The Review of the Field of the Cloth of Gold
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the conclusion of the 1520 summit between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France. The purpose of this summit was nothing less than the leveraging of the scales of power in Europe. Long story short, Francis was the sovereign of one of two European superpowers — the other being Charles V of the Hapsburg Empire — and as such, he hoped to recruit the up-and-coming Henry VIII as an ally. Instead, they feasted and jousted and showed off fancy clothes for over two weeks, caused the site in Balingham to be named Camp du Drap d’Or, and, after frittering away unthinkable wealth, failed to produce an alliance when England hopped into bed with the Hapsburgs anyway.
Tom Russell’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold is an appropriate commemoration. Unlike the actual summit, this outing is a trifle, a game designed briskly and minimally. Yet its frivolousness is all the more fitting for the real event’s excesses, a chuckle at the peacocking its sovereigns would undertake in the name of an alliance that never materialized.
In other words, this is a wonderful send-up of the absurdities of Medieval gift-giving — and also point-salad game design. Different epochs, perfect bedfellows. And Russell has his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek as he officiates the marriage.
The problem with giving gifts is that somebody else now possesses the thing you gifted.
Welcome to the central tension of The Field of the Cloth of Gold. In his notes, Russell compares this to zugzwang, the notion of being put at a disadvantage because of your compulsion to move. The concept is most common in abstract games such as chess, in which your army’s soldiery lacks the capacity to sit still. You must move, even if your only available option is to slide your last defender straight into a cannon barrage. Oops.
Not that your sovereigns are discharging cannons quite yet. In fact, the greatest threat Henry or Francis face is that they’ll have fewer relics than their counterpart to donate to the local church. That or the possibility of making a poor showing at a joust. In its own way, that airiness makes the consequences seem all the graver.
Let me give you an example. On the surface, a turn is as simple as placing one of two discs in one of two open spots. How hard can that be? You only have two options. Every child knows that true/false quizzes are the ones you can spoof with very little trouble. You pick up a disc, choose one of those two free spots, and there you go. Easy.
Except there are two reasons to be very anxious about those spaces. The first is that every space represents an action — kingly activities like tournaments or feasts, observing the trappings of Christian piety or modeling the latest in Parisian hosiery — but each is paired with a gift you’ll hand over to your opponent. You’re heading to the church to donate John the Baptist’s foreskin, but in so doing you’re also handing over a prize knight or a few bolts of golden cloth or a dolphin for that afternoon’s banquet. Every gift enriches your opponent. Every gift makes them seem mightier and more kingly than you.
What’s a king to do? Practice the art of giving gifts that aren’t entirely useful, of course. If your dear fellow king possesses fewer bolts of gold than you, an extra pound will only accentuate the glimmer of your own stockpile. If your rival presents a stag for supper, how foolish he will appear when you produce an ostrich. Dear cousin, have this tatter of Saint John’s cloak — now please ignore its gaudiness alongside the fragment of his wineskin that adorns my personal reliquary.
Not that it will always be possible to give appropriately bad gifts. Unsurprisingly, many of the game’s trickiest moments arrive when you’re forced to choose between two items you’d much rather have yourself. Sometimes you’ll be forced to give away too many bolts of gold; other times you’ll need to choose between the action you want that’s richly endowed and the lesser action that’s paired with something minor.
And sometimes you need to consider tomorrow’s gifts.
That’s the second reason The Field of the Cloth of Gold can be so enticingly infuriating. Each space on the cloth (the board is fabric, which is a nice touch) provides its own benefit, all of which are contingent on the tiles you’ve revealed. For example, the tournament awards a point for every knight, both to you and your opponent, and then discards them. In the adjacent space, both players earn two points for every collection they’ve put together — a collection being a set of gold, beasts, piety, and knights — except this time you keep your tiles. The optimal strategy is obvious: you want to make collections before burning away your tiles. Except that’s not often possible when so many spaces consume your treasures. To reveal a collection, or unveil enough beasts to throw a truly kingly banquet, or amass enough gold to repeatedly shame your rival, the considerations behind every single move blossom outward. What gift you’re giving, what points you’re earning, which tiles you’re discarding to earn them, which space you’re unblocking, the spaces your opponent will likely vacate on their next turn… each factor sums together into an equation nobody in 1500s Europe had yet learned to decipher.
Here’s another example. Certain spaces yield secrets in the form of face-down tiles. These are both a risk and an opportunity. A risk, because you never reveal tiles on your opponent’s turn — which might mean they’re never revealed at all, and what’s the point of having a bunch of gold if you don’t show it to anyone? And meanwhile, an opportunity, because you never reveal tiles on your opponent’s turn — and can therefore keep them hidden until you’re ready to reveal a collection or an entire herd of beasts or so much gold that the entirety of the summit is blinded by the sun reflected in its surface. Whether your own secrets are useless trinkets or reversals of fortune comes down to how carefully you navigate that sequence of (not quite) binary decisions.
All told, The Field of the Cloth of Gold is a remarkably catty game. It’s about the gifting of grandiose presents for diminutive effect, about small decisions that grow weighty as their true import becomes clear. It’s about subtleties that are obvious and obviousnesses that are subtle. As a trifle, it conceals great depths; as a modern point-chaser, it almost makes one remark, “That’s it?”
Perhaps most of all, it’s a game of good humor. Tom Russell has often been noted for his dry wit, but this is perhaps his most Russellian creation, both affectionate toward games about amassing small quantities of victory points and wryly amused by them — just as it is both affectionate and wryly amused by the monarchical excesses it portrays. This may be a minor release from Hollandspiele. But the previous thread of paradox holds true once more: this is also one of its warmest productions.
A complimentary copy was provided.