BOARDGAME ANALYSIS

The Design of Azul

What Makes A Great Choice in Games?

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Games are at the crossroads of several arts; they’re able to provide a large range of emotions. What sorts them apart is their interactive nature: unlike other media, a game is essentially a series of choices.

Great game designers aspire to craft the most exciting choices. This is even more crucial for board games as they can rely on fewer artifices to entertain their audience. The best board games put the players in front of decisions which let them feel in control and stimulate their intellect.

I came accross Azul this Christmas. This tile-drafting-puzzle board game isn’t the deepest, and yet its simple ruleset can pack a lot of smart decision-making, therefore a perfect candidate to break down the anatomy of a well-designed choice.

Rules & flow of the game

In Azul, players are tile-laying artists who collect tiles from factories and arrange them to make the most beautiful mosaic for the king.

Each round plays like this:

  1. Players take turns picking tiles (four of them are randomly placed on each factory display at the beginning of the round) and must add them to their “pattern lines” in the left part of their board
  2. Once all tiles have been drawn, each player looks at their pattern lines: when a line is complete, they add a tile on the same line of their mosaic and score points accordingly. Unfinished lines stay for the next round.

Unlike what its pitch suggests, Azul is an abstract game whose goal is to have the most point when the game ends, not to complete the mosaic. The ending is triggered when at least one player completes at least one horizontal line. In that case, players finish scoring that round, then get their final bonus points and whoever has the most points wins.

The flow of the game is mostly “algorithmic”. For each aspect of the game, something specific happens when precise conditions are met. There is only one element of randomness, drawing the tiles during the setup of each round; everything else in the game is perfectly predictable (except other players’ actions, of course).

Players only have two choices in this game, which tiles to pick and which pattern lines to add, both of which also have specific constraints detailed later. With few decisions, understanding the impact of each option is integral to scoring more points.

In the following parts, I’ll explain the rules one-by-one, explain how they influence the player’s choice and why this design is effective.

Why We Make a Choice

The Essence of the Choice

Without going philosophical, we can all agree that the nature of choice lets you act on a given situation (the input) to reach another situation (the output). When the role of an algorithm is to always return the same output from the same input, making it consistent, the goal of choice is, on the contrary, to select between different potential outputs from the same inputs.

A choice needs at least two things to empower players: outcomes with measurable differences (a choice doesn’t matter if options lead to equivalent results) and a way to anticipate its outcomes, at least partially (otherwise, it’s just selecting at random). In Azul, this is, of course, the role of the score.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Scoring in Azul

There are four ways to gain points in Azul and one way to lose some (detailed in a later part).

During the game, when you add a tile to your mosaic, you score as many points as there are touching tiles (horizontally & vertically). If there are none, you only score 1 point. This mechanic incentivizes players not to scatter too much and build their mosaic gradually.

Base scoring (illustrations from the rulebook)

At the end of the game, you also score bonus points for each completed line & column, providing objectives and complementing the base scoring system. But you also get bonuses if you have the five tiles of a given colour on the board, which forces you to scatter more since there is one per line and column.

End game bonuses (illustration from the rulebook)

With several scoring opportunities, there isn’t a single viable strategy in Azul, but more importantly, it’s never evident how much options are worth in the end. Your score is the consequence of several interconnected decisions, so you have to evaluate how a move might pay off several turns later to make each choice. Focusing on a single column can earn fewer points now, but will the bonus compensate them later?

Designing a choice that leaves enough uncertainty is crucial to keep the players engaged: the fun lies in re-evaluating the outcomes each time. On the other hand, when the preferable option is always obvious, the players turn into optimization algorithms and get bored quickly.

Ending the Game

The goal of Azul isn’t just to get the most points, it’s to have the most points when the game ends, and this is also triggered by a player’s choice (whenever one of them completes a line).

Both you and your opponents can decide to make the game end sooner or, on the contrary, delay it (by taking the tiles they’d need to finish). You must at least be aware of when the game might end and make choices accordingly: you won’t be able to target the long-term bonuses I mentioned earlier.

This is yet another layer of nuance to the depth of Azul. Usually, I’m not a massive fan of such mechanics (like in Clank), but I must admit that in Azul, it works well with the uncertainty of the scoring system. The line bonus is small, so you’re unsure who’ll finish ahead, making for tense endings.

How We Make A Choice

We make choices to reach specific outputs, and we’ve previously examined how the outcomes need to be measurable & predictable in order to produce stimulating decisions. We can now explore the inputs of choice: how options are designed to create and renew these exciting choices.

The Joy of Drafting

The core of Azul is drafting: a game mechanic where players take turns selecting elements from a shared pool of elements (usually cards, here tiles).

Each player has exactly two options:

  1. Take all tiles of a given colour on one factory display, then put the rest in the centre of the table.
  2. Take all tiles of a given colour from the centre of the table.

Drafting is a frequent mechanic in board games because it creates multi-layered choices where what you leave to others is as important as what you get for yourself. Since the resources are pooled together, you must pick both according to your priorities and what others might need.

Drafting requires you to answer two more questions:

  • Will this option still be available on my next turn?
  • Does my choice leave an advantageous option for my opponent?

Evolutive Decision Space

There is a second layer to Azul’s drafting: the fact that tiles you leave on factory displayed are added to the centre. There are four tiles on each, in five different colours, which is already plenty of options. As the round progresses, the centre of the table goes from being empty to providing opportunities to get new groups of tiles at once.

The state of the shared pool keeps evolving, making the drafting process enjoyable throughout, not just in the first few rounds when players rush for the best picks. And of course, player actions influence it, adding even more granularity to the two “drafting questions” above:

  • Will the same option, a better or a worse, be available on my next turn?
  • Does my choice leave or create an advantageous option for my opponent?

The best reason to let the centre fills with leftovers is to create chances to collect a lot of tiles in one action, a solid move to complete the longer pattern lines, but this can backfire due to another mechanic of Azul.

Over-Drafting

As a balancing mechanic, most drafting games offer compensation when there are no “interesting” options to select: for instance, in 7 Wonders, you can discard unwanted cards to earn gold instead. However, as a more streamlined experience, Azul chose another road: turn these bad options into maluses to add to the depth of choices.

When you take tiles, you must add them to a single pattern line without mixing colours. Once your mosaic starts to fill, you also can’t choose a colour already in the same line (because you’d already have completed it). Any picked tile that you can’t place due to these rules is added to the bottom section: they will give negative points at the end of the round.

As you can imagine, the total number of tiles available each round is intended to give only a thin margin to players. If you’re not careful enough, you can corner yourself in a situation where you can only pick unusable tiles. As the game progresses and your mosaic is filled, the restrictions are higher and frequently contradict the ideal objectives you set for yourself.

On the other hand, you can also leverage the over-drafting mechanic as a weapon against the other players: only leaving them with tiles they can’t use is a sure way to take the edge.

Once again, it’s often tricky to evaluate which course of action offers the most points, for instance, knowing if getting the bigger bonus is worth the associated risk of malus. It gets worse when you need to account for the balance of others: a two-dimensional choice where you need to figure out the potential gain & losses for each to know which option is favourable.

Two-dimensional choice makes it harder to evaluate the final balance of each scenario.

And then again, Azul isn’t about maximizing your points; it’s about having more than the opponent at the end. So the top right corner of the matrix above is a guaranteed positive balance, but it doesn’t always have the best value: sometimes taking a small hit will result in even more devastating losses for your opponents, gaining you a better margin.

Two More Choice Inputs in Azul

Before concluding this article, I’d point out two more factors that influence choices in Azul.

First, tiles are randomly drafted each round from a bag, most likely to reduce the setup time, which participates in renewing the strategic choices. In a game where you compete against others to grab the same resources and where uncomplete lines add risks of malus, it’s critical to observe the distribution of all available colours to adjust your strategy.

There are only 3 black but 5 white in this starting draft, which can influence my choices.

And finally, the last mechanic I didn’t mention yet is another brilliant way to increase the depth of choices while solving another design question. In drafting games, being the first to choose is an advantage, and Azul decided to put a price on it.

There is a particular “first player tile”, which must be taken by the first player to select tiles from the centre and added to his malus area. Then, on the next turn, you’ll start drafting first and put the particular tile in the centre again.

The first player tile is a slight touch, but again, it adds to the rest of the package: players must consider how valuable it is for their plans and determine if it’s worth the malus, on top of all the other considerations.

Conclusion: Great Choices are Grey

Throughout this piece, I’ve demonstrated how Azul’s rules are arranged to give players not many opportunities for choices but few deep ones. Players continuously go through a loop where they need to assess the situation and compare several options with immediate and long-term outcomes, both for them and their opponents.

Each decision leads to some predictable game outcomes and some less predictable players reactions, thus complicating the estimation of each option. The game structure creates a series of grey choices: some are clearly good, some are clearly bad, most are in-between. The alternation of all shades of grey makes for a game pacing neither dull nor exhausting.

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Jean-Baptiste Oger

Jean-Baptiste Oger

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Game Director. I write mainly about the design of video & board games. Aspiring to better understand the world around & human psychology.