In the early days of the Covid pandemic, I discovered Kickstarter and began backing games left, right, and center in an effort to reclaim the joy and beauty of playing in person. The bits! The card art! The wild mechanics and anticipation-based euphoria helping to ease the suffering and ennui! Don’t get me wrong—I’m fortunate in that I don’t just love my immediate family with whom I was quarantined for months on end, I actually like them and we had a lot of good times back then. But I was also sad and scared and frustrated and my coping mechanism, it seems, was backing and buying any board game that looked pretty. Enter Holi.
Holi is a fascinating three dimensional game with stunning table-presence. It’s intensely colored, from the vivid, screen-printed wooden bits and player tokens to the board itself built from bright cardboard corner posts and three, transparent molded plastic playing boards forming a parking-garage-like structure. If you saw it set up on a table at a convention, you might throw your neck out trying to get a look at it.
Players imagine themselves to be revelers at the Hindu festival Holi, celebrating new life and love by throwing color on each other in a chaotic and beautiful mess. To simulate this experience, players move their marker wherever they like on the board and then “throw color”—small bits in their color—onto adjacent spaces in patterns determined by cards in their hands. If color falls on another player, that player keeps the bit in their stash and the player who threw it gets extra points at the end of the game. Players can move their token up to the next level, their thrown color bits possibly falling through to the lower level if those spaces are empty. Players can also throw color so that it does not fall through and it scores more points in those higher levels. In essence, players are trying to distribute as many of their color bits as possible onto the boards and get more points by throwing them on other players and onto higher levels.
It’s fairly quick, a little bit thinky in terms of pattern making and the restrictions of the 3D levels, and a delight to look at and play with. As a game, it’s good. Not great, I don’t think, not like other Floodgate games Decorum or Fog of Love, but good. Charming. For table-presence, I give it 9 out of 10 delicious Indian sweets, and more generally, 6.5 out of 10.
But this game isn’t just a pretty thing to break out now and then, it’s based around a Hindu religious festival and it smacks of appropriation. As I’m not Hindu myself, I can’t definitively label it as such, but my friend John M. is, so I called him up.
I sent John the rulebook and an overview video so he could get a sense of what the game was like. The first thing he said to me on the phone was, “The designers seem to have a minimal understanding of what Holi is about.” It is not, he says, only the goofy fun of throwing color and eating sweets, it comes from several, millennia-old stories in the Hindu tradition and this game feels whitewashed, or perhaps Western-washed. He compared it to the Color Runs you see periodically, fundraising races where the runners are covered in color powders. It seems many Hindu people are grumpy about those events because white folk have taken a small part of a culture without regard for the symbolism and the rich tradition it comes from. To be fair, he also noted that the University of Cincinnati’s massive Holi celebration including the sweets and the colors is a wonderful experience for cultural understanding.
But Holi is more than that fun celebration, deeper and broader. Traditionally, Holi is a two-day festival, beginning on the first night with a huge bonfire signifying the triumph of good over evil. This night, sometimes called Holika Dahan, remembers the story of Hiranyakashipu who had been given five special powers that essentially made him unkillable. Instead of using this blessing for good, Hiranyakashipu grew arrogant, like unto a god. His son Prahlada refused to worship him as a god, instead remaining loyal to Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu tortured his son, eventually having his sister Holika trick son Prahlada into sitting in a fire with her so he would burn. Aunt Holika had a special fireproof cloak to protect her, but the fire was so powerful that the winds of it blew the cloak onto Prahlada, saving him and burning Holika.
The second day of Holi is sometimes called Radha Krishna and remembers the story of Krishna’s love for Radha and his fear that she would reject him because she was so beautiful and pale-skinned and he was so dark. His mother told him to talk to her and to ask her to color his face whatever color she liked. Radha did so and they became a couple.
Hindu faithful retell these stories and pray and celebrate in many ways, including paying and forgiving debts, burning broken household implements, and even women taking heavy sticks and beating the men as a reversal of the normal order of things! It is a festival of new life, of regeneration, of light overcoming darkness, and of remembrance of destruction.
Friend John suggested that if the designers of Holi are Hindu practitioners, there would be no issue as they could selectively share parts of their own tradition, but as far as we can tell, they are not. In using an ancient Hindu festival for the theme of a board game, the designers are not destroying anything, it’s not so dire as all that, but they are also not sharing a full understanding. It’s skin deep yet also invitational—ponder this paradox. John and I wondered if playing Holi would encourage players to research, if it would invite more engagement with and understanding of Hinduism as a whole, or would players receive only the surface meaning as they play?
A religious game, in my estimation, is good when it hits a few benchmarks: (1) it succeeds in what it’s trying to do, whatever that is, (2) it explores its theme complexly and appropriately for its weight, (3) it is joyous, and (4) it offers players comfort and/or exhorts them to a higher good. Here I think I’ll add an additional benchmark, that a religious game teaches the players something about the culture that produced it, ideally by that culture itself rather than via a third party. Holi succeeds in being a light-weight abstract, pattern-building and area majority game, and it is indeed joyous, if only in the bright colors and satisfying wooden bits. And I do think it teaches players a little about a culture they might not be familiar with, inviting cultural literacy, and perhaps instilling hope for something better, but that is a bit of a stretch. I don’t believe it explores its theme complexly, even for a light-weight game. It minimizes a rich tradition and complex festival to only the throwing of color.
Holi reminds me of another game I saw recently on Kickstarter, Bagh Chal. This is the traditional game of Nepal, a chess-like asymmetrical game of goats versus tigers. I saw this lovely abstract game on Kickstarter and immediately clicked through to read more. According to the copy, Bagh Chal is dying in Nepal with younger generations no longer interested in learning it. Older folks play in parks or on boards carved into their front stoops, but no one there buys new sets except for tourists. The creators of the Kickstarter were hoping to raise awareness of this ancient game and help it regain popularity, but I wonder how that would happen if the Kickstarter is also going to be seen primarily by white foreigners and not the native peoples of Nepal. On top of that, the creators of the campaign were white Europeans, not Nepali. I asked them directly how this campaign was going to support Nepali players or raise awareness in Nepal itself—they said they were planning to donate a number of sets to local schools, so that’s something. But this campaign brings me back to Holi and what it’s trying to do as a game.
In the end, it’s a charming abstract game, not truly about Holi the religious festival at all, and leans towards the appropriative—pretty and fun, but without much depth either in strategy or in spirituality.