14 September 2019

Board Game Review: Azul - Stained Glass of Sintra

The game components alongside the game box. There is a pink bag with translucent tiles in various colours that resemble small pieces of glass, about the size and shape of starburst candies. There are several round tiles, a scoring board, long rectangular tiles with notched bottoms that come in four sets of eight, and wide rectangular tiles with notches along the top designed for the long pieces to fit into. There are also four plastic pawns and a tall but skinny cardboard box decorated to look like a tower of stained glass windows..

Last year, I wrote a review of the popular game Azul. Not long after that, they released a sequel in which, rather than tiling the walls of the building, you're installing stained glass windows. Needless to say, when I got a chance to play it at Geekway to the West earlier this year, I took it. And I really enjoyed this game. It's similar enough to the original that it definitely feels like it's in the same family, yet different enough to justify owning both.

So now, let us look at Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra by Michael Kiesling, published by Next Move Games. I'm going to approach this review as if you've never even heard of the original, just in case there's anyone out there who is brand new to the Azul family. I ask that everyone else bear with me.

We start, of course, with the numbers:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 3
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra

Players take on the role of glaziers, installing stained glass windows in the royal palace at Sintra. Much like in the previous game, in which they are installing tiles on the walls of the palace of Evora, players must take care not to waste resources as they strive to create beautiful patterns of coloured glass.

On the left is the scoring board. A track weaves around the outer edge of the board, with four coloured cubes on it to indicate the score of each player. In the centre of the board is a row of the stained glass tiles, and next to that is another track showing negative point values, with four more cubes to track player's broken glass penalties. On the right is a ring of nine discs, some of which have four of the glass tokens on them, and some of which are empty. These discs are arranged in a circle, and in the centre of the circle are some more of the stained glass tokens, along with the first player token.

The core mechanic is identical: a number of factory tiles (the round tiles in the photo above) hold four stained glass tiles (the square plastic tokens, referred to in this game as 'pane pieces'). On your turn, you may either take all the pane pieces of a single colour from one of the factory tiles, moving all the other colours from that tile to the discard pile in the centre of the circle of factory tiles, or you may take all the pane pieces of a single colour from the discard pile, being sure to take the first player token if you are the first one to take from the discard pile this round.

However, it's the placement rules that have changed. Instead of of having player mats, each player now has a series of pattern strips. These are tall rectangles with notches on the bottom, displaying five spaces on which you may place the pane pieces. Each player gets a set of eight pattern strips, and arranges them randomly above their palace boards (the wide pieces with zig-zag notches along the top). When setting up the game, your pattern strips and palace boards will look something like this:

Two player setups. The palace board is wide enough that eight pattern strips can be arranged side-by-side, fitting into the notches along the top.The pattern strips are just wide enough to fit a single pane piece, but tall enough to hold five of them in a column. The palace board is tall enough to hold two pane pieces. Thus, when fully assembled, the pattern strips and pane pieces can hold a maximum of fifty-six pane pieces. The arrangement for the player on the left has one of the pattern strips removed, leaving a gap with three pattern strips on the left side of the palace board, and four on the right side.

Of course, these already have pane pieces on them. Also note that there's a pattern strip missing from the setup on the left; more on this in a moment.

When you take pane pieces from the factory tiles, you must then place them onto a single pattern strip. You're not allowed to place pane pieces on more than one strip, and you must put them on spaces matching their colours. You cannot, for example, put blue pane pieces on yellow spaces; they must go on blue spaces. 

If you do not have legal spaces where you may place the pane pieces you have taken, they are discarded. Each pane piece discarded in this way moves your marker one space further along the 'broken glass track' of the scoring board. At the end of the game, you lose points as indicated by your position on the broken glass track.

More detail

That's the core of the game, but there's obviously a bit more to it. For starters, each player has a pawn in their colour known as a 'glazier.' This pawn starts the game above the left-most pattern strip in your palace board. When you place pane pieces on a pattern strip, you must also move your glazier to the pattern strip on which you are placing those pieces. Then, you are no longer allowed to place pane pieces onto pattern strips that are to the left of your glazier. Don't worry, though; you may choose on your turn to move your glazier to the left-most pattern strip on your palace board instead of taking pane pieces from the factory tiles. Be careful, though; if your glazier is already on the left-most pattern strip, you cannot take this action. You must take pane pieces! So be careful with the timing of this!

When you complete the pattern indicated on a pattern strip, you score that strip. The point value is equal to the number listed under that strip on your palace board. Move one of the pane pieces from the pattern strip to an available space underneath that strip on the palace board. When you do this, you also re-score any pattern strips to the right of the current one that have been scored at least once already this game. 

In other words, when you score a strip, look to see if there are any tiles in columns of the palace board to the right of the current one. If so, you gain points for that column in addition to the current one. The closer to the left the strips are, the more points they are worth. So you have to decide if you're going to work on the strips to the left early on to score more points, or if you want to work on the strips to the right, which aren't worth as much, but make the strips to the left more valuable later in the game.

Be careful with this, though. There are exactly six rounds in the game, so you have a limited amount of time to work on scoring those points. Don't focus on the strips on the right so much that you don't have time to score any of the ones on the left!

Additionally, each round has a different bonus colour. When you score a pattern strip, you get a bonus point for each pane piece of that colour in the strip.

The first time you score a pattern strip, after marking it on the palace board with one of the pane pieces from that strip and placing the remaining pane pieces in the glass tower (the small cardboard box used to hold extra pane pieces until the bag needs to be refilled), you turn that pattern strip to the other side. Pattern strips are double-sided, so there are sixteen total patterns that you can work on creating. The second time you score a pattern strip, it is removed from the game (this is why there's a pattern strip missing from one of the palace boards in that photo up above).

Winning Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra

At the end of the sixth round, players apply the negative points from the broken glass track. Then, they score end-of-game bonuses based on their palace boards; palace boards are also double-sided, and players choose whether to use side A or side B when setting up at the beginning of the game. All players must have their palace boards on the same side. The chosen side determines how the end-of-game bonus scoring works. The player with the most points is the winner.

Final Thoughts on Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra

I enjoyed this game. It was a pleasant twist on an already enjoyable mechanic. There's a little bit of screwage involved, but not so much that it ruins the game. It's got a good balance of strategy and luck, where you can make plans based on probability, but still hurt when the odds end up going against you.

But let's not forget the six characteristics of a good game:
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
Most excellent! This game has all six! But of course, you should (as always) decide for yourself if this game sounds like something you'd enjoy. And remember, whatever you decide, I hope you always

Game on!

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