Brian “Big Balls” Boru
If I’m speaking the parlance of the youngfolk correctly, Brian Boru was a “chad.” Wait, is that supposed to be capitalized? Like an actual name? Chad? Never mind. Point is, the guy unified medieval Ireland through marriages of alliance, splitting Viking skulls, and something to do with the Church.
But that was literally a thousand years ago. Old news. Much more recently, Peer Sylvester has done something even more impossible — he’s made me care about trick-taking.
You know trick-taking. Somebody plays a card. Everybody else plays a card in the same suit. High card wins. It’s a mechanical genre with an enormous following, yet remains one of my blind spots. Tell me a game is a trick-taker and I’m liable to write it off.
Brian Boru takes that formula and drapes it over the top of divided Ireland. As a result, it ponies up the tangibility that trick-takers have always lacked for me. The central idea is that every trick is focused on a single town. The lead player chooses a location to contest and plays a card in that suit. Everybody else follows with a card of their own — sticking to suit is optional — and the high card in the dominant suit wins and gets to claim the chosen location.
There’s more. Every card depicts multiple actions. While the winner of the trick earns the top action to conquer the selected town, everybody else gets to take one of the actions on their card’s lower half. These shouldn’t be confused for pity prizes. They’re often your bread and butter, letting you make overtures of marriage to powerful clans for bonus points and the occasional big dowry, lop off Viking heads for renown and protection from their marauding armies, or court the Church to build monasteries that expand your control. You can even use these “losing” actions to expand your holdings, spending coins to seize a town down the road from one you already own. This final option is often superior to relying on the whims of the table to choose the destination of your next acquisition. Why vie for the isolated swamp somebody picked when you can march into a region you’re actively contesting?
None of this would be possible without Sylvester’s final touch. The higher the card — the more likely it is to win any given trick — the more its winning action costs. It thus behooves you to “lose” every so often, if only to swell your treasury. Winning without enough gold on hand still means you claim the town, but at an expense of victory points. More than once, I’ve watched a string of wins deplete a would-be high king even as their domain spread across the map. Higher cards also offer better losing options, compelling you to dump surefire wins for extra boosts toward marriage or churchiness. The inverse is also true: weaker cards are downright impressive if you can win with them. The highest red card, 24, costs you two coins if you win. But win with that suit’s 2 and you’ll take the town for free, plus a coin, and you’ll kill two Viking tokens. Check you out.
This is the sort of space Brian Boru revels in. Sometimes you’ll be holding weak cards and need to figure out how to leverage them into big wins. Sometimes you’ll draft high cards but want to lose. Did I mention that cards are drafted? They are, and it makes all the difference, forcing everybody to consider what they’re passing along and what shape they want their coming turn to take.
This is crucial because there are multiple avenues to victory, all considerable in their own right. In one play I focused entirely on arranging good marriages and spreading at cost rather than conquering outright. In another, I focused on setting up monasteries to claim otherwise tied territories. A third time, I did everything in my power to claim renown and send Vikings to strip my rivals of their hard-earned land, before marrying their princess to treat Danish territories as my own. Did these strategies lead me to eventual victory? Let’s just say that I’m smitten with Brian Boru for more than its cleverness. Where trick-taking is usually one of those systems I’m forced to admire from a losing position, Brian Boru’s combination of geography and courtly machinations give it an edge I haven’t yet seen from the genre. I’ve heard that trick-taking games are about “more than the cards.” This is the first time I’ve been able to visualize such a thing.
That’s why the closest comparison to Brian Boru is Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow even though they aren’t even remotely similar. Wallace famously blended deck-building and map conquest to birth the hybrid deck-building game, now a staple that’s stretched far beyond its niche wargame origins. In the process, Wallace added an entire string of verbs to the draws, burns, and scores that had dominated the genre up to that point. Now cards had effects beyond themselves. They could be used for transit, conflict, defense, administration, all in addition to the usual considerations that kept decks churning previously. Where a thousand deck-builders had copy-pasted a formula about adding cards to subtract cards to earn points, now they could encompass stealth, intrigue, civilization, and Timothée Chalamet, to cherry-pick but a few.
Brian Boru isn’t the first trick-taking game with a map. I know of at least one other, Iori Tsukinami’s Joraku. But it’s the first trick-taker that feels wholly connected to the state of its wider world. When the lead player selects which town will be contested, it’s an opening move with ramifications. Not only which cards will be spent and which will remain for future tricks, although of course those matter. But also the town’s placement, its access to roads, how it alters who could dominate that territory, and whether it’s vulnerable to invasion, someone’s expansion, or to losing its preeminence when a neighbor builds a monastery. For a game that plays so quickly and so easily, its considerations are manifold.
Does this herald the beginning of the hybrid trick-taking game? It wouldn’t be the first time Peer Sylvester’s innovative but understated work provided inspiration to flashier designers, but who knows. I hope so. More than a game — and a compulsively playable one at that — Brian Boru feels like a revelation.
A complimentary copy was provided.