Taking tricks is a central part of so many playing card games that most people are familiar with. The main player starts by playing a card and the highest card of that suit wins the hand. Yet it is not widely used in recreational games, perhaps because it is so common, despite the fact that it would make games easier to learn.
Enter Brian Boru: High King of Ireland, a game named after a famous king of medieval Ireland (see on amazon). It uses this concept of comfortable lap-taking but builds on it in two distinct ways. First, it removes a lot of the randomness by having players draft cards instead of a random deal. Second, it results in tips for determining your control of cities on a map of Ireland. Between them, these innovations transform the humble trick into something very new and interesting.
What’s in the box
Brian Boru comes in a large shallow box to accommodate a large board with some tracks and a map of Ireland with major towns marked and linked by roads. It’s a beautiful thing, painted in soft tones to suggest an ancient map and decorated with Celtic knots and fonts.
Indeed, the illustrations throughout the game are of high quality. You can see the same effect on cards that are large tarot-sized affairs depicting era-relevant people, places, and items in classic node borders in addition to their in-game information.
The board and cards are filled with icons, which match the style of the game but are a bit tricky to decipher until you’re familiar with the rules. The components are completed with token punchboards and a set of wooden discs in five different player colors.
Rules and how to play
Brian Boru’s heart is card drafting and trick taking, which is easy to master. First, each player receives a hand of cards from which he chooses two and passes the rest to the next player. This is repeated until everyone has a full hand. It’s a smart way to start, giving a seed of randomness and variety while providing players with some interesting choices.
The cards have a number ranging from one to 25, and two or three groups of icons. The topmost icons indicate actions you can take when you win a turn with this card and always include taking over a city. Lower sets earn you resources, and you can choose one if you play that card in a turn and don’t win. This adds some interesting wrinkles to deciding which losing card to cast in a turn.
There are four card colors, each offering compensation actions related to a larger aspect of the game. Red allows you to fight off the Viking incursions that plagued Ireland at this time through the abstract concept of taking Viking tokens. Yellow advances you on the path to marriage as you seek to secure your noble family with advantageous unions. Blue allows you to influence the church in hopes of gaining monasteries which increase your influence on board. All the cards also give you money, and it’s the only option on the final color, white, which is wild and can be played as a color of your choice.
This sets up a fascinating series of interlocking decisions to wrestle with when trying to win tricks, like a serpentine Celtic ouroboros eating its own tail. The biggest source of points you need to win is placing towns on the map: you get points both for having the most towns in an area and for having towns in as many areas as possible.
You can also score good points fighting Vikings with the added incentive that the player with the fewest Viking tokens risks having a town taken over by raiders. They will, however, be spared if all invader tokens in the turn are defeated. Sometimes it’s worth not defeating the Vikings in order to ensure someone gets looted. This can create real terror towards the end of each round as you wait to see who, if anyone, will be for the chop.
Yet neglecting other areas is dangerous. It often takes money to place cities from a winning trick. You can often place a city from a losing turn too if you have the money to pay more and connect it to an existing city you control via a road. Climbing the Marriage track nets you some nice bonuses every turn and can be a winner in the end. Since area control is often tight, gaining church monasteries to boost your influence can earn you entire areas.
Whoever gains the most influence in the church each turn can lead all towers on the next turn as well. It’s a fascinating double-edged sword. A trick starts with the main player choosing a city on the board to compete for, allowing them to focus on areas they want to win and draw others away from places already under their control. But by playing the first card, they run a higher risk of being beaten by subsequent moves.
Trying to keep track of what happened and what you are likely to win, while taking into account the city you play for, your money, the Vikings and your position on the church and marriage can give the impression of being at the controls of an airliner. It’s all laid out clearly in front of you, but there’s so much to consider that it’s horribly easy to make major mistakes in the heat of the moment.
Once you fall behind, it can be hard to catch up. This is exacerbated by how Brian Boru gives you complete control over your decisions but still leaves you at the mercy of the unexpected. Although there is little randomness, you cannot predict whether other players will outbid or underbid you on a spin, as it will depend on the resources they need and the risks they take. So you can work hard to win a position, only to have it ruined by unexpected play, which is very frustrating.
After dynamic spin taking is complete, there is a cleanup phase where you see who has won each aspect of the game that spins and distributes points accordingly. It’s cumbersome and tedious, and your first few games won’t be helped by unclear rules. Fortunately, it quickly becomes much faster and more familiar.