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 / 5)
Did you know the word for “clever” in German is klug? Google Translate told me, so it must be true. Would we be looking at this game if it was called “Ganz Schon Klug”?
…probably. It has an English translation right underneath. Hell, we’d probably have fun shouting it at each other, with both arms firmly at our sides.
Ganz Schon Clever is the version of Yahtzee you would make if you were twelve, bored, and not challenged enough in school. It’s a game of efficiency in the name of randomness, of synergy and cascading points with a pool of resources unknown until they’re rolled, that is likely to let you feel very smart and die a little inside when you don’t get that last roll you need in the same game.
Each turn has one person as the active player. That person rolls the dice and picks one to fill a square of the matching slot on their scoresheet. (White has no spot; it’s wild and can be used as any color.) Any dice lower in number than the chosen die goes on the Silver Platter (a picture of a dish inside the box they included because organization is EVERYTHING) and can’t be used by the active player again that turn. All remaining dice are rerolled, a second die is picked, then the dice left over after that are rolled again so a third can be picked. After that, the remaining dice (usually three of them) are open for the other, passive players to choose from and put on their own scoresheets. All passive players choose at the same time, and can pick the same die. A round consists of each person getting a turn as the active player, and the game length is in number of rounds, determined by player count.
The first round is generally straightforward. You’re just getting started filling in the sections, and each section requires at least a few entries before they start offering bonuses. This goes on for part of the second round, but soon enough you fill in a box that lets you fill in a different box. Later, you fill in a box that lets you fill in a box that lets you get an extra reroll that you use later to make sure you get just the right die to fill in another box that lets you fill in yet another box. In addition, some of the bonuses let you use an extra die at the end of someone’s turn, which lets you fill in a box which can let you fill in a box that lets you fill in a box which lets you fill in yet another box.
It gets a little bonkers.
For as much as we might look at the title and say, “Yeah, good job Hans, call yourself clever, you arrogant prick,” it… really is clever. Here’s why: the game is based around understanding the odds of various outcomes, but none of it is complicated. If you realize it’s harder to get high numbers than low ones (because of the dice choosing rules), and that for the blue section (which adds two dice) it’s harder to get 2, 3, 11, and 12 than the ones in the middle, you can form a basic strategy for choosing dice and picking which boxes to fill in with your bonuses. From there, everything depends on how efficiently you can get from bonus to bonus, and how much you can limit your reliance on very specific die rolls in order to make your strategy pan out. You can easily play without wasting dice or feeling like you’ve horribly screwed up, but you will also never fill out the whole sheet, so it always seems as though you might be capable of just a little… bit… more.
I think I have a German chip in my brain, because I adore these types of efficiency-based games. Even taking that bias into account as best I can, I think this is really well done. Basic gameplay that keeps people from getting too frustrated, and the sense that there’s always a better way to proceed, both matter in the replayability of a game like this. Just like with 13 Clues, I can see the scorepad running out of paper at some point (albeit probably with a different group of players).
The only question mark is, why is there room on the back of the scoresheet to score all four players? It’s probably to make overall scoring easier, keep it on one sheet, etc., and it doesn’t affect gameplay, but everyone who’s played looks at it funny. The fact you have to flip it from vertical for play to horizontal for scoring is awkward. But as problems go, that’s a small one. Get this game.
(4.3 / 5)
Whirlygigs? Don’t tell me…
I said don’t tell ffffFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU
Gizmos is a two to four player, engine building game about… building engines, really. You start with a board listing the types of cards and one starting card that lets you draw an energy sphere blindly out of the thingamajig they all go in. From there you can file away cards from the board (only one, unless upgrades improve this capacity) or build cards that give you more and better abilities if you take the action associated with them on your turn. Those abilities are File, Pick, Build, or Research.
File and Build are obvious; Pick is choosing one of the energy spheres in the thingamajig chute; and Research is drawing cards equal to your research level from one deck, choosing one, then either filing it or building it right away. What’s important about these, especially as the game goes on, is not so much the abilities but the chance to trigger all the gizmo cards underneath the ability you used that turn. The right engine with the right energy can take two black and build them into a card that takes four yellow to make, all on one turn.
The balancing point is that the game ends when someone has sixteen cards in their play area. Is it better to balance your cards in each category, so you get a decent benefit no matter what ability you use? Or should you pile them in one or two abilities and find a way to lean heavily on those all game? This depends on what’s available, especially at the start, and understanding how to build an efficient engine early. Whatever that engine can build, you run with to the greatest extent possible, and hopefully that’s enough to carry the game.
What all of that means, to the engine-building veterans out there, is that the game becomes substantially easier once you know what’s available or likely to be available for you to build. Watching a bunch of people try to figure out what they’re looking at and how it fits together on the fly is almost painful next to that one person who knows exactly what cards they’re looking for and how to best fit everything together. The game is fine when everyone knows what they’re doing or no one knows what they’re doing, but a mixed group is going to create a pretty imbalanced experience.
One thing I still haven’t figured out is the reason for building the thingamajig for the energy spheres. Did they see Potion Explosion and decide it was a fun concept to swipe? There isn’t much reason to limit the energy that can be taken with the Pick action. It’s not uncommon for it to be loaded up with two colors. Although it doesn’t happen often, someone’s engine can get throttled by not having access to the energy colors they need. Did it need this element of randomness to keep the game from playing the same way all the time? Gizmos is pretty good, it doesn’t seem like it should need that. It mostly seems like they felt the need to put something “cool” in the box.
Short version: If you like engine building games and you’re willing to play a couple of rounds to learn what’s available, you’ll have a good time with Gizmos. You might even like the thingamajig more than I do.
(4.1 / 5)
Choo choo, goes the train. Vroom vroom, goes the car. Rattle rattle, go the dice. Squeak squeak, goes the dry-erase marker. Mailing in the opener, goes the review writer.
That box looks pretty big, but Railroad Ink is a tiny little thing from Horrible Games that is weirdly entertaining if your brain functions like mine. I don’t wish that on anyone, but still, there’s an audience for this.
Each player gets a 7×7 dry erase grid to draw on. The even numbered squares (2, 4, 6) along all four sides have either a highway or a railroad track on their edges. There are four dice rolled each round (seven rounds total) that have highway and/or railroad tracks on them; players all use the same rolls each round, and new roads and tracks being drawn either need to come in from a matching type on the edge or connect to something already on the grid. Each of the tracks coming in also counts as an exit point; your goal is to connect as many of the exit points together as possible, preferably with one set of tracks and roads, no matter how convoluted it may look at the end.
Game boards unfold into the dry erase surface and a small guard that protects some of your drawing surface (it doesn’t need to protect everything; the only useful information would be if opponents could see your whole map clearly) and shows both the possible dice rolls and special tiles you can use once per game. There are six specials in all, of which you can use three total. These are especially important because they’re the only reliable source of stations—black squares that serve as the only way to connect highways and railroad tracks.
There’s no interplay between players, unless you want to talk shit or draw on each other. All you’re trying to do is score the most points via connecting the most exists, having the longest contiguous set of highway and rail lines, and using as many center squares as possible, while having the fewest dangling roads and rails on your grid. It’s basically competitive solitaire, which allows it to function as a single player game, where your goal is to simply do better than you did last time. A common complaint with games is when players don’t get to affect what happens to each other, and if you’re a person who feels that way, this is not going to be for you.
But, if you’re fascinated by games where everyone gets the exact same resources, has to do the best job they can with them, and victory is decided by who plans the best (and gets a little lucky if they take a chance on certain dice rolls hitting), this is a great little game. Once again, the core theme of these reviews comes into play: whether you like it or not, Railroad Ink is doing exactly what it’s trying to do.
(4.5 / 5)
There are games which involve underwater life, where you escape big fish with big teeth or spawn salmon or escape from an island which is about to become underwater life, but rarely do you get to be… the plants. And not even the soft green plants, but the rocky crap we step on and it hurts.
Although pretty soon there won’t be any of that either.
Reef is something of a puzzle game. Everyone gets a 4×4 board and four pieces of coral, one of each color, set in the center four squares however you wish. This isn’t done blindly; everything revolves around cards, and you get to see a display of three to choose from right away, as well as having two in your hand, and you can use these to determine good starting positions for your coral.
The cards are key, so here’s how they work: each card has a top and bottom. The top has two pieces of coral, often (but not always) of the same color. When you play a card, you take those two pieces out of the stockpile and place them on your board. You can put them anywhere you want—different spaces, stacked in the same space, stacked on top of other pieces already there, etc. The only rule is that stacks cannot go above four high. Once a stack is four high, it can no longer be changed.
The bottom has a scoring mechanism. This is some pattern the coral must follow to score the points on the card. Only the top-most color on each stack matters for these patterns. Some of them are easy—for example, score one point for each top piece that’s green. Some are more complicated, requiring two different colors diagonal to each other on stacks at least two high. The more complex the pattern, the more point each matching set is worth, but the simpler the pattern, the more times you may be able to score it when you play the card. Therefore, depending on how your board looks, any card may end up being able to score a good chunk of points.
One tricky aspect is that the colors a card lets you play don’t match the colors the card lets you score (apart from a handful that let you score any color). A winning strategy involves playing as many cards as possible that let you score points while also playing corals that will let you score points on a future card. You don’t need to score every card; if you can combo well enough, taking a zero on one card to score ten on another is better than two three-pointers. But comboing off big time isn’t as important as scoring consistently while looking for a big combo. Putting too many resources into setting up a big score will usually leave you behind people who consistently grab points, because if you’re thinking a few cards ahead (no one can take cards out of your hand, so you know what you have), you can always set up good combos.
Basically, it’s not a question of small scores versus one big score. It’s a matter of who can land bigger small scores or more big scores. The game runs for a reasonably high number of rounds, so if you can’t pull anything that nets points right away, you still have time to set up something nice for yourself if you keep an eye out for the right cards. Variance can mess things up, of course, especially in a four-player game, but usually the cards come for you to create some nice scores.
And… that’s pretty much it. It’s a perfectly good game. Like so many games, it will find a niche crowd that adores it, a handful that really don’t like it, and a large majority that find it an acceptable way to spend some gaming time. In theme, it’s fairly unique; in form, it’s reasonably different from most other offerings; yet it doesn’t feel hugely different from a lot of perfectly good games that have crossed the gaming landscape in recent years. It’s a game with a very pretty box designed to draw you into a game that you’ll probably tell your friends is fun. So, if it sounds like a cool concept, by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a game that will blow your hair back with its unique greatness, this isn’t quite it.
(3.9 / 5)