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Designer Diary: The Story of the Making of The Field of the Cloth of Gold

Tom Russell
United States
Dearborn
Michigan
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Board Game Publisher: Hollandspiele
Prologue

When my wife Mary and I started our company Hollandspiele, we chose a print-on-demand model, which I like to describe as the most expensive and least efficient way to publish games. Our higher per-unit costs and low profit margins effectively remove us from any traditional distribution model that will allow our titles to have any kind of presence in your friendly local game store, and makes our games less affordable/accessible to customers outside the United States.

But none of those are things we really care about, and the model allows us to prioritize the things that matter to us. Yes, the games cost more to manufacture, but since we're essentially printing each one when it's ordered, paying for it after the customer has paid us, there's very little upfront cost, and our break-even point is ridiculously low: Even if the game is a flop, we make a profit, which lets us publish with impunity.

It also allows us to be flexible and somewhat spontaneous. If we wanted to, we could design a game today, send the files to the printer, and start taking orders tomorrow. The game would end up on doorsteps within a week. Now, the key bit there is "if we wanted to". There are many reasons why we wouldn't. It doesn't allow much, if any, time for testing and development, we would want to look at a proof copy first to ensure fidelity, and there would be no time to build up the sort of excitement and word-of-mouth that our sales depend on.

But in general one of the appeals of the model is that at the end of the year, we will have released games that at the start of the year we had no idea existed. That's what happened with Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater. Erin introduced herself and submitted her game in the spring of 2018, and by October of that same year, the game was hitting tables and winning accolades, becoming one of our flagship titles.

Board Game: Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation
Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater

We've lost some of that flexibility, however, as our catalogue and our audience has continued to grow. We have a lot of games in our pipeline, and it's been taking longer and longer to get them out the door, often a year or two after we signed it. We've effectively stopped taking submissions while we try to muscle through our backlog until we can get to a place where we can get back to those quick turnaround times.

That sense of spontaneity is something we sorely miss. Mary and I have often discussed how we want to "do something like Meltwater", which doesn't mean that we want to publish a game that's like Meltwater — it is perhaps inimitable! — but that we wanted to make room for projects we hadn't anticipated.

Which brings us, at last, to The Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Board Game: The Field of the Cloth of Gold

Inspiration

In February 2020, it occurred to me that June would mark the five hundredth anniversary of the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This was essentially a very expensive three-week party in which the two young kings peacocked at each other about how great and magnificent and splendid they were. It's an event that fascinated me as a child — I was all about kings and castles and tournaments and splendor — and it's one that I had tried and failed in the past to make a game about.

Said failure was largely due to the fact that nothing really happened during that meeting. Oh, they spent an awful lot of money — England alone is estimated to have spent a third of its national wealth — and they ate an awful lot of animals, tens of thousands of them. But nothing was actually achieved, and there was no real conflict for your humble consim designer to simulate.

But the five hundredth anniversary? If I were ever going to do a game on the topic, now would be the time. Tying the game into the anniversary appealed to me, as did the topic itself. More than that, though, I was excited by the idea of reclaiming some of our early flexibility. Mary shared my enthusiasm and greenlit the project.

From gallery of tomrussell

Designing for Production

In order to realistically release the game in June, we would need to finish everything — design, testing, development, art, layout — in April, within the span of about two months. This largely dictated the parameters of the design.

First, the game had to be short, so as to facilitate rapid testing. A game that takes two hours to play eats up most of the evening, but in that same time you can play a twenty-minute game six times. You're also more likely to find playtesters who will volunteer their time for a shorter game than for a longer one.

Second, the game had to be simple so that there would be fewer problems for me to solve and fewer things for me to screw up. I didn't have time to bang my head against the wall or pull at the loose strings of some complicated knot.

Short and simple meant that it would be a filler game, and that meant a lower price point; no one's going to pay beaucoup bucks for a quick diversion. Lower price point meant fewer components; being print on demand, we do not benefit from economies of scale, and having two of something costs twice as much as having one. Having published over fifty games at this point, I have mostly internalized this, so I immediately knew that I was limited to a half sheet of counters, perhaps a few wood bits, and a letter-sized paper "board".

Here, a peek behind the curtain might be instructive. Our letter-sized components — usually player aids and such — are printed on letter-sized card stock using a printer that handles smaller paper sizes. Our larger wargame maps, however, originate as large rolls of heavier paper, printed two maps at a time, then trimmed to the proper size. The letter-sized card stock is not only thinner, but because it isn't trimmed, it leaves an unsightly white border around the art — unsightly to the point that we've generally moved away from using that size for our actual playing surfaces and made 17" x 22" our standard map size.

The letter-sized sheet is what made sense for our price point, but at the same time we didn't want this chintzy, flimsy sheet with this ugly white border around it, so immediately we were thinking about how we might try to square that circle. Over the last couple of years, we had begun offering deluxe canvas maps for some of our most popular games on special occasions. It's too expensive for us to offer it as a standard component for our games with 17" x 22" (or larger) maps as we'd have no profit margin left — but the pricing made more sense for a letter-sized sheet and would be more attractive, with no white border to contend with. And so Mary and I decided to use the canvas as a standard component for this game.

Now, all this probably sounds fairly mercenary and mechanical — like we were counting our pennies and creating artificial constraints around the game before it was designed — but it's really a lot more intuitive and organic than that. It's not like we actually drew up a list of all this and said, okay, here are the restrictions, build something that works within them. Most of this was unspoken, all of it occurring to us at the same time; the only thing we really had to talk about was the canvas.

From gallery of tomrussell

My Kind of Euro

When I first got into board games a little over ten years ago, it was through Eurogames, and when I say "Eurogames", I'm really talking about the sort of very mean, very clean, and very interactive games that had come out sometimes ten or more years prior. El Grande and Tigris and Euphrates were particular touchstones for me. When I first tried my hand at being a game designer, I assumed I would be designing Eurogames. I did one wargame as a lark — for giggles! — and it sold, so I did another, and it sold. The wargames kept selling, and the Eurogames never did, so I shifted my focus to wargames.

For this game, I shifted my focus back. Given the limited number of components, the short timeframe, and the fact that, once again, nothing much actually happened, it wouldn't make sense to create a highly thematic or detailed game that tried to seriously engage with the historical event. Research for such games takes months or even years, and I didn't have that kind of time. And so I would make a lightly-themed Euro — the sort of lightly-themed Euro, in fact, that had gotten me into games in the first place.

The theme was light, but not irrelevant. Two kings, of course, meant two players. While these two kings were eager to thump their chests about how glorious and grand they were, they were also careful to express the camaraderie and esteem they held for one another; they were competing but they weren't "competing". This suggested a dynamic that was indirectly vicious, and that dynamic informed all my design decisions.

The two players attempt to collect tiles that come in four kinds, representing tournaments, feasts, piety, and wealth. When they take an action, the random tile associated with that space is given to their opponent. Most of these actions involve scoring points for a certain type of tile, and most of these scoring actions expend the type of tile scored, removing them from your supply.

Therein lies the rub: Practically everything you do scores you points, but you don't want to score those points yet; you want to hold onto those tiles so that you can score more points later. And everything you do gives your opponent the ammo they need to score points, and somehow, it always seems like they're getting the better end of the deal! Never mind that they're thinking the same about you...

To top it off, once the game gets going, you essentially are faced with a choice between two options at any given time, neither of which you particularly want to do. This is exactly the sort of sharp, painful decisions I love in games. Someone once described my Irish Gauge as "Here are four terrible things you don't want to do. Each of them is going to damage your position or improve everyone else's position more than it does yours. Now, choose one." That's broadly my approach here.

I'd like to dig into the nitty-gritty of how the game evolved over testing, but, honestly? It didn't really change. Oh, I fiddled with the score track a bit and improved the icons, but the game I came up with in mid-February is essentially the game that's being released. Again, when a game is this simple, it's hard to screw it up.

Breaking the Rules of Writing Rules

Testing wrapped up in April, right on schedule, and that's when I finally set to work writing the rules. This is unusual for me; usually the rules get written before the first prototype has been produced, mostly because the act of writing is one that clarifies — but most of my games aren't quite this simple or this elemental.

When I started writing the introduction for the rules, I took on a somewhat stilted and grandiose tone, assuming I would abandon it when I got into the meat of the thing, but I was having such a good time that I kept on writing in a pompous, elevated style. Instead of "fifty-four tiles", the game would come with "tiles numbering fifty and four". Instead of "see the Actions section below", the player was advised to "Hark ye the chapter below, called The Actions".

I cackled like a maniac the whole time, pleased with myself but fully assuming that none of this would make it into the final rulebook. When I turned it over to Mary, I asked her to let me know if I had gone too far, but to my surprise she said that I hadn't gone far enough. And so the rulebook contains all of the above, plus such gems as "score ye 6 points" and "move now the Dragon back to the space bearing its terrible visage".

If I were working with another publisher, they'd probably be "very concerned" about the rulebook — but they wouldn't be publishing a game like this in the first place; these sorts of games aren't exactly the rage these days. One of the purest joys of Hollandspiele and its model is that it lets Mary and I do whatever the heck we want, the way we want to do it.

I had a lot of fun whipping together this quick, vicious little curio. I got to do a different sort of game — closer to the sort of game that got me started in games in the first place — and we got to relive some of the scrappiness of our early days.

Tom Russell
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