Brian “Big Balls” Boru

Mormon Jesus?

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.

and in the game ahaha aaaah oh no

Welcome to Ireland, a land in desperate need of a high king.

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.

The wild silver suit seems incredibly powerful at first. Until, after a few plays, you realize they don't provide very good secondary offerings.

The cards are crisp, clear, and impactful.

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.

like so much they're making it weird

These guys love the church.

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.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on December 15, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Brian’s big balls would make a better cover.

  2. Condottiere?

    • There’s a comparison to be made there, but they’re not as close as you might think! The turn by turn process of play feels entirely different, and the maps function on separate planes. But both include that strategic consideration behind their card-play.

  3. Oh my, this sounds so good. I love it when a game upends a traditional mechanic in a clever but uncomplicated way. There’s something very visceral about the whole boardgame experience that connects an abstract concept with physical objects you manipulate. When everything aligns it can lead to these aha moments that make you feel like you’ve unlocked a new way of thinking about the world. It sounds like that may have happened for you here. At the very least, your excellent writing made me feel like I was vicariously experiencing such a moment.

    I’m curious, do you feel like this will change the way you play older trick taking games you’ve bounced of in the past? Whether that’s having more of a competitive edge and/or enjoying the experience more.

    • Possibly! I’ll have to see. I’ve enjoyed plenty of trick-takers in the past, but they’re always ephemeral, temporary things. Even winners like The Crew. Maybe I should go back and try that one again.

  4. Nice write-up! This one actually sounds a fair bit like El Grande, with a twist that bid cards also have to match suit. But more than that, it makes me think about what it means for a game to be an “X” game; is it that the game uses X mechanic, that it fulfills [some of] the genre expectations of X, or that one uses thought processes typical of X when playing the game?

    For example, in a podcast episode we recorded, Ben described Broom Service as a trick-taker.  Mechanically, it’s not, but the way you think about going brave or cowardly maps onto the way you think about throwing high or low or trump into a trick. It sounds like BB might not exactly be a TT game in the latter two senses, i.e. it’s not certain that a TT enthusiast would like it or that knowing TT concepts would help you play well. But that’s not a criticism by any means, I like the idea of taking design elements and using them in interesting or unexpected ways.

    • Right — I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would disagree that it’s trick-taker enough to count as a “hybrid” trick-taker. We’d probably have to stop discussing a bunch of DBGs as hybrids, too. Definitions are always sticky. For example, is it a necessary function of trick-taking games that you have to follow suit? I’m sure somebody much more knowledgeable than myself could come up with an example.

      • And to be clear, I don’t care about taxonomic stuff, this one just interests me in the sense that, in teaching games, we use prior knowledge to make the concepts easier to learn, so hybrid games are an interesting beast; do they make the game easier to learn because of the associations people have with the core mechanic, or harder to learn because they “transgress” the conventions typically associated with those conventions?

        This is neither good nor bad design, more just a question of how you present your game to players, I suppose.

    • (Sorry I can’t seem to see how to reply to you last post Jeff, so this reply is probably appearing out of sequence)

      The difficulties of playing with genre conventions is always sticky, so many of the rules questions that get asked when teaching a game, or mistake made in playing a game, or rules queries on BGG amount to: ‘it’s played like this in loads of other games, so I presumed it was the same here too.’ And sometimes people do something they shouldn’t, but, even worse, sometimes that mental track closes off options from people because it doesn’t occur to them what they can do.

      Anyway, regarding Brian Boru and Trick Taking, it’s interesting that the German rules make no reference to Trick Taking, calling the tricks ‘Power Struggles.’ But while many of the mechanics of trick taking are absent (lack of trumps, not having to follow, winner not taking the cards played), but enough of the fundamental tactics of a trick taker as still present to make the connection of benefit to players. Such as, trying to gain an advantage by remembering what has been played, intentionally losing a trick, or playing a bad card to position yourself for later, trying to lure opponents into playing particular cards to remove the potential for resistance to your play later.

      So in this case I think the ‘hybrid’ is beneficial to getting players up to speed quickly. as to how they might approach the game.

      • Very good point, Richard.

        Deck-building purists once pointed out that hybrid DBGs weren’t primarily DBGs. Now that brand of DBG is just called a “pure” deck-builder. Everybody seems to get the gist.

  5. Wow, between this fantastic review (with another killer title) and Suzanne talking about it on the Dice Tower podcast, I really want to try this game!

    Not buy it, necessarily. But definitely play it to see how it feels to me.

    Thank you!

  6. I’m a fan of trick-takers myself, and to be honest my first reaction was skepticism, like it’s gonna be a bolted-on mechanism to a map game. But instead it sounds like a sincere adaptation of the genre’s strengths. Even the theme you describe here makes sense for a trick-taker, the way you can silently accomplish your goals in the shadows when you’re not in control. Very clever, I really want to try this now.

    I do wonder if we’ll see a surge of hybrids following Brian Boru’s footsteps. Deck-builders usually focus on logistics and efficiency, so they appear easier to plug into other popular game genres.

  7. Thanks for an interesting review! Peer Sylvester’s “Wir Sind Das Volk!” is an excellent game and ever since I’m waiting for something equally interesting from him.

    This game doesn’t look like a marching-through-the-landscape-game. Still my first thought was: looks like a twist on “Maria” (like “Wir Sind Das Volk!” another game released by Histogame). In “Maria” a whole lot of factors are abstracted into a type of trick-taking (a more advanced “version” of “Friedrich”), smartely enough to still feel like a war-game. Maybe these games have no influence on Peer’s design.

  8. This is another delightful design by Peer. He has very cleanly combined card-drafting, trick-taking and area control into a great game filled with lovely subtleties to discover. It’s impressive and clever and a heckuva lot of fun to play.

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