WBG Score: 7.5
Player Count: 3-5
Published by: Osprey Games
Designed by: Peer Sylvester
Whenever I think of the title of this game I always end up singing it to the tune of Metal Guru by T-Rex. It’s got nothing to do with the game or the review but I figured that I’d share that particular ear worm with everyone else, enjoy the review!
Rules of the High King
Once the game is set up, deal each player a number of cards depending on player count. Then each player will draft two then pass them round, this will go on until all the cards have been drafted. Flip over the top card of the Viking deck and place that many Viking tokens out. Flip over the first marriage card then start the round.
The player with the control ring places it on a town on the map. The colour of this town will be the trump suit for the next phase. The first player then plays a card from their hand matching that town's colour. In turn order, the other players will play a card from their hand of any colour. Players will then resolve their cards in number order from lowest to highest. The player who played the highest number card of the same colour as the trump suit (or a white wild card) will win the trick and they will perform the top action on the card on their turn. All the other players will have a choice to play one of the two bottom actions on their cards.
The top actions on the cards mainly give that player control of the chosen town,and the town marker for the next turn. Sometimes this will also give you a bonus and sometimes will cost you coins.
Bottom actions come in a combination of things. Money is a regular feature of the cards and is self explanatory. Axe symbols will let you take Viking tokens from the ones that were placed at the start of the round. Crosses let you place discs onto the church area and envelopes will move your disc up the marriage track. In any of these cases you can pay two coins to gain extra. Some cards will give you the option to pay five coins to place a disc on a town connected to one you already control. Rounds will continue until everyone has played all bar one of their cards.
At the end of the round the marriage, viking and church areas will trigger in that order, I’ll get to these later on. Finally you will check for region control. Each region has a threshold and when that many towns have discs on them the player with control of the most will gain the token for that region. This will be worth points at the end of the game but these can be taken from you if other players gain more control in that region.
Area control, Vikings and trick taking?
All games are a mishmash of different mechanics and most of them just seem like natural bedfellows when described as part of a pitch or on the games BGG page. But area control and trick taking is one I’d never seen before, and even now, when I’ve played the game a few times it still sounds odd. But it works really well and regardless of how it sounds, it plays out in a really smooth and natural way and opens up a whole new way of strategizing in an area control game.
You can teach an old dog to win tricks.
In most trick taking games the aim is to win the trick and similarly here winning the trick is also something you want to be doing since this will help you spread across the different regions.
Placing discs in connecting towns will only get you so far around the map since most connecting towns won’t venture out of a region and often won’t offer more than two towns connecting together. This means that winning tricks in different regions is vital for expansion and expansion is needed if you want to be involved in the race for those region control points.
So winning tricks is great, but it’s not always the best strategy because ignoring those other areas of the board could be a costly mistake and that’s where those bottom actions become all important. Winning a trick may give you some benefits in those other areas but they’re not always great. If you want to make any real advancements then you need to use those bottom actions. I love how the game makes what would normally be considered a consolation prize, just as important and in some situations more important than winning the trick itself.
The drafting phase acts to alleviate as much of the luck factor in the card draw as possible and add to the strategy Drafting two cards per player gives you a bit more control for the cards you want (aside from the one or two your left with after the draft) and serves to maybe cut down on how long that drafting phase will take. So far in all of our games the drafting has gone pretty quickly but that’s not to say that it’s going to be the case every time.
The many areas of area control.
At first glance you may wonder what Vikings, marriages and churches have to do with area control but thematically and more importantly historically you realise, not only how well they tie in, but also how much of an effect they can have on the board.
The marriage track will net you either renown tokens, a chance to claim another town or precious, precious money. Trust me money is tight in this one, you won’t see players doing their best Scrooge Mcduck impression in Brian Boru. But most of all, the person higher on the track at the end of each round will give you a political marriage which gets you points and lets you claim a town in the named region before the region step resolves, potentially swaying it in your favour.
The Viking tokens can get players renown tokens, points and also, probably more importantly tactically, is the player with the most tokens at the end of the round will let them place a Viking token on another player's controlled town essentially losing them control of it.
The last is the church. Here the player with the most discs will put a monastery ring around one of their controlled towns which now makes it now count as two control in a region. Any player with 4 discs in there can also place a ring out in the same manor.
All of this matters because of the region claim step. Once regions start to get claimed, what follows is a brilliant game of tug of war, not only on the map but in those other areas as players try to win advantages to snatch control of different regions away from their opponents.
Another touch I love is that the “winner” of each area will remove their discs/tokens but all other players will retain all or some of theirs which acts as a nice little catch up mechanic and stops any one player becoming running away in any of those areas.
The quadrilogy of quick control.
If you’ve read my previous reviews of A War of Whispers and The Court of Miracles and even the King is Dead (another brilliant game from this games designer Peer Sylvester) you’ll know that I’ve had a bit of an obsession with quick area control games and I think Brian Boru sits pretty well in that camp. This is potentially going to be the longest of the four, the box says 60-90 minutes, but the main reason for that would be the drafting. Like most drafting games this would be all down to how long players take, the rest of the action turns are generally fairly snappy purely because of how simple they are. I could happily host a games night and fit all these games in and have a great night.
One thing I did find a bit fiddly was the upkeep phases where you're resolving the Viking and the church areas. I’ve played this a few times and I still find myself reaching for the rulebook to clarify things. It’s slowly sinking in though. There are guides on the board to let you know how those phases work. Personally I find these are useful only once you’ve got a good idea of how these phases work in the first place. I’m prepared to admit though that this could be a “me” issue and it’s just not something that’s sunk in properly for some reason. In no way is it something that’s going to take away from the game and, let’s be honest, chances are one of the players is going to be hugging the rulebook for a quick reference anyway.
I’ve only played Peer Sylvesters The King is Dead but my understanding is that this is one of, if not his biggest game. Just because it’s big though it doesn’t mean it’s complex. It's still a fairly straightforward area control game but still retains a lot of the strategy you’d expect from this style of game. If this is the sort of thing we can expect from his bigger games then consider me already in the queue for the next one.