Supposedly, the King of Portugal visited the Alhambra palace in Spain and became transfixed when he saw the mesmerising azulejo tiles. He then insisted that his tile-laying artists redecorate his own walls in a similar fashion – which is where the players of Azul step in.
That’s right, today you and your opponents are doing a spot of tiling. Luckily, you’re dealing with the creative, pattern-building side of things (you don’t have to do any grouting).
Azul is a superb tile drafting game by Michael Kiesling. It won the coveted Spiel des Jahres award (Family Game of the Year) in 2018, elevating it alongside other mainstream board game heavyweights such as Ticket To Ride, Kingdomino and Colt Express.
Not only is Azul a satisfying head-scratcher suitable for board game fans aged eight and above, it also looks absolutely gorgeous on the table. Let’s learn how to play it!
Azul takes all of 60 seconds to set-up. It can accommodate player 2-4 players, so start by giving everyone a player mat. They’re double-sided, but for your first game, we’d recommend the one with the 5x5 grid that has a suggested pattern, rather than the blank one. (That’s the advanced variant, which we won’t be discussing here).
Give every player a black cube scoring marker. It sits on the zero on their scoring track, on the upper third of their player mat.
There are nine circular mats, representing tile factories. Place the correct amount out in a circle in the middle of the table, depending on the player count: Five mats for a two-player game, seven mats for a three-player game, and nine mats for a four-player game.
There are 100 tiles (20 of each of the five patterns). Jumble them around in the draw bag and then randomly place four tiles on each factory. Place the first player marker (the square tile marked with a ‘1’) in the centre of the factories.
You’re now ready to play! But before we start, let’s clarify what’s required to win a game of Azul. Players will be aiming to acquire tiles to build their 5x5 grid (the King’s wall) and will earn points every time they place tile at the end of each round.
There is also end game scoring possibilities too, so you guessed it: most points at the end, wins. So, how do you get tiles?
The first player can ‘visit’ any one of the factories. They pick one and take all of the tiles of the same colour from that factory, claiming them. The remaining tiles in that factory are then placed in the middle of the table, next to the first-player marker.
Then, the player decides which horizontal pattern line to place their newly acquired tiles onto, on their player mat. There are five pattern lines, one for each row of the wall. It looks like a staircase. The top pattern line has one space that can only hold one tile; the second line has two spaces that can hold two tiles… All the way down to the bottom line, the fifth, which can house five tiles.
Tiles taken must be placed in the same pattern line – they cannot be split (so, if you took, say, three yellows, you cannot place two on one line and one on another).
If on a later turn you pick up more yellows, for example, you have two options. You’re allowed to place them on a different (albeit entirely vacant) pattern line or add them to a line that has yellows already in it. A singular pattern line is only allowed to have tiles of one colour within it.
Occasionally, players may pick up more tiles than there are spaces remaining within their desired pattern line. In this circumstance, any excess tiles that do not fit into this line are ‘dropped’. Thematically, you’ve just smashed a tile (or tiles)! These sit on the far-left spaces along the ‘floor line’ of your player mat – the very bottom row that has minus numbers attributed to it. These are not good for your score… But we’ll explain why, later.
So, long story short; the first player visited a factory, took all the tiles of one type from it, pushed the remaining to the middle of the table, and then allocated their claimed tiles to a pattern line on their mat. Now it’s the next player’s turn, in clockwise order.
They now pick a factory to visit and do the same process. Of course, they cannot visit the now-empty factory that the previous player just used, because no tiles remain there.
However, the current player can, should they wish, treat the tiles in the middle of the table as an individual factory in its own right. The same rules apply here – they take all the tiles of one pattern type. If they do this, they simply leave the rest of the tiles in middle, not relocate them again. Other players, later on, can still visit this ‘central’ factory to pick up the leftover tiles.
The first player to visit this central factory also claims the first player marker. They’ll be the first player in the next round. This marker is like a dropped tile. It sits on the left-most space on the floor line.
The round continues clockwise until all the tiles have been claimed, collectively, by all of the players. Now it’s time to do some end-of-round scoring…
Scoring After Each Round
At the end of the round, players look at their pattern lines. If they’ve completed an entire line of one tile type, they move one of those tiles across to the corresponding pattern type within that horizontal row of the wall. It’s likely that all players will have completed at least one or two lines – maybe even all five!
So, if your pattern line of three is filled with, say, three blacks, move one black tile across onto the third row within the wall. If your pattern line of four is only partially filled with, say, two reds, nothing happens. These red tiles remain here for the next round and will remain until you eventually fill in that line later on. Only then will you be able to move one of those red tiles across.
Now you score the tiles that you’ve just moved across into the wall. If the tile is sitting on its lonesome (not adjacent to any other previously placed tiles), it scores a single point.
If, however, a newly placed tile is sitting adjacent to others, it scores differently. Count how many tiles are linked in that row horizontally (including the new tile). It scores that many points. Then count how many tiles that are linked vertically (again, including the new tile). It scores that many points, too. Move your black cube marker along the correct number of spaces on your score track.
Tip - Stand your new tiles onto the wall up on their side, rather than flat (purely so you can recall at a glance which ones you’re scoring this round, and which were placed in a previous round). You can sit them down afterwards, once scored.
If players have any tiles sitting on their floor line, or perhaps the first-player marker, they add up the accumulation of minus points they’ve collected and move their score marker back that many spaces.
Starting a New Round
Once everyone has scored their newly placed tiles, any excess tiles in pattern lines that were just completed get removed from player boards. They can sit in the box lid for now. The only tiles that should remain on the pattern lines are those that were only partially filled (like the two reds, in our example above).
The next round of Azul begins. Whoever took the first player marker is the new first player. They return the marker to the centre of the table, inside the circle of factories.
Draw tiles from the bag again, four at random for each factory. (If the draw bag ever becomes empty, simply re-fill it with the discarded tiles that we suggested you placed in the box lid.) The first player gets first pick of the new set of tiles, and play continues clockwise.
Game End Triggers and Final Scoring
Azul ends once at least one player has successfully completed a horizontal row across their grid. The round ends as per usual, with everyone scoring their newly placed tiles, minus any dropped tiles.
There are then some end game bonuses up for grabs. For every complete horizontal row players have completed, they’ll earn an extra two points. For every complete vertical row they’ve completed, they’ll earn seven points.
Finally, for every time they’ve managed to fill in all five tiles for one colour, they’ll earn 10 points. (These are all explained in the bottom-right corner of the player boards.) These are progressively harder to achieve, hence being worth more points.
Whoever has scored the most is the winner – and the Portuguese King’s new favourite tiler!
Further Hints and Tips
It’s important to note that Azul is like the colourful cousin to Sudoku and similar rules apply. Within that wall, there are five rows and five columns. No tile pattern is repeated in each row or column – they are all in neat diagonal lines.
Therefore, once you’ve filled, say, the second pattern line with blues, at the end of the round, one of those blue tiles moves onto the wall. Meaning, in the next round you cannot place any blues in that same row of the pattern line. This is vitally important!
You’ll find that Azul is like a game of two halves. To begin with you might be filling pattern lines in a scattergun approach, not really thinking about it. Later on, you’ll find your options to be far more limited, when you can’t place certain colours in certain lines due to duplication. You’ll have to be careful, because your opponents might cast sneaky eyes over your board and leave you with inconvenient tiles… Meaning you have no choice but to ‘drop’ them into your floor line.
The middle – that ‘additional’ factory spot that grows throughout the game – plays a huge role in each round. Some players treat it negatively, since the first player to go there has to take a -1 hit – but they get the First Player token, which is actually rather handy for getting first pick of the new tiles next round.
However, if you leave it too late to visit the middle, tiles can accumulate there at a quick rate. Don’t forget, you always have to take all of the tiles of one pattern type if you visit the middle. There is every chance that more than five tiles of the same pattern type could congregate here, and if you’re forced to take them, you can only place – at a maximum – five tiles along your fifth pattern line. And that’s providing you haven’t already fulfilled that tile colour within that row of the wall! Poor planning could mean you’re forced to ‘drop’ all of them. If filled up, that floor line could cost -14 points – ouch!
Therefore, it’s not ideal to leave yourself with partially filled pattern lines at the end of the round – especially the fourth and fifth row ones. Why? Because you can only fill them with that specific colour next round. Take a look at how many tiles of each colour that emerge at the start of each round and estimate if it’s achievable to acquire enough tiles to complete a row before scoring.
Remember, there are 20 tiles of each of the five patterns and the draw bag has to be exhausted before old tiles get put back into it. Therefore, some colours will be in high demand or in plentiful supply in comparison to others.
Collecting tiles that are vertically adjacent from the off is a decent approach. You’re building connecting links straight away for combo-tastic points. (Also, for end-game scoring purposes – each vertical row is worth an additional seven points, after all!)
Similarly, it’s often quite easy to fill that first space in the pattern line – it only requires one tile. A different one each round, admittedly, but chances are you’ll be able to get the one you need. As a result, since the game ends once any one player has completed a horizontal row, you can assume a game of Azul will last five rounds. This usually equates to about 30-45 minutes, so it fits nicely into that “Let’s play that again!” bracket…