Azul is one of the best-looking board games available today, while also being one of the more accessible. The Royal Palace of Evora in Portugal boasts beautiful blue tile-work called azulejos: Azul means blue in Portuguese. In this game, you play as an artisan, competing with your fellows to showcase your skills. Whoever creates the most stunning wall will win.
You might not think that a game that's literally about tiling walls sounds very engrossing, but Azul is here to prove otherwise. The magic starts as soon as you open the box: it’s full of bright, chunky, embossed tiles that offer a satisfying slide and clack as you pick and place them. And as you do so, you’ll begin to see the rich serving of strategy on offer.
And you'll want to play often, because this game takes seconds to unbox and set up, not much longer to pack away, and fits some play into the middle that's sharper than a diamond tile cutter.
Azul board game: Price and who it's for
If you fancy your hand at ornamental tiling, you'll need about £30/$30 to buy Azul, and two to four players to play it. One of the many appealing things about it is its simplicity. Though it has this (quite thin) theme of being about tile laying, really it's an 'abstract' game, like chequers or chess, where what you do in the game isn't 100% tied to the theme. Although the rules may feel unfamiliar if you're not used to 'abstract' games, they're clear enough, and the flow of play is easy once you try.
In this way, it's good for family play, although the level of strategic thinking and occasional gotcha moment may put younger players off. Being denied what you need is a key part of how it plays, and while that just means that the strategic side of it is about making sure that doesn’t happen, it may end up being frustrating for kids who don’t fully have a grip on that.
The game scales really well for any number of players, because you simply adjust the amount of tiles available, making sure that it still feels like you’re competing for the most useful stuff however many of you there are.
It takes roughly 30-45 minutes to play, depending on the number of players. It's not slowed down too much by having more players because each turn is so simple.
Azul board game review: How it plays
Each turn of Azul starts by pulling some of the gorgeous tiles at random out of a supplied bag and placing them in pools of four each – these pools are known as ‘factories’, with the idea being that you’re collecting tiles straight from the manufacturer. On your turn, you can take all tiles of one single colour from one of the factories. The remainder go into the middle of the table, forming another pool from which following players can then pick in the future.
Then, you place your new tiles on a row of your player mat. There are five rows of increasing capacity, from one to five tiles. The catch is that each row can only hold one colour of tile at a time. As a result, it's easier than you might imagine to end up having to pick up more tiles of a given colour that will fit on your mat. In which case they fall on the "floor", smashing the lovely ceramic for a score penalty.
Trying to force players into this situation is a wickedly satisfying plank of strategy in Azul. In theory, it's possible to try and plan for this from the beginning of each round, but that requires planning way ahead. It's more exciting to wait until players have started to empty the factories and then begin to plot your dastardly scheme. But watch out, in case someone else is trying to pull off the same trick on you.
The pool in the middle grows bigger and bigger over time, because a more and more tempting place to draw from because it might be possible to fill an entire row perfectly in a single turn… but whoever takes from the middle first takes a point penalty. After that, anyone can take from the middle without that penalty, meaning that every round has a kind of standoff element, as everyone spots a nice juicy take in the centre that they want… but they just don’t want to be the first to take from there.
A final strategic flourish comes when all the factories are nearly empty. Having previously found the table to be a delicious buffet of colours, you’ll now realise that the last few turns are just about making sure you don’t get forced to take a load of tiles you don’t have any way to place – it’s possible for this part of the game to turn into a festival of floor smashing if you’re not careful.
After all the factories are empty, you can take one tile from each row you filled to completion, and place that tile on your wall. You're trying to set up that you have continuous rows and columns of tiles here: the longer the chain of adjacent tiles you can make, the more points it will score.
Trying to get the right patterns of tiles to maximise your score is the meat of the game, and there's a lot of depth and skill to it that feed back into your tile choices on the next turn. Especially when you weave it around trying to avoid tile smashes on your floor, and the fact that any incomplete rows stay between rounds, so your choices next turn are partly decided by what you did last turn.
Managing your wall gets harder and harder as the spaces fill up, leaving you fewer options for tiles that will fit on each row. As a result, the game can build toward a thrilling climax. But because of how important planning is, more experienced players will often take an early lead against new players, leaving the outcome in little doubt. However, it’s a game where just doing a good job of building your own neat wall can be enough reward – you might not win, but if you make something pleasing and pretty on the way, that’s all the fun you need.
Azul board game review: Verdict
Azul is a classic slice of abstract strategy, with all the good and bad things that that entails. On the plus side, it's got that classic easy to learn, hard to master feel. At the same time, it can be dry and less experienced or able players may find it frustrating.
It's got several things that make it stand out, however. The tiles look and feel beautiful, and building up the patterns as you play looks stunning on the table. Second, it's got that fantastic frisson of luck in the drawing of tiles and the chance to leave someone with a ton of smash ceramic. These make it more exciting than a lot of abstracts and leave a ghost of a chance for a losing player to get back into the game. As a result, it's got much wider appeal than a lot of its peers.
Azul board game review: Also consider
If you like the sound of Azul, but want something a little lighter, then Sagrada will offer what you’re looking for. It’s another stunning-looking abstract game where you make patterns, but you use lovely gem dice rather than tiles. The dice roll element and lack of an equivalent to the tile smashing make it easier on new players.
Azul plays really well with two, but if you’re after a head-to-head that’s faster and more compact, check out Patchwork. This is a spatial puzzle where you and your opponent are racing to collect patches for a quilt using a clever time mechanism. Once acquired, you have to fit each oddly-shaped piece into your growing quilt to get the best score.