Let’s make a quilt! Or a rug. Or… whatever. Tile wall! That’s it.

Azul is a classic game, re-released two years ago, and it’s still selling well. That’s because it’s good. Spoilers.

So, let’s talk about how and why it works. You have a board with a five-by-five pattern you’re trying to fill in the most cohesive possible way. There are five colors, represented once each per row and column (they show up as a diagonal pattern, it’s quite nice). Each round, seven little platters are loaded with four tiles randomly chosen from the bag, each in one of the five colors. Players choose one platter, take all the tiles of one color from it, and put the rest in the center. A player may also take all the tiles of one color that have been placed in the center instead; the first one to do this takes the first player tile, which counts as a penalty tile at the end of the round.

Those tiles go on one of the horizontal lines to the left of the wall pattern. Those lines have one, two, three, four, or five empty spaces, going down. All tiles on a line must be of the same color. Take too many to fit the line where you want them to go? Extras go on the penalty row. Forced to take a color you can’t place? Those tiles go on the penalty row. The first couple of penalties aren’t major, but they escalate quickly, and you want to avoid them in any case.

When you fill one of those lines, at the end of the round one tile moves over to the matching spot on that row of the wall. If you’ve filled a spot, that color can’t be readied for that row anymore. So, as the game progresses, your goal is to keep targeting colors you need, but only as many tiles as are required to fill a pattern line and get the color into that row.

However! You also want to get tiles on the wall next to each other. The first one you place scores you a point. Every one you place after that scores a point, plus one more for each adjacent tile on the wall (orthogonal only). This means you’re gauging who needs what color, how many you need of each color, what colors will score you the most, how many tiles you need to put that color in the right place, and sometimes when you need to absorb a penalty to max out the scoring power of your wall.

It’s one of those games with basic actions that are easy to understand, but which lead into a game that runs fairly deep on strategic level. It’s also an example of good, professional game design. Quite a number of games give you a basic set of mechanics that lead to engaging play. Sometimes the mechanics are deceptively simple; Onitama gives you five pieces and a bunch of cards, and while the designers would have needed to spend plenty of time with the cards to make sure the game was balanced, overall it doesn’t take much to create an excellent, quick strategy game.

Azul, on the other hand, is a game that is either the product of a tremendous amount of iteration, or amazing luck (and still an awful lot of iteration). Filling the five-by-five wall is simple enough, but why are the pattern lines designed in a one through five fashion? They could have all been the same length, for example, and within that idea they could have reasonably been anywhere from three to five lines long. Why are the penalties structured as they are? How come there are seven platters of tiles, rather than six or eight. or a number based on the players in the game? Why do players get to take tiles from the center of the table, rather than only from the platters? Why is scoring exactly one per tile, including adjacent ones? Why are the adjacency bonuses orthogonal only, not diagonal?

Designers who don’t take enough time to playtest their games and figure out just the right balance points make mistakes on questions like these. Sometimes this happens because they need the game on the shelves and selling; sometimes, if they work for a larger company, they have bosses pressing them for a product; sometimes they just don’t see the fault lines in their creations. Azul sidesteps the potential errors, and we wind up with something on the short list of players everywhere for “that game you should totally get”. Maybe you already knew how good it was, but let’s take a moment to respect how much time it takes to put a game on that level.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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