Amabel Holland’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold is a game of extreme passive aggressiveness. With a smile and a wink it puts players in impossible situations where they need to figure out how to not lose the best. It’s a game about giving people gifts but being a real dick about it.
The historical background is almost too ridiculous to believe. In 1520 Henry VIII and Francis I met to see who could spend the most money in the most extravagant ways. I’ve somehow undersold it. Holland mentions in the designer’s notes that it’s estimated that England blew ⅓ of its entire wealth on this party. The menu included dolphin. Someone coated monkeys in gold foil. This isn’t the second time a board game has made me chuckle about Henry VIII. First the matter-of-fact die roll in Here I Stand to see if he’ll once again move on to a new wife, now…all of this game.
Cloth of Gold has no business being as thematic as it is. It contains precisely no more complication than is needed for fun. The rules could have fit on a single page if Hollandspiele really wanted to do that. (Instead we get them in amusing old-timey vernacular; at one point it instructs us to “move now the Dragon back to the space bearing its terrible visage”.) On any given turn of the game you will have precisely two choices of where to move one of your pieces. I’d call it an abstract game but it somehow manages to capture something of the absurdity of fancy people doing that thing where they do the performance of something nice while actually inconveniencing you. I’d call it a movie cliché but I’ve actually witnessed it in real life. It’s wild.
The board has seven action options, but after the first couple of moves of the game five of them will always be covered up. You’ll be collecting tiles of four different colors. The first action just lets you grab a random tile; helpful but boring. The next four correspond to the four tile colors and let you both reveal and score the tiles of that color you’ve collected, via a variety of scoring methods (1pt per tile, 2pts if you have the most of the color, etc.). The final scoring space will let you reveal all of your tiles and give you 2 points for every diverse set you own. So far so good. Set collection, yeah?
Except that when you score a color you have to score all of that color you own and then you swiftly remove those tiles from the game. Except the diverse set one. Score that and you keep your tiles to potentially score again. But you can’t claim a space you just moved a piece from, so the moment you leave that space to try to go back next turn and score your beautiful sets again, your opponent could claim it to block you. Or they could use the dragon space, which does nothing except move a neutral piece to a spot to block it. You don’t get to take the action there, you just take up space.
Why would you not want to take an action? Because to score the most points you don’t want to score. Well, eventually you do. But you want to wait, and wait, and wait, and then score when the time is right. Which also means making sure that your opponent can’t put you in a position where your only two options are to score. When asked to describe this game in a tweet the other day the closest analogue I could come up with is the I-cut-you-choose mechanism. It’s a series of simultaneous choosings and cuttings.
Oh, one more complication. I keep talking about scoring tiles, but how do you get them? Easy. Every time you take a turn and move to a new action space you give your opponent the tile sitting underneath it. Toss that little detail into the mix and baby, you’ve got a stew going.
Remember, two paragraphs ago, when I said that you don’t want to score until you do? Sometimes you just don’t want to score at all due to Cloth of Gold’s incredible end of game catch-up mechanism. After either all the tiles run out or someone hits 30 points the game immediately ends and both player’s (revealed) gold tiles are scored. But the lower your point total the more those gold tiles are worth. In my first game against Amber I thought I had it locked down when I hit 32 points to end the proceedings. I then remembered that since she was sitting at 14 points all of her 10 gold tokens were going to be multiplied by 3, while mine were only worth face value. Next game I hoarded gold tokens like I was Scrooge McDuck. She still won.
Some people aren’t going to like that the game allows for such a come from behind victory, and certainly the luck of the draw will decide a close game on occasion, but all the math is right in front of you. I’ve started parking one of my pieces on the “draw tiles” spot, not letting Amber cheese her way to more gold tokens than I can control, except that if I get a lead that spot starts allowing me to draw more than one tile if I use it, which is certainly tempting…
I also like to park on the red space, because if you go there you invite your opponent to “displays of manly violence” (the rulebook’s words, not mine), which means that both players score their red tokens. That tends to kill diverse set attempts. But you can’t block two spaces permanently. This may be a game about passive aggressiveness, but that only applies to the relationship between the players. Between the designer and the player it’s hostility; pure zugzwang. Strategy doesn’t survive contact with the enemy. This game is entirely tactical.
The Field of the Cloth of Gold will probably never get the broad recognition it deserves and that’s a real shame. Hollandspiele prizes the flexibility to print risky, polemical, quirky games, and that makes our hobby better. But in order to do that Amabel and Mary utilize print on demand, which means that their games can’t have many of the flashy components people might be used to having in a modern board game. I saw someone write the other day that they can’t fathom the thought of paying for a game with less-than premium art and components. At first I was upset, then I was sad. It’s such a pessimistic outlook, suggesting that quality can only be found in the orthodox. Don’t be like that person. Open yourself up to life.