Words by David C. Obenour
Known as the festival of love, color, and spring, Holi is a joyous celebration for many. Coating yourself in colorful powders and paints is only the beginning, and the more adventurous celebrants will seek out the best vantage point for dazzling and draping the crowd in fists full of color.
In the tabletop adaptation, players scale their pawn to higher and higher levels as they collect sweets and rain down their markers to the joy of all below. Floodgate Games president and lead designer for Holi, Ben Harkins shared about finding the good-natured rivalry in this revelry.
Off Shelf: How have you been doing? Between all of the events of the last two years, it’s been an incredibly weird and challenging time to be alive.
Ben Harkins: Besides the normal amount of weirdness that we all experienced together, I was able to spend a ton more time with my newborn – at the time, which was an incredible silver lining. I’ve also never been more fortunate to be in the business of entertaining people in their home through board games.
OS: Holi is such a unique game, from its concept to its gameboard – it’s immediately striking. Did the theme or the style of play come to you first?
BH: The theme and design came from different angles. Julio E. Nazario, the designer, first showed me a game about tree shamans that used the box and insert as components. I was hooked on the gameplay, but not the theme so much.
As a brief background, I used to promote electronic music events, so I’ve long had a fascination with festivals and big celebrations – the Holi festival being one of them I came across. When testing the game one day, we thought it would be way cooler to have the boards stacked, and I immediately thought of the powder raining down during the festival and thought it would make for an amazing table presence.
OS: Before researching the game, what knowledge did you have of Holi as a festival?
BH: Not as much as I knew I needed to in order to do something like this respectfully. Research and friends who grew up in various parts of India helped, reaching out to Shivam and Sharang – the cultural consultants on the project – was crucial.
OS: You have a section of the rules dedicated to the history of the festival – in designing the game, is there any particular aspect of the festival you can share that resonates with you?
BH: I love that a core aspect of the festival is about setting aside grudges and such; about reconnecting and celebrating. A bit of a challenge was maintaining the overwhelmingly positive tone within the competitive and directly interactive gameplay.
OS: Your Kickstarter included donations toward Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. Can you talk about this organization and why you thought to partner with them?
BH: I feel very privileged to be able to make games for a living, so I love involving a charity that’s impactful and relevant to the theme of the game we’re promoting. I was absolutely sold on Shanti Bahavan from my initial research, and love that they worked with us to directly sponsor Javan, who loves games.
OS: I always appreciate a game that is stimulating, but doesn’t forget that a game is to be played and as such is at its root a toy. It should be fun to look at and engaging. What struck you about Vincent Dutrait’s work and how collaborative was that process?
BH: I’ve long been a fan of how vibrant and lifelike Vincent’s work is, without breaking the escapism of a game with extreme realism – it’s a truly rare blend that felt just perfect for this game.
OS: In the rules, you do an amazing job of emphasizing the shared joy of the festival – which sets a really good mood for the game players are about to experience. It seems like an aspect that’s not often taken advantage of in rules writing – how do you strike that balance and why do you find it important?
BH: If there was a single thing that came through from everyone I talked to who has been to a Holi festival, it’s that it’s a pure joy to be there. Incorporating that feel into the rules themselves seemed mandatory, especially since just about every aspect of the game lacks text to help set the tone.
OS: The Rivalry Cards add interesting twists to Holi’s more puzzle-based game play. Were they part of the initial game design? What do you think they add and do you have any favorites?
BH: During development, I wanted to strip the game down to it’s absolute minimum form, then decide what to add back in. The card that became Cascade was originally a core rule of the game that felt a bit too complicated for an introduction to the game, so we moved it out as an optional rule. After so many other cool “what if“ ideas came up, we had a nice set of variations that could expand on the core rules and create drastically different play experiences. There are a few combinations that really create some tension, I like Snack a lot… but that could be because I like snacks. (laughs)
OS: Were you involved at all in Floodgate’s decisions on the physical production? The three levels is such a fun concept, but I imagine in the age of international production, it brought its share of complications.
BH: We originally had a plan to press a translucent sheet between 2 layers of cardboard. It worked, but proved to be really bouncy in the middle and looked cheap – even though it definitely wasn’t going to be cheap to make (laughs). In looking for another solution, I partnered with Gametrayz to make the courtyard board its current reality. Their attention to detail and ability to work within manufacturing constraints is really impressive.
OS: It’s a heavy question, but I wondered having spent so much time immersed in the world and culture, what were your emotions seeing the people of India celebrating Holi in 2021 during some of their most dire spikes from the pandemic?
BH: The last two years have more than ever emphasized the need for human connection and shown us how important it is to gather with loved ones. It’s hard to feel anything but love for that.