Azul Board Game Review

By | February 7, 2023

Azul is named after azuleijos, the brightly coloured geometric tiles sported by beautiful buildings across North Africa and Portugal; the Portuguese learned to make them from the Moors. The board game has become a celebrated design in its own right, popular enough to launch several sequels which use the same core mechanics and the same beautiful printed plastic tiles. We’re revisiting the original to try and find out what makes this game about decorating palace walls quite so compelling.

What’s in the Box

Like many other abstracts, Azul is a little short on the components front, but what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Underneath the rules sheet, you’ll find four colorful, clear, sturdy playboards, one for each player. There are also a number of cardboard discs and some classic wooden cubes.

The most impressive eye candy is the piles of plastic tiles and the big cloth drawstring bag you keep them in. They’re an absolute delight: smooth and chunky, bright and colorful and some are embossed with intricate geometric designs. The game has them on display for full effect and they’re really satisfying to handle and rummage around in when you pull them from the bag.

Azul Board Game

Rules and how it Plays

Again, like many other abstracts Azul is a fairly simple game to get to grips with, although its slight oddity may prove a bit of a stumbling block. Each player gets a play board and a number of card circles, called factories, each of which starts with four tiles drawn at random from the bag. On your turn, you choose one of the factories, take all tiles of one matching color from it, and then place the rest in the centre of the table. After the first turn, this central offering is treated like another factory from which players can select tiles.

The tiles you’ve chosen go in one of the five rows of your playboard. You can put them in any row, which holds from one to five tiles, so long as a row doesn’t hold more than one color at once. If you do end up with tiles you can’t find on your play board then they “fall” to the bottom and smash, costing you penalty points.

This continues until all the tiles have been taken. Then from any rows that are full, you’re allowed to take a tile and transfer it to the same row on your wall, a grid of color-coded squares, on the matching colored space. That row can no longer hold tiles of that color. You’ll then score points depending on how many tiles are adjacent to the one that you’ve placed. After one player has completed a whole row of tiles, it’s time for final scoring where you get fat bonuses for having completed rows, columns or diagonals of the same color.

From this description, you might imagine Azul to be a somewhat humdrum affair, the kind of mediocre abstract that amuses for a few sessions before being forgotten. But it has a great deal more to it than the pretty face of its toothsome tiles. At first, it’s tempting to look at Azul purely from the perspective of filing lines efficiently: if there’s a trio of tiles, it makes sense to fit them into your three-long space. But because scoring each placement is based on adjacency, that’s a quick way to lose.

Instead, you’ll start to try and pick colours that fill rows and columns. And then you’re in the teeth of a dilemma because, of course, the need to fill lines efficiently is still a thing. If you don’t take that trio of tiles, then someone else might. So you begin to glance around at the boards of other players, frantically trying to second guess who’s going to pip you to the post on a pick you want, and how much following players might benefit if you leave particularly sweet groups for them and when you reach this point the game becomes really interesting.

Consider: unless you’re picking from the center, every pick you make radically changes the tiles on offer to other players because your discards end up in the middle. That might accidentally create a very valuable group for someone else. It might also spoil another player’s choices because they wanted a specific amount to fit onto their board and now there are too many, so if they take it they’ll smash the excess and take penalty points. Best of all, you might actually be laying a trap for following players because the restrictions caused by what they’ve already placed could force them into take a whole pile of tiles they can’t fit, merely to merrily smash on their floor alongside the tinkling amusement of their opponents.

All this to think about on every turn and we haven’t even reached trying to complete rows, columns and colors for bonus points. There really is a whole lot to Azul and what’s particularly joyous about it is how your choices impact those of your fellow players, often very strongly, without a whiff of zero-sum interaction where what makes one player stronger makes another weaker. The game is well-balanced, deep and, unless you can calculate all the probabilities a dozen moves ahead, often quite exciting as you wait to see what the other players leave you.

The game is well-balanced and deep.

Against this, there is a certain degree of repetition to consider. From a thematic standpoint, this is essentially a game about tiling walls, hardly the most thrilling and dramatic subject matter for a clash of minds. There aren’t a lot of moving parts to Azul which, even though it makes the relative depth of strategy all the more impressive, doesn’t give you the variety many players want to sustain interest over a prolonged period of plays. Those who can maintain focus on a single game, however, will find a lot to reward them.

Where to Buy

Azul has earned a spot on our list of the best family board games. For more roundups, check out the best roll and write games, and the best deck-building games.