A battle to the death

Azul is one of the hottest board games of the past decade for hobby gamers and casuals alike. The only problem is, there are now THREE versions to choose from. So which Azul is best?!? Let’s find out…

Cats or Dogs? Hot dogs or Marshmallows? Snowmen or sandcastles? Eating or sleeping? Which is best?!? These are the eternal dilemmas that mankind must struggle over. For surely all things must be ranked and compared until a universal tier list has been established spanning all thoughts and things between existence, imagination, and beyond.

No single man or woman has the capacity to complete this daunting task alone. Indeed, we must each do our own part in contrasting the few things within our grasp and hope that one day our posterity will place the final piece into the tier list puzzle and our collective efforts will bring humankind to knowledge perfected.

Today, I do my small part… Which Azul is best, you ask? Let us begin.

Azul (2017)

Let’s talk about Azul, the OG, the one that started it all. If you want a nice overview of the whole game, check out Kyle’s video review or written review. I’ll be skipping this part and jumping straight to the comparisons.

Since its release in 2017, vanilla Azul has been one of the hottest board games in the market. It is currently ranked the #1 abstract board game of all time. It makes sense that this version of Azul is currently ranked higher than its siblings, as it is the one that started it all. But does it still hold its ground against newer reincarnations?

Azul is undoubtedly the most accessible version of the three. It contains the simplest combination of rules and mechanisms, making it the easiest to teach to your friends and family. It often gets recommended by Azul series veterans for this very reason. Personally, I find this recommendation logic to be silly.

If you look at all three versions of Azul, they all fall into the same complexity level. Boardgamegeek.com has a universal “complexity scale” that is used by players to rank the complexity of individual board games. The scale ranges from 1-5, with 1 being “light” and 5 being “heavy.” All three Azuls land in the medium-light ranking and they range from 1.78 (Azul) to 1.99 (Azul: Summer Pavilion). When people recommend vanilla Azul purely because it is the most accessible, they are really splitting hairs here. If a player can handle the simplest version (Azul), then they can certainly handle one tiny extra rule or layer of the other versions.

So where does this Azul truly stand out? After playing each version several times, it is obvious to me that the original Azul contains the most tension and interaction of them all. I’m not just talking about the occasional final draft dump of too many tiles into your negative-point floor line. Because of the simplicity of tile placement, this game makes reading your opponents’ boards and predicting their decisions not only possible, but essential.

For example, I may look at my board and determine that Id really like to have that pair of reds over here, but that last blue over there is absolutely critical to my success. I can’t take them all in one turn, so what will I do? As I examine my wife’s board, I note that she could benefit from taking either of these options as well! Oh boy… So then I analyze deeper… I try to immerse myself into her mind. What tiles does she care about most? What option does she dread being snatched up by her opponent? I suddenly realize that she likely cares most about that pair of reds and equally as much about a triplet of black tiles. As risky as it sounds, I know that I can ignore that essential blue for another turn and snatch the reds out from under her first!

While predicting an opponent’s moves is deeply satisfying, I’ve had moments in vanilla Azul where I was able to predict three opponents’ moves and take advantage of this knowledge. This isn’t because I’m some kind of Azul genius (my wife has more wins than I do), rather, it’s because the simplicity of the design and elegance of the drafting allows for a tremendous amount of tactical telepathy between opponents. The reimplementations of Azul sacrifice this tantalizing ingredient in order to add more depth to the tile placement and scoring.

Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra (2018)

What an odd duck, Stained Glass is. For all you Harry Potter fans, this version is the Luna Lovegood of the Azul series. All three Azuls have (nearly) the exact same drafting mechanisms, but I would argue that this one has the most unique tile placement and scoring mechanisms.

While a round of Stained Glass can end just as brutally as a round in vanilla Azul (with one person raking in a huge blow of negative points), it ultimately elects to make the tile placement and scoring more flexible and strategic.

Players have a one-directional glazier figure that they will position above a single column where they can place their tiles. The only way to reset your glazier to the beginning of your columns is to burn an entire turn and miss out on drafting tiles. Leaping far with your glazier to fill later columns will slow down your initial progress but accelerate your later scoring. This would seem like the only optimal way to play, but the changing bonus point color and dwindling drafting options will keep players on their toes.

While I appreciate the depth that Stained Glass adds to its player boards, I simultaneously miss the interactive depth that it sacrifices within the central factory displays. In this game, I am much less frequently scanning the competition and their layouts. Opponents simply have too many options for me to feel like I’m a frequent factor or brilliant mind-reader at the table, and I have much more important things to puzzle out on my own board.

Azul: Summer Pavilion (2019)

I like to call Azul: Summer Pavilion the most gamer-friendly version of the three. Why is that, you ask? Simply put, Summer Pavilion minimizes the feel-bads and maximizes the feel-goods.

While negative points are still a possibility in Summer Pavilion, they are essentially obliterated compared to the other Azuls. No more do you have to dread the possibility of a pile of negative-point tiles landing in your lap. You can even save leftover tiles for the next round!

Further unlike the other Azuls, there are no immediate commitments to placing tiles on your player board. The decision of where to place a tile is much less frequently filled with regret later on, as you only ever place tiles after all the drafting in a round has taken place. And if that’s not enough breathing-room for you, there are even more options of where you can place a single tile on your player board, especially when one color acts as a wild each round to fill in your needed cost gaps.

The Summer Pavilion player board is like a continual pinball machine where tiles are landing all over the place ringing more point bells and flashing more colorful bonuses as one combo leads to another. The end-game bonuses are equally as diverse and enticing. This Azul gives players so much to feast on once the drafting ends and the placement begins.

If vanilla Azul is a knife-fight in a phone booth on a stormy night in London, then Summer Pavilion lives up to its name as a sunny afternoon on a beach towel by the Pacific Ocean. As you can guess, Summer Pavilion trades significant tension for copious rewards.

So which Azul is best?!?

At last, we have arrived. When I first played through each Azul, I felt as though they were equally valuable and beautifully unique children. But alas, they are not my children, and they are most definitely not equal. After a clash of titans upon the tops of the tables, only one can emerge victorious…

I must declare to true champion to be Azul (2017)!

More than any other version, vanilla Azul has me reading my opponents’ boards, predicting their moves, and executing tactical drafts to take advantage of their probable behavior. Later versions elect to reduce this depth of player interaction by expanding options for tile placement.

While the OG Azul is definitely the meanest of the three (a downside for some people), it is undoubtedly the most tense and thrilling. If you’ve read my blog series, Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games, it should come to no surprise to you that I crave the spicy tension and salty player interaction that classic Azul provides.

Even so, I can’t fault players for declaring Summer Pavilion to be their favorite. It is both highly forgiving and deeply rewarding. When I first played it, I was tempted to jump ship and put it above the rest. The productions even have incremental improvements with each new version. But going back to the first Azul and noticing the contrast between them helped me to realize what I love most about this series.

While vanilla Azul is on the highly tense and interactive end of the spectrum, and Summer Pavilion is on the happy rainbow end of the spectrum, Stained Glass feels more and more like the weak link between them. By attempting to combine both the spicy and the sweet elements of its siblings, it fails to find a cravable corner of its own. Don’t get me wrong, Stained Glass is a solid game! It just struggles to justify its place on my shelf as it sits between classic Azul and Summer Pavilion.

Which Azul is your favorite? If you haven’t played them all, does a specific version catch your eye?

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