Sunday, 7 October 2018

Azul

Plays: 2Px3, 3Px1.

Azul is a double-award winner, winning both the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutscher Spiele Preis, the two most prestigious boardgame awards in Germany, and arguably the world. When I had the chance to play it, I jumped in with no hesitation. Gotta see what the fuss is about!

The Game

I'll explain how this game works backwards. Start with the end in mind. What you do in this game is you fill the the spaces on the wall, which is the 5x5 grid on the right side of your player board. You must follow the pattern shown on the wall. Every time you place a tile here, you score points. If the newly placed tile has no other tiles adjacent to it, you score 1pt. If there are others adjacent in the same row, you score 1pt per connected tile in that row, including the newly placed tile. If there are others adjacent in the same column, you also score 1pt per connected tile in that column. Let's say I place a yellow tile in the third row, I would score 2pt. The newly placed yellow tile would be touching one blue tile next to it. They form a row of size 2. There are no adjacent tiles horizontally, so no points column-wise.

Let's work backwards. In order to place tiles onto the wall, you need to first fill those lines on the left side of your player board. They are called pattern lines. During a round, once all tiles have been collected by players, you check whether you have completely filled any pattern lines. Completed pattern lines allow you to transfer one tile to the wall. The tile must be moved to the row corresponding to the pattern line. In the photo above, pattern lines 2 and 3 are complete, and one tile from each line will be moved to the wall. Other tiles in the pattern lines are discarded, so you will have a fresh empty pattern line next round. Pattern lines 4 and 5 are incomplete. The tiles will stay there for the next round.

Let's go further backwards. How do you collect tiles in the first place to put onto your pattern lines? Before the start of the game, you arrange some discs in a circle. These discs are called factories. At the start of every round, four random tiles are produced at each factory. Players take turns collecting tiles until all are claimed. You may pick any factory, and take all tiles of one colour. You then push all remaining tiles to the centre of the circle. There will be more and more tiles at the centre. Your other option is to take all tiles of one colour from the centre. At the start of a round, the start player tile (white tile with a 1) is placed at the centre. During the round, whoever is first to claim tiles from the centre must also take the start player tile.

Whenever you claim tiles, you normally pick one pattern line to place them. If the pattern line becomes full and you have surplus tiles, these tiles must be placed in the floor line. This is a penalty area at the bottom of your player board. Every tile placed here gives a penalty. The start player tile gets placed here too. Being start player for next round costs you at least 1pt. Sometimes if you don't want the tiles you claim, you may directly place them in the floor line. Sometimes when you run out of pattern lines to place tiles claimed, you are forced to place all those tiles in the floor line. As long as there are tiles available on the table, players must claim tiles when their turns come around.

The flow is straight-forward. The first half of a round is for players to claim tiles to put onto their pattern lines. Ideally you want to fill up every pattern line. The first half ends when all tiles are claimed. Then you enter the second half, which is simply processing the completed pattern lines and sticking tiles onto your wall. The second half is actually an administrative and scoring stage that can be done concurrently. It has no player interaction. If any player completes a row on his wall, the game ends. You score bonus points for three criteria at game end. For every completed row on your wall, you score 2pts. For every completed column, 7pts. For every complete set of 5 tiles of the same colour, 10pts.

In a corner of your player board you have these reminders for the game end scoring.

The player board is double sided. On the advanced side, the wall has no preset pattern. You are free to place your tiles. However, the placement is still subject to two rules. In every row, the tile colours must not repeat. In every column, the tile colours also must not repeat. This is the sudoku concept.

The Play

The game mechanisms in Azul may not feel familiar, but they are easy to grasp. However you need to play the game to start appreciating the tactics.

Firstly, you don't simply fill your pattern lines with any colours you want. If you want to do well, you need to think and plan. When placing a tile onto your wall, you want it to link up to as many other tiles as possible, preferably both horizontally and vertically. So ideally when you build your wall, you start at one spot, then expand from there, as opposed to placing random tiles at disjointed positions. You want to complete those 7pt vertical lines. You want to complete those 10pt colour sets. Even when you know which colours you want, you also need to consider what colours are available in the current round, and whether others also want the same colours. If the colour you want is lacking, or you expect others to be desperately fighting over that same colour, it may be better to forgo it this round and try next round. If you fight for it, you may only partially fill a pattern line and need to wait for the next round to complete it anyway. Perhaps it's better to fill that pattern line with another colour that is less contested.

You need to put some thought into the competition at the centre of the table. The first impulse when playing this game is probably to avoid creating any big group of tiles of the same colour, because it means someone else can claim many tiles at one go. However you will later find that sometimes you want to intentionally create big sets, because sometimes players don't want big sets. When you take more than enough tiles to fill a pattern line, the surplus all go to the floor line, and this creates a penalty. When both you and another player want a specific colour, but you have more space than him, one way to dissuade him is to create a group that is too big for him. Of course, he may decide the penalty is worth it, in addition to not letting you have your way. Azul has decent player interaction, just that it is not immediately apparent. At first glance it appears to be a multiplayer solitaire game where everyone decorates his own wall.

The floor line is a constant threat, and the risk grows towards game end, because there are fewer and fewer valid colour choices for the pattern lines. You can't place a tile colour onto a pattern line, if the space of that colour on the corresponding wall row has already been filled. You have fewer and fewer options, and it is more likely you will be forced to place claimed tiles onto the floor line. In the worst case you will lose 14pts, which is a lot. You may be regressing instead of advancing. If a round starts with many players having half-filled pattern lines, you better watch out. There may be more tiles than you can fit, and things may not end well. Alternatively, it may be a golden opportunity to sabotage your opponents.

The advanced game gives you more freedom, but there's a trap. If you don't plan ahead carefully, you will create dead zones on your wall. This was what happened to Allen in one of our games. He had a dead zone because no matter what colour he was to take for that particular spot, it would be conflicting with another spot in the same row, or in the same column. It was then we realised why the wall in the basic game had a diagonal lines pattern.

Allen lent me his copy so that I could play with my children. I got Chen Rui to play with me.

At first Shee Yun wasn't interested to play, but after watching Chen Rui and I for a while, she asked to join us for the next game.

With three players, there are seven factories in use. With two players, only five. In this photo there are already many tiles at the centre. Look at those yellow tiles! The #1 tile is still there, which means no one has taken anything from the centre yet. Whoever is first to take a set of tiles from the centre must take the #1 tile too. The #1 tile must go to the floor tile, and thus will cost you at least 1pt. I find that it is often worth the penalty to become start player for the next round. You get first dibs.

The Thoughts

Labeling Azul as an abstract game feels inappropriate, because normally people think of abstract games as dry, mathematical, open-info and serious. Azul is indeed an open-information game, and if you play very competitively, it can be ponderous and thinky. I see it as a family strategy game. One big dose of randomness is the tiles being drawn at the start of every round. How many tiles there are in each colour affects the game, and how they are distributed also affects the game. I think Azul is best played as a light strategy game. There is no need to think too much. You'll do reasonably well as long as you put a little thought into it. Analysing every logical branch might give you a slight edge, but it is not necessary for the enjoyment of the game.

I enjoyed the fact that underneath the simple rules, there are quite a few tactical subtleties to explore. It was fun discovering the various player interactions.

The publisher could have slapped on a less abstract theme. The colours could be different professions helping to rebuild a kingdom, or alien races at an intergalactic business conference. I'm glad they chose a simple, unpretentious setting. The game mechanism is pure and abstract. Slapping on some fanciful story or elaborate setting might feel forced and unnatural.

I found Azul refreshing. Often when trying to describe a game, I am reminded of mechanisms in other games, and I try to describe the game on hand by referring to those other games. The game mechanisms in Azul are not groundbreaking, but the whole package doesn't feel like anything I have played before. Okay, maybe except for Sudoku.

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