Do you prefer picking which chocolate to eat next, or staring at bathroom tiles? One sounds a lot more appealing to me than the other! Each to their own, though; I’m not going to judge you. Your choice does correlate somewhat though, in the latest in the Azul series. Azul: Master Chocolatier is all about designing chocolate boxes!
Michael Kiesling and Plan B Games struck gold when Azul hit the tables in 2017. It won the Spiel des Jahres (Family Game of the Year Award) in ’18. Whenever a title hits such euphoric heights, a temptation seeps into the winning publishing company. It happens time and time again. They belch out spin-off titles, piggy-backing off the original game’s success. Days of Wonder have dined out on Ticket To Ride for almost twenty years, now! Kingdomino has at least five games within Bruno Cathala’s ‘…domino’ series.
Azul is no different. Master Chocolatier is the fifth within Kiesling’s tile-drafting, pattern-building family of games. It’s almost been an annual event since picking up the SdJ gong: new year, a new Azul gets released. So how does Azul: Master Chocolatier stand up to the original? If you own it alongside Stained Glass of Sintra, Summer Pavilion, and Queen’s Garden, can you justify owning this one, too?
Wispa Has It This Is Kinder The Same As The Original Azul…
Mechanisms-wise Azul: Master Chocolatier is a reimplementation of the original Azul. It pits 2-4 players against each other, all looking to draft square tiles from Factories. Your aim? Fill in a 5×5 grid, which has Sudoku-esque qualities to it. If you want to play the base game of Azul, then it is 100% identical, save for aesthetics. There is an extra bonus mode included, though.
In the original Azul, the theme sees you creating a mesmerizing tiled wall, fit for a Portuguese king. It takes its name from the tin-glazed ceramic azulejo tiles, themselves. A popular feature of Azul were the tiles themselves were not mere cardboard chits. Instead, they were chunky, durable Bakelite. They bore dimensions akin to Starburst chewy sweets. Their vibrant colours commanded table presence, the game being a photogenic modern classic. And for good reason: you’re not decorating a bland bus station restroom. You were commissioned to tile a palace!
It’s apt, and in some ways inevitable, that the Azul series has headed towards a confectionary theme. After all, the tiles always looked kind-of edible! This time around, in Master Chocolatier, you’re looking to fill a grandiose box of chocs. This ain’t no tin of Miniature Heroes, though. It’s more akin to a fancy array of Belgian delights, the kind that sees sales skyrocket around Valentine’s Day.
Plan B Games Sticking To A Winning Golden Ticket?
The set-up and gameplay is identical. There’s 100 tiles total, spanning five different patterns, so 20 of each. You place out circular ‘Factories’, which look like fancy beer mats. The number of Factories you use in a game equals the number of players multiplied by two, plus one. (Five in a two-player game, seven for three players, and nine for four players.) At the start of the round, you place, at random, four tiles onto each Factory.
The difference is, talking aesthetics, the five different tile types are now varieties of chocolate! There’s a light brown fudge, white chocolate, and one that’s a red velvet. One’s a dark chocolate swirl, and one has shimmering blue icing. The 5×5 layout remains the same, so they sit in diagonal rows from one another. On your turn, you visit one of the Factories and take all the chocs in one type, placing them onto your board. Any remainders get pushed into the centre of the table, forming an extra Factory.
Haven’t played base-game Azul before? Today’s your lucky day: I’ve written a How To Play guide for it, and it’s one tap/click away, here.
The link above talks you through how to play and score tiles in regular Azul. The same applies here in Master Chocolatier. The thing you’ll want to read about, then, is what does that Factory module bring to the plate?
Charlie Azul Chocolate Factory
There’s nine Factory Displays in total, as per standard Azul. The difference is, they’re all double-sided, here. If you want to play with this variant, you shuffle them and place out the required quota, as per usual. (So, say, seven for a three-player game.) Then you flip over Factory Displays equal to the number of players. (So, say, three out of the seven in a three-player game.) You flip them over at random, so they could be neighbouring to one another, or spread out around the circle.
Among the nine tiles, there are five different actions that occur on the ‘Special’ side of the Factory Displays. One Special Factory has a +1 on it, which means you place five tiles on it at the start of the round, not the standard four. Can this potential lure convince you to take the -1 hit to become First Player for the next round?
Five of the Special Factories show a certain chocolate type (there’s five of these, one for each type). After set-up, you check to see if any chocs of that type sit on the neighbouring Factories. If so, you move one of them from that Factory onto this Factory. It’s like demanding Veruca Salt, insisting on wanting more, more, more, and now. This could result in as many as six tiles being on one Factory. (And, as a result, at least three of one type on this Factory.) This also makes being First Player appealing, if you have a need to fill a particular row.
It gives that type of chocolate an interesting dynamic for the whole game, since it’s not as likely to sit spread out. Instead, chances are it gets clumped together in higher quantities. This means it both can feel harder to obtain, but also comes as a klaxon for the latter parts of the game. If you have nowhere left to house that pattern, the last thing you want is having to pick up vast quantities of it. After all, the same penalties apply for ‘dropping’ chocolates onto your Foundry line. (There’s nothing as painful as dropping a tasty treat on the floor. Far more wince-worthy than smashing a tile, right?)
The Candy Man Takes Everything He Bakes
Talking of the Foundry Line, one Special Factory Display features the Foundry icon on it. When you take chocs off this Factory, remaining tiles move into the centre as per usual. Then you claim the Factory Display itself, for the rest of the round. The next tile you have to drop sits on this Factory instead of your Foundry, and it doesn’t cost you any minus points. Could this approach tempt you into taking the Augustus Gloop strategy? (AKA: gobbling up more tiles than you need, knowing you can afford to ‘drop’ one for free?)
The fourth type of Special Factory has arrows pointing inwards on it. This means that when a player takes chocs off it, they don’t join the middle of the table. Instead, they remain on this Factory Display. This can cause it to become an appealing location for cautious players, who only want one or two tiles.
Beforehand, tiles tended to congregate in the middle Factory. Sometimes they’d become four-, five- or six-strong by the end of the round. (Depending on the draw and the choice in early-round drafting, of course.) Quotas of tiles in this quantity tends to mean the Foundry Line spitting out minus points! So the fact this Special Factory alters that potential puts a spin on procedures.
Last of all, the fifth Special Factory Display has arrows pointing outward. When a player drafts tiles off this Factory, the remaining tiles don’t get pushed into the middle Factory. Instead, they get split (as even as possible) and sent to the two neighbouring Factories. Same-colour tiles don’t get separated from one another. This can also cause larger-than-before quantities of chocs on a single Factory.
Who Could Hate Or Bear A Grudge Against A Luscious Bit Of Fudge?
Art plays a huge role in this review, due to the nature of it being a reimplementation. Artist Chris Quilliams is the constant between this and the original. The player boards share parallels to the point where you can tell they’ve tweaked the old template. The border art, the score tracks, the ‘staircase’ Pattern Lines. The font (the now-recognisable Algerian): it’s tantamount. Some touches are new, such as dewdrops of chocolate trickling down the Foundry.
There’s far less subtle blues within the colour palette, here. It’s as one might expect from a game about chocolate. The board’s tones sit dominated with beige and caramel browns. The 5×5 grid is a drop-down view of a chocolate box; you can imagine you’re viewing the chocolates from above. All 25 squares have individual borders – they’re crimped, golden foil cupcake holders. Quilliams has even given the chocolates’ corners subtle whitened speckles. You want to believe the impression of a reflective sheen. You’ll become Charlie Bucket, nose pressed up against the sweet shop window. It’s enough to trigger synesthesia; rich cocoa melting across your tastebuds.
The cotton drawstring bag is two-tone, currant-red and marzipan yellow. It’s plenty big enough to house all the tiles. The Bakelite tiles themselves are marvellous as you’d expect. There’s a stark contrast between them all, at a glance. The white chocolate and the fudge in particular look the most realistic! Like other Azul tiles, their durability fills you with confidence. It’s pleasing to see that the First Player tile is also a Bakelite tile, rather than a cardboard chit. (This was the case in the initial printing of the base game.) It’s mint-green, with golden trim, suggestive of a chocolate with a luxurious wrapper.
The nine Factory Tiles are double-sided. They’re blue and red on their standard face; blue, gold and red on their reverse. You can distinguish between the two at ease, when playing the variant module. From an aesthetics point of view, I enjoy the look of Master Chocolatier over base-Azul. That’s my own subjective taste, talking, though. Only you can make that decision.
Final Thoughts On… Azul: Master Chocolatier
The real question is: can fans of Azul justify buying this Limited Edition? No one can deny that Master Chocolatier is 90% the same as base-Azul. Moody Mike Teavee-cynics will huff at that, alone. Art-wise, it’s dipped in chocolate and the components look even more edible than before! This isn’t so much an addition to the Azul series, but rather, a luxury bonus. It’s akin to the re-skinned Plan B Golem titles that sit alongside Emerson Matsuuchi’s ‘Century’ trilogy.
I’m relieved to see that at least the Special Factory Displays module exists in this Limited Edition. This breathes new life into the base game, driving it in a new-ish direction. It makes the game even more interactive. It’s easy to play regular Azul and not pay too much attention to your opponents. If you want it to be a multiplayer-solitaire experience, you can make it that. But do you enjoy hate-drafting, or working hard not to leave anything juicy for your neighbour to pick up? You’ll get a kick out of the flip-side of the Factories.
Because of this module, Master Chocolatier provides an extra assortment of strategy. I am left wondering, though: despite the addition, is this a missed opportunity? Could Plan B and Next Move Games have produced an out-and-out deluxe version of Azul? Many people applauded the introduction of a ’tile tower’ Sintra/Pavilion/Queen’s Garden. This was a device to put spent tiles, after moving scoring ones into place. In the original game, it lacked one. The rules suggested you chuck them in the box lid. Then, when you need to replenish, pour them out of the lid into the drawstring bag. I would have loved to have seen one here. A chance to include this, again, wasted…?
They could have also introduced elements from Azul: Crystal Mosaic. This was an expansion for Azul that included plastic dual-layer overboards. (They’d line up with the player boards here, for context.) Crystal Mosaic also featured new player boards, with new designs to build upon the 5×5 grid. If Plan B had included such extras in here, then Master Chocolatier gains a drastic promotion. It would no longer have been a mere parallel addition. Then it would have become a scrumptious, essential upgrade. The idea of Azul: Deluxe is an interesting debate, and one Violet Beauregarde herself would love to chew on. Alas, this isn’t quite it. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
Completionists and collectors will enjoy having this Limited Edition sit on their shelves. The idea of it being chocolate themed is, without doubt, more appealing than tiling a bathroom. The Special Factories module is a welcome addition, and I’ll struggle to return to base Azul without it. But is that enough to warrant ditching classic Azul and upgrading to this? Or are Plan B cashing in on Azul’s good name and leaving a sour taste in our mouths?