The Daily Worker Placement

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Tricky Themes in Boardgames

by | published Wednesday, July 22, 2020

(Note: as Ganesha has not yet been released all photos are used courtesy of Maxim Istomin, via BGG. All rights are reserved to him.)

I do not exactly recall how I learnt about the upcoming Ganesha board game by CrowD Games but I definitely remember instantly subscribing to the BGG page for more info. At that time there was not much other than the cover image and I was curious to say the least because of the close-to-home theme.

As more and more information started coming in, I very quickly realized that though I definitely liked the abstract game Ganesha was promising to be, the theme aspect of it lost its charm very quickly.  Soon enough, I spotted a BGG forum thread complaining about the “offensive” theme.  Such threads are not new to BGG and have had far more volatile conversations — Manitoba and Santa Maria come to mind. The difference being, this time it was concerning a theme and culture which I have first-hand knowledge of and hence feel comfortable enough to share my thoughts. 

To explain where I’m coming from: I am Indian, born/raised a Hindu but not religious (spiritual at best), creative professional with significant experience in producing and creating film, game, comic & graphic novel content including adaptation of mythological and religious themed source materials. I have given lectures on adapting stories between mediums and hence have a lot to say this, but I will try to edit and be concise.

And for whatever it is worth: I have not played the game, just read the rules and watched videos. 

I am not “offended” by Ganesha (the game), just “disappointed”. I do not believe adapting is a bad word OR only those belonging to a culture should be allowed to tell it’s stories OR Indian mythology should be off-limits to artists & storytellers (Indian or foreign). However, I believe ALL adaptations should follow some guidelines. I hope this write up is perceived as constructive feedback to the publishers of Ganesha specifically and the community of board game publishers / designers in general.  

When choosing to adapt or base on an existing  theme instead of coming with something new/fictional, ask the following questions:

I. Why this theme?

II. How faithful will you be to the source material? 

III How are you going “plus” the current versions? What is the USP of your vision? 

I. Why this theme?

There are many acceptable answers to this question, depending on the context of the source material, the mediums you are adapting between, the demographics you are targeting etc. For boardgmes, I could specifically think of the following:

  1. To make a strong story / theme immersive and interactive via art, components and game mechanics;
  2. To bring a theme / story to a different audience;
  3. To overcome language / geographic barriers;
  4. Your passion (Something fascinates  / inspires you and you want to delve deeper and bring your own take on this).

These are not mutually exclusive. The more boxes you can tick, the stronger case you make for it. The last one — “Passion” — is the double-edged sword. Your passion can lead you astray or make it a resounding success.  However, if it comes from a place of sincere passion and respect, I feel the risk is justified more often than not. 

Note that I do not list financial motivations here as I believe that they come into play only after you can answer most of the above points in the affirmative in order to maintain the creative integrity of your vision. 

When I look at how Ganesha in particular ticks these boxes: 

  1. It’s definitely more about using related  imagery and motifs rather than presenting a strong story or making the theme immersive and Interactive. Like most abstract games — The game has a theme, but it is not thematic;
  2. It is bringing a theme / story to a different audience;
  3. It sort of works to overcome language / geographic barriers— though this could be because of the lack of  (i), it does not end up coming through very strongly
  4. Though I don’t see signs of disrespect, I don’t get much of a sense of personal passion one way or the other.

II. Will you be unfaithful?

First and foremost: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  

You will never 100% win this point and please everyone. Don’t even bother trying.

“In an ideal* world, an adapted work would not be judged too harshly in relation to its source material. An adaptation would be perceived as another creative interpretation of the source and not its substitute”

*We do not live an ideal world.

There are 3 broad levels of faithfulness when adapting any source material:

Level 1 – Strictly faithful:  Minimal creative liberties in interpretation  (eg Disney Villainous

Level 2 – Middle path: Retain the spirit of the source material, and stay true to it, enough to make a strong thematic connection but still modify whatever else is needed. (eg. Horrified)

Level 3 – Not faithful : Considerable deviations or significant disconnect with the source material and hence seems more like “Inspired by” (eg. Some older mass market IP-based games such as Princess Bride: Storming the Castle and Ganesha.)

The key here is identifying which of the above levels does your chosen source material fit well enough into. All source materials do not provide the same level of flexibility for numerous reasons which are in most cases, self-evident. In descending order of flexibility:

Category A:  Most entertainment IPs will lend themselves to all 3 with varying results depending where your effort lands on factors like  — How big is the fan base, how “purist” is their outlook, and how “fresh” your vision seems to them etc.

Category B:  Folktales, myths, & cultural settings can be a little less forgiving, especially if you do not belong to the same culture. You could get away with Level 3 if done for the right reasons and done well enough.

Category C: Religion & Politics, being the hot-button topics that they are… these themes offer you least amount of flexibility and (Level 3) is usually a no-go. (Level 1) would perhaps not be very satisfying for you creatively, but pulling off a strong (Level 2) would be the big win here. However, to even attempt something here, you should be ticking ALL possible boxes and more. Your passion should be nothing short of exceptional if you are not native to the culture to enable you to “plus”  this or add to the conversation in a meaningful, sincere and respectable way. The risk is high, so make sure you are adequately motivated or there is a strong upside one way or another.

The key takeaway here being that the publishers of Ganesha knew they were working with the Category C here. Ganesha is not a relic from a past civilization or just mythology— but a deity  worshipped by a billion-plus Hindus around the world today. Most Indians arguably care only about 2 things — Religion and Cricket (not necessarily in that order). Hence the threshold to be offended is relatively low, unfortunately. I am a misfit outlier since I don’t care about either, hence I am not offended and just disappointed. 

III How are you going “plus” the current versions? What is the USP of your vision? 

This is what it eventually comes down to. I am of the camp that believes art and artists have a responsibility. If you have nothing interesting or new to say… don’t! You do not have to agree with me here…but how you answer this question has the potential to justify some of the worst creative choices and turn otherwise failures to success stories — “It is so bad, it is a masterpiece”. 

The way you can “plus” is manifold— fresh perspective, elaborate on an underdeveloped  theme, visual and aesthetic re-imagination, specifically for boardgames— the marriage of theme / story and game mechanisms…and many more ways!

However, you cannot do this without having a real deep understanding of the source material you are working with AND the medium you are working in. The more unforgiving / inflexible  category (A, B or C) your source material falls in (see above), the deeper your knowledge needs to be to have a vision that will resonate.

What could have the publishers of “Ganesha” done differently?

As I wrap this up, it is worth repeating that the execution of the theme here does not offend me, just disappoints and very much look forward to trying the game in the near future. 

 Some things for publishers / designers to think about:

  1. If you are making an abstract game where theme and story are minimal at best…do not venture into “high-risk” categories unless you have a very very good reason. Simply not worth it.
  2. I can see the desire to use Indian culture because of the colorful -gems-being-placed-in-patterns  aspect of this game. This could have been achieved very simply by keeping religion out of it and just borrowing an Indian art tradition (such as Rangoli) or cultural setting to give some flavor without any risk of offense (think of Jaipur). 
  3. If a Ganesha-related theme had to be used, I would save it for a thematic game where you could bring out the story/ themes (and there are a gazillion Ganesha stories, believe you me) by marrying it with the right game mechanisms, components and art.
  4. The publisher citied a consultant in the BGG thread, but it does not seem that they were the right people whom you would consult on the cultural and appropriateness of the theme and more about the financial / marketing viability of the game in the Indian market. Make sure you go to appropriately qualified people for related advice.
  5. Lastly, if the goal was to appeal to specifically an Indian audience, there too it fell short as the art and graphic design is very clichéd without offering anything new. There are literally thousands of such illustrations you could find all over in India — just try Googling “ganesha calendar art”. I would say even an exaggerated kitschy/homage approach to this art style could be more appealing and might bring something slightly new than the current version.

I understand that knowing most of the above is not entirely possible without deep knowledge…hence, just go with what you know best or what you are most passionate about— it will lead you to the right place, eventually!


2 thoughts on “Tricky Themes in Boardgames

  1. Avatar Jonathan Saah says:

    Great article. Wonder what your thoughts and impressions are regarding the new edition of Maharajah.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/craniocreations/maharaja

    https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2433591/new-theme-problematic-even-offensive

    • Avatar admin@dailyworkerplacement.com says:

      Hello Jonathan.
      Thanks for your comment. I have never played the old version of Maharajah but did manage to try the new version on Tabletopia recently.
      While I would wait to see the final art/components/rulebook etc to form a complete opinion, however, based on what I see it falls more or less in the same ballpark as Ganesha when it comes to theme/art execution success. It definitely does more to bring out the theme and begins to justify the choice unlike Ganesha, but not nearly enough to use a “Category C” them if I can reference my article. Also, while the art has appeal and a distinct look, the way the Gods are depicted, demonstrates lack of nuance and understanding of the culture. There is a way to approach traditional subjects via new/unconventional illustrative styles & techniques ( I am all for it and encourage it)while at the same time staying true to the “characters” (in this case, Gods) being depicted. Maharajah drops the ball on the latter aspect.
      While the art in “Ganesha” was a bit cliche and boring at worst, “Maharaja” is exciting but actually can be viewed as offensive by many Hindus. Perhaps, I can elaborate more on this in a future article! 🙂

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