SOFIA – There is a sentence on the playing card that needs to be completed: “The voice of the people is the voice of God. And the people want…”
The answers, written on cards submitted by the game’s players, are people and phrases that only a Bulgarian would probably understand: “Volen Siderov”, the name of a far-right politician; “72 virgins,” a reference to the beliefs of some Muslim martyrs about the women awaiting them in heaven; and “Dinko von Yambol”, a Vigilante, Wanderjäger which has received a lot of media attention.
This is Cards Against Bulgarianness, a version of an adult party game known in the United States as Cards Against Humanity that has become notorious for its risky and politically incorrect content.
It’s like a kind of widespread disease: people don’t like to be honest. If you’re being honest, you’re a jerk. If you pay taxes, you’re a fool.”
However, unlike the American version and its many offshoots around the world, Cards Against Bulgarianness faces an uncertain future as the country’s national patent office has refused to register the trademark, claiming it is contrary to “good manners and public order” and this is also insulting to every Bulgarian. The patent office cannot ban the product, but it means that the company behind the Bulgarian game cannot protect its brand name as a registered trademark.
The Bulgarian couple behind the game – lawyer Mimi Shishkova-Petrova, 31, and screenwriter Radoslav Petrov, 30 – strongly disagree with the Patent Office’s decision, saying the humor is completely harmless. That they find it offensive, Shishkova-Petrova and Petrov say, is symptomatic of a major Bulgarian problem: national self-esteem. And that, they say, is the result of a misunderstanding of the true meaning of patriotism.
The idea of developing Cards Against Bulgarianness came to Shishkova-Petrova and Petrov in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. At this point, Shishkova-Petrova says, people “needed a little more laughter in their daily lives.”
Like the other international versions, the Bulgarian deck consists of 100 cards with short, incomplete sets. One of these cards is dealt face up, and then players must complete the set of their answer cards, which refer either to emblematic Bulgarian heroes and anti-heroes – politicians, footballers and singers – or to national traits, such as Tarikatluk: a sly, sly tendency Always looking for an easy way out, even if it means being sneaky or cunning. The answer deemed the funniest wins.
“We didn’t want to achieve anything anti-Bulgarian, to promote any kind of globalism. On the contrary, we wanted to create a cool Bulgarian product, with purely Bulgarian content, so that people can laugh and have fun and say things to each other’s faces, which is partly also typical for Bulgarians,” says Petrov in an interview with the Bulgarian Service of RFE/RL.
Unfortunately for the creators, the Bulgarian Patent Office disagrees.
The title “Cards against Bulgarianism” would be perceived by relevant users as contradicting the accepted principles of morality, propriety and an attack on the core values of Bulgarian consciousness.”
“The phrase ‘Against Bulgarianness’ is offensive and evokes an uncomfortable and angry sense of national belonging in every Bulgarian,” wrote the Patent Office in its decision not to register the game as a protected trademark.
In its ruling, the Patent Office also said that the game’s name “is perceived as an insult to the ancient and eternal values of Bulgarians” and that the game’s emphasis on “Bulgarianness” is “definitely not recognized” as an ironic or playful expression.
Marketed under the tagline “A party game for terrible people,” Original Cards Against Humanity is known for its irreverence, gross humor, and for pushing the boundaries of what you can say. In addition to versions in different languages, there are a number of expansion packs on topics as diverse as ’90s nostalgia, climate change, and marijuana. There’s also a watered-down version aimed at families.
Petrov and Shishkova-Petrova eventually appealed the decision, but it was denied in April. In the final decision of the Patent Office, it came to the conclusion that the name of the game violated the “rules of public order” and “morality”, which “do not allow the manifestation of discrimination, vulgarity and mockery”.
“The title Cards Against Bulgarianness would be perceived by the relevant users as contradicting the accepted principles of morality, appropriateness and as an insult to the core values of Bulgarian consciousness,” the verdict continued.
However, the creators of the game do not give up and in September their case will be examined by the Sofia Administrative Court. According to Shishkova-Petrova, they challenged the Patent Office’s ruling on several grounds, namely that they are trying to register the trademark in the more frivolous realm of games and entertainment, rather than in the more serious realm of political parties or educational projects.
“So it was a big surprise for us [that it was rejected]. Because something has to be very serious and clearly inconsistent with the legal system and mores in order to be shortened in this way [talk of] ‘good manners,'” says Shishkova-Petrova.
She also thinks the argument that the game’s title will inevitably “offend” a lot of people is strange. So far, she says, they’ve had fewer than five negative reactions after selling hundreds of games.
What the game makers particularly complain about is the way in which the patent office interprets the word “Bulgarian” in a one-sided and restrictive way.
In Bulgaria you have to be careful not to damage national self-confidence, because it is fragile.”
“What the people from the Patent Office have done is to see Bulgarianness as something completely positive and wonderful,” says Petrov. “We don’t agree with that at all. For us, the word Bulgaria combines many positive and negative characteristics of the Bulgarians.”
Being Bulgarian, Shishkova-Petrova adds, can also have negative connotations, like the Tarikatluk mentioned above.
“It’s like a kind of common disease: people don’t like to be honest. If you’re being honest, you’re a jerk. If you pay taxes, you’re a sucker,” she says. That’s why their game includes cards with answers like “drawers full of government money” and “to enjoy stealing.”
After RFE/RL sent questions, the Patent Office responded and said they could not comment on a specific case as the registration process was not complete.
“We strictly adhere to established national and European trademark registration practices,” the written response reads.
The two young Bulgarians agree that the state’s attitude towards their game is actually symptomatic of something much bigger – something that is neither censorship nor political correctness.
“I wouldn’t call it political correctness. The nuance is different in Bulgaria. Here it’s more nationalistic correctness,” says Shishkova-Petrova. “In Bulgaria you have to be careful not to damage national self-confidence, because it’s fragile.”
People, she says, are “offended” by a lack of national self-confidence.
However, the right action in this situation is not to try to ignore our problems as a society and only tell us that we are Bulgarians when we are proud of it, adds Petrov.
“There’s a difference between true patriotism and our common misunderstanding of what patriotism is,” he says. “Being a patriot does not mean being blind to our negative traits as Bulgarians. We believe that in order to overcome your negative sides, you have to be able to identify them and laugh at them. They shouldn’t be taboo because if we pretend our problems don’t exist, we won’t be able to solve them.”