Brian Boru, or to give it it's full title - Brian Boru: High King of Ireland - is a fascinating game designed by Peer Sylvester, who was also responsible for The King is Dead (Osprey). It has attractive artwork by Deidre de Barra and is published by Osprey Games. It is for 3-5 players and has a playing time of 60-90 minutes.
I have been on a roller-coaster and ultimately intensely satisfying journey with Brian Boru. It started in the Board’s Eye View HQ in front of 'shelfie' packed with games awaiting review. My eye was first drawn by the nice-looking box art; I was intrigued by the historical Irish theme and…. well with a name like Paddy…it seemed destiny was calling; so, my hand reached for Brian Boru. Reading the box confirmed my choice. 'Designed by Peer Sylvester' is a good omen given how much I liked The King is Dead. But after an initial bit of research my heart sank. Trick Taking, Card Drafting and Area Control are my three least favourite game mechanics so I feared I’d end up writing a mealy-mouthed review of a game I didn’t really gel with. How wrong was I! Brian Boru: High King of Ireland is a fantastic game with hidden depths; it is simple in its complexity and is tight and beautiful in its design. I adore this game – a firm contender for my Game of the Year!
Let me explain! In Brian Boru, players take the role of rival factions competing for control of the Emerald Isle by gaining favourable marriage alliances, defeating Vikings, gaining favour with the Church or controlling towns and provinces. At the heart of the game is a deck of 25 cards. Now you may ask: how complex can a game be with only 25 cards in its main engine? Well very – because each card has a colour (Red for War, Yellow for Marriage, Blue for Church or White wild cards), a number (1 through 25) and two sets of abilities: the top line unlocked by winning the trick; the bottom line unlocked by losing. Each round (representing a year), players draft 6 or 8 cards (depending on player count) and play 5 to 7 tricks to win influence in a selected town. The first player selects the town and must lead a card of the relevant colour but others do not have to follow suit. The winner is the highest number played of the selected suit (or wild). Win with a high card and you may pay heavily for the town but win with a low card and you get the town and additional bonuses. However, lose a trick and you get your card's other benefits, allowing you to defeat Vikings, move up the marriage track, influence the church or pay to spread your network of towns.
All this builds to the year-end effects. Peace reigns if all Viking invaders were defeated but, if not, the player who has picked up the most Viking tokens wins Renown and Victory Points, whilst the player with the least Viking tokens sees one of their towns lost to Viking control. The leading player on the marriage track secures a favourable alliance and wins Victory Points and other bonuses while the player with the most tokens influencing the Church gets to build a Monastery in one of their towns, which thereafter counts double. Finally, provinces that reach their threshold align with the dominant faction, promising multiple area control points in end-game scoring. Then the cards are reset and the next of three or four years begins.
This sets the scene for some fascinating gameplay where players vie not only to win tricks but also deliberately to lose them with the correct card and in the correct order. This makes the card drafting at the start of the year a tough decision. Do you keep high cards to win provinces or low cards to reap their benefits? Do you keep red, blue, yellow or wild cards to gain their respective boons? Despite the relatively few cards in your hand, each turn is an agonising decision about which town to select, which card to play and what to claim. Every card played seems to be instantly regretted as another player destroys your plans. Sometimes you can play low, not wanting to win the trick only to find the hand deserted by others playing out of suit, resulting in you winning a meaningless town in Munster. Worse still is getting boxed into having to lead a high card and win the trick without the money to pay for it and see your Victory Points tumble. These simple rules lead to a tight game with hidden depths that is a far more 'thinky' game than it seems. Each game feels longer than the compact 60 minutes or so it takes to play, with an epic long-game feel coming from a relatively quick playing game. Two plays of Brian Boru are easily achievable in a game night, and with its fascinating dynamic players often want to play it twice!
Despite my love of the game, I did have a few minor niggles with it. The colours of the blue cards were of a different hue to their respective towns, while the yellow towns on the board were too similar to player counters - which made the map confusing. The game's iconography tries its best but the quick reference guides printed on the board are not that intuitive. Finally, the game builds towards a final marriage alliance with Estrid Princess of Denmark, who brings with her all the Viking-controlled towns stacked up during the game but in all the games played by the Board's Eye View team this influence was not as beneficial as the 4 Victory Points gained by spurning her. Perhaps, after more plays and greater experience she’ll swing the balance more. However, all these are minor quibbles that detract little from the experience of playing.
Overall, Brian Boru: High King of Ireland is an outstandingly well-designed game. It has a tight set of rules; it has rewarding game-play; it is well produced and has an attractive look and feel. It has already won a place on my game shelf and I’ve had players at my games club asking me to bring it to game nights; which is high praise. If someone suggests it, I’m definitely be up for it. However, it is not a gateway game and it is not the easiest game to teach because it is trick taking unlike any other. While I wouldn’t bring it out with fledgling gamers, I do reach for it with more seasoned players who want the full experience of a big game but are limited in the time they can commit. It is prefect for that second game on game night after the main game disappointed or finished early. Hence this game is far from a 'one and done' but a game I can see stacking up a fair few plays and having a persistent place on my shelf for many years to come.
(Review by Paddy Green)