The year is 978. Waves crash gently on the beach of a coastal village that lies between the borders of Munster and Leinster. The fishermen return with the morning’s catch and the peasants work hard in the fields. Unbeknownst to them, in a small building near the centre of town, the fate of the village hangs in the balance. Two rival clans meet, their respective leaders sat at a small table. One will walk away with the area under their domain, the other with nothing.
The leader of the Leinster clan watches with his heart in his throat, and his hand on his axe, ready for his opponent to make a move. The leader of the Munster tribe smiles, slowly reaching into his pocket to retrieve his weapon of choice… and plays a high blue card to the table. The Leinster men scoff and snarl in frustration, then gather their things and leave. They have lost, and they must retreat to fight the next battle elsewhere….
At least, I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened back then.
Brian Boru: High King of Ireland. Designed by Peer Sylvester and published by Osprey Games. It is a trick-taking and area control game, set in medieval Ireland. Players will follow in the footsteps of the legendary Brian Boru, attempting to recreate his famous rise to the position of High King of Ireland. You will achieve this by battling other players for control over towns, although there are other elements to consider. Political marriages, Viking invaders, and winning favour with the church, will all be crucial to your success.
How To Become King: For Dummies
Each round begins with a drafting stage. Every player picks two cards from their initial hand and passes on the rest to the player to their left.
This results in something of a tactical struggle, as you try to find the best possible combination of high numbers and a variety of colours. You’re also trying to make the best of whatever your fellow players are handing you. It's like being a warrior in medieval Ireland, weapons to take into battle. However, the only available weapons are the dodgy hand-me-down blades from your older brother after he's nicked all the best ones. You'll have to make do and find a strategy with the resources you manage to get. It's a tough system, but a fair one.
Once you are fully equipped, the player with the red town marker decides which town you will be fighting for. They will lead the trick, playing a card of the town’s colour. To win the trick, and the town, you must play a higher number card of that colour. You can also play a wild (white) card which can apply to any trick. Once everyone has played a card, the winner will take the town and start the process over again with the next town.
But wait! Just because you lost out on that town, doesn’t mean you have nothing to do. While you’re licking your wounds you have a choice to make. Anyone who did not win gets to further their chances of victory by focusing instead on marriage, Vikings, or the church.
The Royal Trifecta
The ancient tradition of marriage is a sacred and holy bond between two people. In Brian Boru, we will be abusing it to secure power and influence. Nobody said you had to become King by honourable means.
Each turn you might choose to try and wed this round’s eligible bachelor or bachelorette into your family. During the game, players race each other along a marriage tracker. The player highest up the track at the end of the round wins and gains a reward (usually victory points or a free town). Any player who did not successfully marry will receive a monetary bonus instead. I’m not sure what this game is trying to say about marriage, but it makes for a good game mechanic so I won’t question it.
When you’re done marrying off your family members for your own personal gain, you also have the Viking invaders to worry about. At the start of each round, draw a card from the Viking deck. This will determine how many bearded men with funny hats will be arriving on the shores of Ireland this turn. If the table doesn’t collectively defeat them all, that means only one thing...
When an invasion occurs, those who defeat the most Vikings receive rewards. On the other hand, the player who has contributed the least to fighting the Vikings will not be so lucky. The invading forces will instead aggressively convince you to relocate from one of your hard-earned towns. Losing a town to the Vikings can be crippling, especially because it's not up to you which one you lose. The player who killed the most Vikings gets to make that decision.
Often, with the Vikings, you’ll want to strike a balancing act. Fighting just enough to ensure your own safety. Careful though - defeat too many Vikings and the invasion won’t happen at all, meaning everyone else will get away with not contributing. It’s a bit like dealing with those freeloaders who leave you to do all the work in a group project. You know the type.
Finally, we have the Church. It can always be rather helpful to try and win the favour of the priesthood, especially in 10th century Ireland. As a reward for your piety, you might gain monasteries to help you in your bid for the title of High King. You can place these helpful little blue rings on a town you control, which means that the town will score double when calculating area control. Speaking of…
The eventual winner is almost certainly decided by the core of the game: area control. The map of Ireland splits into 8 distinct areas. For an area to be worth maximum points, there must be a minimum number of controlled towns. For example, players need to control 4 of 9 potential villages of Leinster in order for the area to be worth 6 points. Then, the player with the majority of controlled villages in that area wins the points. It can be huge amounts of fun trying to decide which areas are worth playing your best cards for, and which you can afford to surrender.
After a few rounds of this, you score the points - with a few extra bonuses here and there. Then, much like it really was in medieval times, the person with the most victory points is the new High King of Ireland.
Sharp As A Blade
I have always loved trick-taking games, and Brian Boru is no exception. The mechanics work together so incredibly well. The drafting influences the trick-taking. The trick-taking affects the area control. The area control determines who wins. They all mesh together into a very smooth, rich playing experience.
Not to mention that the trick-taking manages to achieve something rather rare and often overlooked in these types of games. As my fellow players and I juggled Vikings, eligible bachelors, and powerful monks, I noticed something interesting. Everyone was having fun, whether they were winning or losing the tricks. With all these extra side activities, every turn in Brian Boru makes you feel like you’re accomplishing important things, even if you lose the trick. It’s a simple but ingenious method of keeping every player happy and interested even if things aren’t quite going their way.
It's also worth mentioning the gorgeous artwork by Deirdre De Barra. All 25 playing cards feature wonderful little scenes which accurately reflect what that card does. A blue church card might show donations of money for the priesthood. A red Viking card could depict a collection of weapons for the upcoming fights. The map, Viking, and marriage candidate cards are also beautiful, all fitting with the Celtic theme.
10th Century Problems
Unfortunately, while I absolutely adore Brian Boru: High King of Ireland, it is not without fault. One pretty major one, actually. Despite the handy rulebook and clear diagrams all over the map, I actually found Brian Boru to be one of the hardest games I’ve ever had to teach.
The game is a little obtuse, especially for the casual board gamer. My first playthrough of the game was slow and filled with uncertainty. The most common question my fellow players seemed to be asking was: ‘Ok, but why would I do this?’. As much as I enjoyed the process of dissecting every element Brian Boru has to offer, others might not. It is certainly worth considering before trying it with more casual players.
Additionally, there is one tiny nitpick I have with the box itself. I can’t tell whether it is due to the lid being too heavy or not quite the right size, but I’ve had some trouble getting it open. Sometimes it gets stuck, or just takes a while to slide off. Perhaps a minor design flaw. I suppose you can tell I really love a game if one of my only problems is that I can’t get the box open quick enough!
Brian Boru: High King of Ireland is the lucky shamrock of board games. It’s got everything, and it all works. The meld of all the different mechanics is ambitious and interesting. The turns never feel disconnected from each other and each part flows seamlessly into the next. The whole table is constantly kept engaged by the extra elements of the marriage tracker, Vikings, and the church. If you enjoy trick-taking or area control games, I wholeheartedly recommend Brian Boru to you. It will quickly become one of your favourites.
Lastly, I owe a small debt of gratitude to Peer Sylvester and the guys at Osprey Games. Brian Boru: High King of Ireland inspired me to study a bit more about Irish history, the legend of Brian Boru and his effect on Irish culture. Through documentaries and conversations with my grandparents, I got to learn a little more about my ancestral homeland. And for that, it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Right, I’m off. Lots to do. I’ve got to manipulate my brother into marrying the princess of Denmark, fight off some Scandinavian invaders, and then pop by the church before I get home. After all that, I’ll sit down and play some Brian Boru. Farewell!