By Derek Turner
This year’s recently announced winner of the coveted Spiel des Jahres award for the German game of the year was Azul. Azul is an instant classic abstract strategy game that is easy to learn and play and that looks great. It has been one of my favourite games over the past few months, and it is one of the few games that I can always pull off my shelf and play.
But what makes Azul so great? There are four factors that make Azul an incredible game: production value; mechanical simplicity; natural interactivity; and abstract complexity.
One of the first things you notice about Azul is that it has fantastic production value. The tiles you place are heavy and beautiful, which is extra satisfying considering that they could have produced them with cardboard (to much less effect). There is something about the tactility of pieces like the tiles in Azul that inexplicably makes the experience of a simple game that much richer.
The last time I felt so unreasonably satisfied with the components of a simple game was Splendor, as the heavy poker-like chips in that game made a huge difference to my enjoyment of the game. I can see why some Hanabi players prefer the tiled version to the card version, and why some gamers spend lots of money to acquire Deluxe sets or replacement resources that look and feel better, and Azul does it well right away (with the exception of the first player token, but Plan B Games has now released a tile version of that, too.)
Azul is simple to learn and play: take all tiles of one colour from one location and play them on your board. When all the tiles are taken, each player gets to move any completed lines over and score them. Scoring is similarly simple: all adjacent tiles are worth 1 point, and then there are some negative points possible if you cannot play all the tiles you take on your board. Then there are some end-game bonuses for which you can (and should) aim.
Azul takes under five minutes to explain and about half an hour to play, and it is this simplicity that lends itself to be able to played by almost anyone with any level of gaming experience.
Azul would likely not have the same kind of appeal for me (or for other gamers) if it did not pair that mechanical simplicity with the abstract complexity and randomness that also makes it significantly replayable. There are twenty tiles in each of five different colours, which provides for more than enough different possibilities for distribution that I think it’s effectively safe to say that no two games will ever be exactly the same.
It’s often not easy for a game to provide both familiarity and endless combinations, but Azul manages to balance the two well. There does not seem to be any one dominant strategy, and the complexity makes every game something new.
The last fascinating aspect of the game is how interactive it quickly becomes. A player’s first play is often spent thinking mostly about their own board, but most experienced gamers quickly realize how important it is to look at the other player’s boards; often, the tiles you keep another player from taking are more important than the ones you take.
Azul is like many abstract strategy games in this respect, and the fact that the players at the table significantly affect the game is also one of the reasons that Azul works so well. Also, the fact that it plays up to four players elegantly is a significant mark in its favour, as many abstract games are either limited to two players or become two two-player games at a higher player count.
Azul is not the first game to rather elegantly incorporate all of these criteria into a game like this, but it has instantly become one of the more memorable examples of its type, rightfully earning its place among the Spiel des Jahres winners and similarly classic abstract games like Reiner Knizia’s Ingenious. It is the kind of game that designers wish they could create, and I think that this is a game that people will be playing in fifty years (or more).
The four aspects for which I have praised Azul – production value, mechanical simplicity, abstract complexity, and natural interactivity – are all values to which any game should ascribe, within the expectations of genre. The fact that Azul accomplishes all four so expertly is part of what makes it the “game of the year”.
And there is perhaps one more aspect that makes Azul such a brilliant accomplishment: marketability. Plan B Games has announced that all of its games will feature simple titles and concepts (like Azul), and it should come as no surprise that they have already announced the next game they will release: a sequel of sorts to Azul, subtitled “Stained Glass of Sintra”, which already looks to replicate the kinds of successes that Azul established.