Brian Boru: High King or Ireland

Designer: Peer Sylvester

Artist: Deirdre de Barra

Publisher: Osprey Games

The color scheme in the game is pleasing, functional and not overdone(Photo credits: Eric Martin)

Congrats to Peer Sylvester for designing a highly interactive area majority board game with a historical theme that is completely off the beaten path for most of us non-Irish folks. If I previously didn’t know who Brian Boru was, I now know more about him and his role in Ireland’s history with the vikings. However, that doesn’t mean I have learned how to pronounce Irish names and locations. If you can’t tell, I think the game is fantastic and goes against the grain of current modern board game designs that favor low-conflict, multiplayer solitaire experiences.

Brian Boru is an area majority game not unlike El Grande – a pioneering game in this genre – where players try to contest territories on the map by placing cubes. The more cubes of your color you have on a territory, the more control or influence you have, and the more points you will get during scoring. That’s basically the gist of what area-majority control means. It is a common feature in dozens of board games from the past, but is also present in many current designs, though I suspect the proportion of games featuring this mechanism has dropped over the years. One prerequisite for an area majority game is conflict. More often, players will jostle for control by adding cubes of their own, but also also actively removing their opponents. This direct interaction, so to speak, can be bruising and unforgiving, which is why I think the audience for these games has shrunk over the years. That said, Brian Boru isn’t really targeted for the casual gamer.

The highlight of the game is definitely on the action selection phase which involves a unique combination of card drafting and a little bit of trick-taking, at least that is what the general consensus seems to be. I hesitate to even say it is trick-taking at all because you don’t really win tricks per se in the conventional way. Each round, all players draft 6 cards by selecting two from each hand and passing it along to the player on the left. In the end of the draft, you will have a unique combination of 6 cards that will drive your actions for the round. Cards come in 4 colors plus a wild and each card has a unique rank plus a host of choices for actions to be performed that round. Now, the trick taking part comes from the starting player playing a card and then all players in sequential order will reveal their choices. Depending on the color of the card played and the rank, one player will win the “trick”. Only the color selected by the starting player counts in this matter. So if you want to win the trick, you must play either a card of the same color or a wild that is of higher value. This is the only part that vaguely feels like trick-taking – you must follow the lead color in order to win the trick. So, what do you get when you win a trick? Well, you get to place your disc on the board to claim ownership of a city predetermined by the starting player. You also get to decide which city on the map will be contested in the next hand. Now unlike other games, winning the right to claim a city doesn’t doom the rest of the players to the sidelines. In fact, all other players who lost will get to perform an action on their card they played. These actions are no less important for winning the game as is placing a disc to claim a city. In fact, it is quite possible for you to not win a single trick for your entire hand. That’s fine because in many cases, you actually want to lose the trick – especially if the city up for contest is in a territory you are in competition for. Even though the trick-taking claim sounds like a stretch, the mechanism, however, works beautifully in Brian Boru.

There is skill in drafting because it is a balance between what you want and what you are passing along to others. I am no expert, but having a balance of high-low cards seem important. You want high value cards especially if you want to contest for cities. It’s harder to win tricks with low value cards, but their actions tend to be slightly more powerful. In some cases, winning a trick with a low value card not only gets you control of the city, you might be able to gain some additional rewards. This may entice you to try and beat the lead player even though you may want to use the alternate actions. The white, wild cards are quite versatile and having a high value white card handy means a strong likelihood that can win tricks of any color – it is particularly important if a contested city in your favored territory is selected. Overall, the decision space for this phase of the game is multi-faceted and quite complex, but extremely enjoyable.

The area majority aspect of the game is relatively straightforward. There are several territories of different sizes to be contested, with territories with more cities worth more points. Makes sense since it will be harder to win majorities. Some cities are connected with a road, which allows expansion without having to win tricks, but I’d say most cities aren’t connected, so you would have to win tricks in order to capture those . To win a territory, one must simply control more cities than your opponent after a certain threshold of occupancy is reached. So if you met the requirement, and have the most discs on that territory, you will get the points. Any ties will shared, with all tied players getting half the value, regardless of how many players are in the tie. This raises an interesting strategy where having a small investment in an area might be worth your while if you end up sharing the tie. Theoretically, there is less incentive for an opposing player to contest the tie since everyone still get equal points. This feature is actually pretty unique as I don’t recall playing any modern games where all tied player earn a fixed value.

So, what of the losers of the trick taking phase not involved in placing counters on the map? They end up taking peripheral actions based on the card played, with most cards having two choices. There are three main areas associated with peripheral actions, each tied to the color of the cards played: first is the alliance by marriage. When played for alternate actions, yellow colored cards allow movement on the marriage track which earns money or other benefits depending on high up the track you progress. The player who is ahead each round wins the hand of a maiden and an alliance that comes with varying benefits. Game of Thrones, anyone?

The next area of contest is an abstracted battlefield with the Vikings. Each round, a certain number of Vikings will invade Ireland. One can play red cards to chip away at the Viking horde and the player who contributes most to the defense will earn points in the end of the round. That player will also gets to put a Viking raider token on a city belonging to a player who fought the least. This ransacked city no longer counts towards that player’s area majority. So, if you constantly refuse to fight for the good of your country, your cities will not contribute to end game scoring. Fortunately, there are cards that can remove these raider tokens.

Finally, not surprisingly, the church is also a huge part of the political intrigue. By playing blue cards one can sway the churches influence, with the majority winner each round gaining extra control of a single city, doubling its influence when counted for area majority.

One intriguing concept from Brian Boru is whether heavy focus on these peripheral actions is adequate to win the game. I certainly haven’t played enough to comment intelligently on this aspect. I suspect that conquest of territories from the main map is too crucial to ignore and one must actively participate to wrest control of cities. How much is needed, is unclear. All peripheral actions will score points for the majority holder each round, but I am skeptical that it alone is sufficient to secure victory. This is partly due to the leader-squashing mechanisms built in the game where if you win majority for a single round, you will have to start from scratch in subsequent rounds, whilst those that come behind you will get to preserve some of their gains for future contests. This means that you cannot consistently dominate the peripheral actions and will likely go through boom and bust cycles as you fight to earn majority. I mean honestly, how many weddings can one have anyways?

The key struggle in Brian Boru is deciding how much of your effort needs to be balanced between the main map vs. the peripheral contests. This is where the meat of the game lies. Figure this out and you will have a shot of winning the game because this also means you have been efficient in picking your battles. Let others indulge in politics while you court the maidens, appease the gods and repel the invaders. There are no points to be had for coming in second place for territorial control. So, any cities that do not contribute to majority scoring is a waste of resources. That is why efficiency is key. This also makes me wonder if competition of territories is better served if points are awarded beyond just the majority holder. Often, there is not much incentive to fight for cities without at least some guarantee of getting the spoils, however small that might be. I do like that ties are evenly shared among all players, but this all-or-none scoring matrix only encourages players to go-big-or-go-home early in the game as a form of deterrence – if you see someone controlling multiple cities in a territory, you are less likely to jump in since there is no reward to be had for second place. While I haven’t played enough, I can easily see that the opening salvos for the game will involve each player fortifying their initial selection as a deterrence for incursion by others. That said, I feel ambivalent about my own suggestion here since games with too many scoring opportunities also makes for a looser, less tense experience.

In the end, Brian Boru has been a delightful throwback experience that feels closer to games of the yesteryear than to present day designs. This game is all about interaction that can feel unforgiving at times, but not so much that you feel constantly under siege. Cities won will remain in your kingdom throughout the game, viking raider tokens not withstanding. Hence, there is always constant forward momentum as your presence on the map expands. Sure, you may rue missed opportunities to play a card or two, but nothing that would leave you feeling blindsided by an opponent coming surreptitiously to dismantle your achievements. The game is tense and the contests tight, but it ends in a high note, making you wonder how you could have done things better -regardless of where you landed on the podium.

Initial impression: Great!
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