O Holi Night
The Hindu festival of Holi isn’t something I know much about. The largest celebration in the United States takes place only fifty miles from where I live, although its proximity to both BYU and UVU fill it with so many Mormon revelers that it was years before I realized it wasn’t a local custom. Having handfuls of color flung at my person was never in my wheelhouse anyhow.
But don’t go into Julio Nazario’s Holi: Festival of Colors looking for background. “Throwing color” and “collecting candy” are pretty much the extent of its interest in Holi. At least we’re on even footing.
To be clear, I don’t mention this to highlight a problem with Festival of Colors. If anything, it’s reminiscent of every Christmas-themed game I’ve ever played: more to do with snow and presents than the True Meaning of December 25th — the completion of Saturnalia and the honoring of Sol Invictus. Ah, you’re correct, I’ve accidentally omitted the winter solstice. At any rate, Festival of Colors is about fistfuls of candy and color, and leaves the cosmic struggles for somebody else to decipher.
It’s also a three-dimensional game. In this respect it succeeds more fully than at theology. The gist is simple: your task is to throw paint everywhere — at the ground, at each other — until the contest escalates, quite literally, so that you’re flinging color from the highest reaches of the courtyard.
Festival of Colors is one of the few three-dimensional games that manages to function in three actual dimensions. Its courtyard is separated into three tiers, each identical except for the crucial detail that the lower floors are packed with festival sweets. Every turn is straightforward. There are three actions to choose from, only one of which is considered mandatory: the throwing of colored pigment. The cards responsible for these minor acts of human vandalism are smartly crafted, encouraging careful placement in order to color your rivals without being easily retaliated against. Even better if you can also position yourself to scoop up some sweets at the same time.
The trickiest action is climbing to the next floor, which can only be accomplished when your pawn has been surrounded by color. There’s also an element of trade-off to consider, since the middle floor and upper floor have fewer and zero candies respectively. Colors dropped from on high will drift downward if there’s any space for them below; otherwise they remain on their floors, where they will accrue additional points. Somewhere in between painting your friends, covering the courtyard with color, scooping up sweets, and possibly chasing an extra objective or two, you’ll prove yourself the most joyful celebrant of the entire festival.
I’m probably coming across as more technical than usual. It’s because there isn’t much to say. If a game can be proficiently designed while also being perfectly empty-headed, this is it. It’s tempting to pin the problem on the game’s more obvious omissions. True, I often play games to engage with models of history or ideas. Also true, I was hoping to come away with more than an outsider’s understanding of what Holi is all about. When I took a course on comparative religions, Hinduism was the least discussed of the “Big Four” that comprise about 70% of the world population. Growing up, my Indian friends were either Christian or non-religious. It’s hard not to look at something like Festival of Colors, built around the surface observances of a major holiday, as full of signifiers but no significance.
Of course, this isn’t entirely fair. If college won’t teach me about Hinduism, I can hardly expect a board game to fill in the blanks. Those empty signifiers aren’t totally off the hook: the game asks me to measure my “joy” despite never remarking on what I’m supposed to be joyful about. But when the game fails to provide enlightenment, the problem is at least halfway rooted in my own ignorance.
Rather, the whole thing is just so sterile. The pattern cards are arranged so similarly that paffing somebody with color means you’ll soon receive a dose of your own. Opportunities for moving up tend to cluster around the same few spaces. The variable scoring and rule cards only alter the contest in minor ways. Sometimes clumps of color are prized, or colors that aren’t covered by another color higher in the courtyard, or you can only move one space unless you spend some candy. These don’t inject energy into the proceedings, only new limitations or quantities to sum. I’m asked to be joyful, but there’s no room for cleverness or discovery or surprise. Only the exchange of color tokens and the collection of sweets that surely signify something, if only I were provided with the slenderest of translations for their missing symbolism.
That, then, is Holi: Festival of Colors: a game that shows the wrapping but not the presents, that offers a spatial puzzle but makes its solution woefully tit-for-tat, that thinks joy is found in accounting for quantities of tokens across a half-dozen locations rather than in the process of play. As a spatial puzzle game, this is more puzzlement than wonderment.
A complimentary copy was provided.