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The confoundingly simple yet deep design of Azul, the best board game of 2018

It’s the game for anyone who loves shaking Scrabble tiles in the bag. (And you know you do.)

Azul is a terrifically entertaining game.
Plan B Games
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I am not a die-hard boardgamer. I play more board games than most people I know, but I don’t keep up with every new release, and I lean more toward short, enjoyable romps that I can enjoy with my wife than toward deep, complex dives into some endless series of complicated, fiddly mechanics. I also tend to prefer a theme that ties into the game design on some essential level. (And if the game features cute animals? Even better!)

But even with those particulars accounted for, I was surprised to enjoy Azul as much as I did. (The game, created by German designer Michael Kiesling, was released in other parts of the world in 2017, but hit the US — or at least hit my game store — in 2018.)

The game, which boasts a very vague “laying ceramic tiles to make a beautiful wall” theme, barely attempts to offer anything beyond some colorful tiles and a basic directive to make complicated, lovely patterns. Its theme exists, but it doesn’t really affect anything. It lies in some middle ground between strategic and casual, abstract and specific. It should be too nebulous to work. Instead, it’s great.

Where most modern board games either overload on theme (whether in a heavy war game or a cutesy tale of woodland creatures, uh, at war), or offer almost completely stripped-down experiences, all but devoid of themes, Azul hits some weird middle ground between those two approaches. While it’s unlikely that you’ll disappear into the role of a Renaissance-era tile-layer in Portugal, it’s also unlikely that you’ll forget your ultimate goal, which is to build the most complete tile wall before your opponents can.

It is honestly a little hard for me to explain why the game is so good, both because it’s just a little too abstract to really describe and because the best argument I’ve ever been able to make for it is simply to thrust it into people’s hands and ask them to play it.

But here’s what I think is a big part of its appeal: It’s so tactile.

Azul gives you the satisfaction of holding and shaking lots of perfectly designed little pieces

Plan B Games

At its core, Azul is simple: Two to four players sit around a number of “bins” in the center of the table, which all contain tiles. You draw tiles from the bins to try to complete rows of variable length on your own little board, following two principal rules: 1) All of the tiles in a row have to be the same design, and 2) when you take a tile of one design from one of the bins, you have to take all the tiles of that design in the bin.

Once all the bins are empty, you move your tiles from the rows on your board to your “tile wall,” slowly filling it in. Then the bins are refilled, and you start completing the rows again, aiming to eventually have a full row on your tile wall. (If that sounds confusing, here’s a YouTube video that explains it with visuals, which help.)

The larger point is: You’re trying to build out a tiled wall, and the game at once deliberately constrains you — in that you have a limited amount of space to fill in every round — while also egging you on to take more and more tiles, even though you might have to “drop” some of them. They’ll break, and you’ll lose points in the process.

The bins in the center contain tiles, while the board you are playing on — as well as an opponent’s board — are also visible.
Plan B Games

But because all the information is in front of you — you can both see what your opponents are doing and which tiles are left in the center of the table at all times — the game makes it easy to simultaneously plan out your future moves and to shoot yourself in the foot by getting way too ambitious for your own good. At any moment, another opponent could scuttle your plans or push forward toward the end of the game, while you’re still trying to get all your ducks in a row.

That tension between knowing what you have to do to win and possibly backing yourself into a corner through your own machinations is at the heart of many of my favorite games, and Azul is no exception. It is a game where you start with all of the options, then slowly but surely lock yourself out of certain courses of action, even as you’re forced to pivot wildly to find a new one when an opponent screws up your master plan.

But so much of the fun comes from the tiles themselves, which are beautiful little hunks of plastic that feel nice and smooth and weighty in your hand, even if they’re just mass-produced game tokens. What’s more, every new round begins with someone shaking a bag full of them and drawing new ones to place into the bins — and as anyone who’s ever played Scrabble will tell you, shaking the bag full of tokens is the best part.

Feeling these little pieces in your hand, shaking them in the bag, and slowly filling in your board with them — it’s a whole lot of fun! What initially seems like a totally disparate and scattered series of random tiles slowly becomes a fuller, more obvious picture.

And if you get tired of playing with Azul’s default board, you can flip it over and go rogue with a “design your own board” sort of challenge, though the game’s rules dictate that you can only have one of each tile design in any given row in your final wall grid. (I swear this makes sense if you’re looking at it.)

There’s a reason that Azul has made the leap from hardcore hobbyist circles to the shelves of Target and other stores where it might be selected by grandmas shopping for their grandkids (necessary aside: You could totally play this game with a sharp 8-year-old). It’s a testament to the careful victory of painstakingly tested game design, to the way that making sure absolutely every aspect of playing the game is at once instantly understandable and agreeably fun — right down to how those tiles feel in your hand.

Correction: You are filling in a tile wall in the game, which makes far more sense than a tile floor.

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