions change the available pool, making the players change and rethink their strategies at any given point. Because any strategy might fail because of another player’s choices, even the most casual player might win, keeping everyone engaged throughout.
This brings us to the other success of the game: fellowship or rivalry between players. Every tile selection a player makes changes the rest of the round; thus, players are rivals in the sense that they want the specific tiles that will help them the most. At the same time though, players are working together to prevent any one other player from winning. If one player pulls ahead, the others are likely to band together to try to stop the winning player from finishing the game.
Finally, because every round entirely depends on player selection, each round feels different and fresh. As points are accumulated, the stakes also get higher, increasing the tension and weight put behind every selection. Even though the rules do not change in any round, the rounds continue to feel unique and keep players engaged, always waiting to see what the others are going to do.
Four Kinds of Balance
Because this is a multiplayer game, I will only discuss the three types of balance possible in multiplayer games.
- Players have unequal starting positions only based on the order in which they draw. However, because the player who starts rotates each round, it balances out in the end. Also, there is not guarantee before the round starts which starting position is best: sure, the first player gets first pick, but maybe they are sitting next to someone else whose strategy contracts theirs.
- There are infinite paths to victory in Azul because players can take any variety of routes when selecting and placing tokens. However, their success also depends on the choices of their fellow players. What might be a good strategy in the beginning could fail if other players don’t fall into expectations. Because of the influence of other players, this game is well balanced when it comes to different paths or strategies. Anything could win you the game depending on your peers.
- Similarly, for the different tiles, their value in the beginning of the game is set randomly by a random choice of tiles for the initial pool, though it is relatively even on average. On the boards, all tiles have an equal value overall, just placed differently. The fun is that different tiles can have different values to players depending on their strategies. Thus, the value of resources can always be shifted by altering ones’ strategy, forcing players to choose whether to hold out hope for a now rare tile or alter their actions. This allows the balance to shift throughout the game and even to have different values for different people, averaging the balance overall.
Types of Fun
The mechanics of the game allow for the game’s main type of fun: challenge. Because the game requires competition (only one player can win) and at least some strategy, challenge naturally arises. Another type of fun, to a lesser degree, is fellowship. Players must interact with one another since they are choosing from the same set of tiles and, if desired, players can even work together as part of their strategy.
At one point, another player (Player A) was far ahead of me and Player B by over 20 points (which is a TON of points in this game). Player A was just trying to reach the end state to win, needing to complete one row of specific tiles. However, Player B and I partnered together to continuously draw the tiles that Player A needed, forcing the game to continue. In the end, we could only last so long before Player A was able to grab every last tile he needed, but we cut his winning amount down to just 2 points!
Visual Design & Branding
The branding of the game is influenced by the background for the story, which states that a Portuguese king called on you all to design tile patterns for the king’s new palace. While the storyline isn’t otherwise portrayed at all in gameplay, the design of the game matches the beautiful tiles of Portugal and Spain. The game utilizes bright artistic colors to grab attention, and it uses stone-like backgrounds, as if laying tiles on the actual ground. The visual design of the game helps attract its target audience of people interested in pattern-making and art.
Because this is one of my favorite games, I’m biased in saying that there isn’t much to be changed. Instead, I think adding different boards for future iterations of the game would be fun (like an expansion pack), allowing people to have to come up with entirely new strategies. Also, I think that the game could lean into the fellowship aspect and offer a team mode, where two players are on a team, and the round goes ABAB, where each player A is on the same team, BUT the two teammates cannot talk about what to do on each respective players’ turn. This method would keep the same allure of not knowing what each other is going to do, but it would increase the fellowship aspect in a novel way.
Azul is a beautiful board game that relies on a common pool of resources that each player interacts with to create an exciting game that balances strategy with luck and keeps the simple rules and mechanics feeling fresh.