4 Lessons from Azul for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

Azul has taken the board game world by storm. Like Sagrada, it’s a gorgeous and approachable puzzle game with emergent complexity that becomes ever more apparent with more plays. It has received accolades far and wide, impressively breaking into the Board Game Geek Top 50 and securing a spot as one of five 2018 Mensa Select winners. It’s also, somehow, always trending on social media and Board Game Geek. Clearly, Plan B Games is doing something right, so let’s talk about that!

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Azul Board Game
Photo by PZS69, posted to Board Game Geek under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

In Azul, 2 to 4 players will collect tiles and tile their 5×5 grid in a way that allows them to get the most points. Once a player completes an entire row on their board, the game concludes. Players take turns drawing from factory tiles in the middle. Like in Sagrada, you usually are looking out for your own interests, but you are also given the opportunity to block others when doing this.

After drawing tiles, you have to place all of them on your board. Since there are restrictions on how you do that, any waste goes to the “floor”, which will earn you negative victory points. The way that you place tiles determines how many points you earn. The exact way this is scored is more complex than we need to go into for the sake of discussion here.

Long story short, it’s abstract tile placement par excellence.

1. Creating a great tactile experience like Azul is so important.

Clack! That’s the satisfying sound that the Starburst-colored Azul tiles make when they hit the table. They’re weighty and made of nice plastic, making people envious when just looking at them online.

Board gamers love the physical experience of games. That is, after all, one of the things that makes board games a good alternative to video games. While independent board game publishers often have a tough time affording the nicest materials, we can all learn a few lessons from the way Azul handled its physical presence.

Notice how the boards you place your tiles on are relatively spartan. You don’t touch these so often, so they don’t have to be the nicest materials. The one part that truly matters – the tiles which you touch frequently through the course of the game – have physical weight and smoothness to them. Azul shows us, in practice, how to optimize physical game experience around manufacturing costs.

2. You don’t need incredible art to make a gorgeous game.

Art is one of the key selling points of modern hobby board games. This little chestnut has been upheld as one of the key success factors in modern board game Kickstarter campaigns, including on this very blog. Yet Azul is remarkable because it doesn’t have much art. Sure, it has cover art, but that’s about it. All the rest is graphic design.

Saying that Azul is dependent upon graphic design might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but hear me out. Graphic design, unlike art, is specifically focused on conveying a specific message to a specific audience. Graphic design is art’s utilitarian cousin. The tiles and boards in Azul feel gorgeous and distinct, but they are really just simple – if pretty – geometric patterns.

With hardly any art, Azul has been photographed and shared more than just about any other game I’ve ever seen. It feels like I’ve seen more photos of Azul than I have of, say, Gloomhaven. People love sharp, contrasting colors that catch their attention. They love even more that you can look at them for longer and see lines and curves, curlicues, and ornamentation. The combination of bright colors drawing people in to stay and look at baroque levels of detail is perfectly in tune with the Instagram age.

This is truly remarkable. Art is one of the biggest costs associated with board gaming, and Azul shows a viable way to cut that cost without compromising experience.

3. Get the chores done quickly – simple rules, fast set-up, fast gameplay.

Azul is not a complicated game. Like other modern abstract strategy games along the lines of SantoriniSagrada, and Photosynthesis, it’s easy to explain. On top of that, I think Azul has still another edge. It’s just a little faster to set up than any of the others I mentioned, especially Photosynthesis. For a game so defined by its components – its tactile experience – Azul takes remarkably little time to set up.

In my opinion, the 2 or 3 minutes less it takes to set up Azul as opposed to other games of a similar weight is part of what keeps getting this game on the table. Every single barrier you introduce that makes starting a game harder makes it a little less attractive. Azul comes with about the smallest possible amount of “chores.” In fact, the only modern hobby board game of a similar strategic level I can think of at this moment that has less set up than Azul is Onitama.

4. Let the complexity gradually become more apparent.

Azul isn’t simply pretty and learnable. The game is a good deal more complex than it initially lets on. This is the “emergent complexity” which I’d mentioned in the opening paragraph. Yes, the tile placement allows for players to minmax on a micro scale early on. You don’t pay attention to others much when you first play Azul, and that’s fine, because you’re learning the basics of the game.

Once you get the basic strategy of Azul down, though, you realize that there are subtle elements of “take that” that went unnoticed initially. You realize you can force players to pick tiles they can’t use. On top of that, you realize that you can force other players to place tiles in the negative point section at the bottom of their board. Your actions affect others.

Granted, it’s not like your actions can screw others over every single time so as to rob them of the ability to make meaningful choices. Instead, the game hits this perfect happy medium of “you happening to the game” and “the game happening to you” once all players understand how their actions affect others.

Azul is a great board game with a fantastic physical presence. No longer does the premium tactile experience of board gaming have to be limited to games with minis. Azul takes that experience and brings it to a gateway game with real, lasting strategic weight.

For those of you who are fans of Azul, what else can we learn from this game to become better designers?

3 thoughts on “4 Lessons from Azul for Aspiring Board Game Designers

  1. Great piece, as usual.
    Azul also fits in a category that I’ll call ‘defined by its players’. Say I’m a very aggressive player and I’m playing with three other aggressive players. The game allows that ‘take-that’ style of play. If I’m playing with pacifists, the game will allow that as well. The game doesn’t penalize your style of play or artificially restrict / limit it, in other words.

    1. Hey Chris, glad you liked the post! That’s a good way to put it: “defined by its players.” To me, that’s a mark of a really good game – something which lets players’ personal styles shine through instead of forcing you to follow specific strategies to win.

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