Trick-taking is a central part of so many playing card games that most people are familiar with it. The lead player starts by playing a card and the highest card of that suit wins the hand. Yet it’s not used that widely in hobby games, perhaps because it’s so commonplace, despite the fact it would make games easier to learn.
Enter Brian Boru: High King of Ireland, a game named after a renowned king of medieval Ireland (see it on Amazon). It uses that comfortable trick-taking concept but builds on it in two distinct ways. First, it removes much of the randomness by having players draft cards instead of a random deal. Second, it has the outcome of tricks determine your control of towns 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 big, shallow box in order 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 gentle tones to suggest an ancient chart and decorated with knotwork and Celtic fonts.
Indeed the artwork across the game is high quality. You can see the same effect on the cards which are big, tarot-sized affairs depicting people, places and items relevant to the era in classic knotwork borders in addition to their in-game information.
Both board and cards are thick with icons, which fit the style of the game but are a little hard to decipher until you’re familiar with the rules. The components are rounded out with some punchboards of tokens and a set of wooden discs in five different player colors.
Rules And How To Play
The core of Brian Boru is the card draft and trick-taking, which is easy to come to grips with. First, each player is dealt a hand of cards from which they choose two and pass the rest on to the next player. This is repeated until everyone gets a full hand. It’s a clever way to start out, giving a seed of randomness and variety but still offering interesting choices for the players to make.
Cards have a number that ranges from one to 25, and two or three groups of icons. The topmost icons indicate actions you get to take when you win a trick with that card and always include taking control of a town. The lower sets gain you resources, and you can choose one if you play that card into a trick and don’t win. This adds some interesting wrinkles in deciding which losing card to throw into a trick.
It’s a clever way to start, giving a seed of randomness but still offering interesting choices for the players to make.
There are four colors of cards, each of which offers compensation actions that link to a wider aspect of the game. Red allows you to battle the Viking incursions that plagued Ireland in this era through the abstract concept of taking Viking tokens. Yellow advances you on the marriage track as you seek to secure your noble family with advantageous unions. Blue lets you sway the church in the hope of gaining monasteries that increase your on-board influence. All the cards also let you gain money, and this is 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 as you try to win tricks, like a serpentine Celtic ouroboros eating its own tail. The biggest source of the points you need to win is by placing towns on the map: you get points for both having the most towns in an area and for having towns across as many areas as possible.
You can also score well by fighting Vikings with the added incentive that the player with the least Viking tokens is at risk of having a town taken over by the raiders. They’ll be spared, however, if all the invading tokens for the round are defeated. Sometimes it’s worth holding off on defeating Vikings in order to ensure someone gets pillaged. This can provide some real terror toward the end of each round as you wait to see who, if anyone, is going to be for the chop.
Yet neglecting the other areas is dangerous. Money is often required to place towns from a winning trick. You can often place a town from a losing trick too if you’ve got the cash to pay more and connect it to an existing town you control via a road. Going up the marriage track nets you some nice bonuses each round and can be a game-winner at the conclusion. Given that area control is often tight, gaining monasteries from the church to boost your influence can win you whole areas.
Whoever gains the most influence in the church each round also gets to lead all the tricks in the following round. This is a fascinating double-edged sword. A trick starts with the lead player choosing a town on the board to compete for, which lets them focus on areas they want to win and keep others away from places already under their control. But by playing the first card they’re at higher risk of being beaten by the following plays.
Trying to track what’s gone and what you’re likely to win, while also factoring in the town you’re playing for, your cash, Vikings, and position on the church and marriage can feel like being at the controls of an airliner. It’s all laid out clearly before you, but there’s so much to consider that it’s horrifically easy to make major errors in the heat of the moment.
Once you’re behind, it can be difficult to catch up. This is exacerbated by the way Brian Boru puts you in full control of your decisions but still leaves you at the mercy of the unexpected. While there’s little randomness, you can’t plan for whether other players will over or under-bid you on a trick, as it will depend on what resources they need and risks they take. So you can work hard to gain position, only to see it ruined by an unexpected play, which is very frustrating.
Once the dynamic trick-taking is over, there’s a clean up phase where you see who’s won each aspect of the game that turn and dole out points accordingly. This is tiresome and fiddly, and your first couple of games won’t be helped by some unclear rules. Thankfully it quickly becomes much faster and more familiar.