SOFIA -- Written on the playing card is a sentence that needs completing: "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 probably only a Bulgarian would understand: "Volen Siderov," the name of a far-right politician; "72 virgins," a reference to the belief held by some Muslim martyrs about the women waiting for them in heaven; and "Dinko from Yambol," a vigilante, migrant hunter who has received much media attention.
This is Cards Against Bulgarianness, a version of an adult party game known in the United States as Cards Against Humanity, which became notorious for its risque and politically incorrect content.
It's like a kind of national disease: People don't like to be honest. If you're honest, you're a sucker. If you pay taxes, you're a sucker."-- Mimi Shishkova-Petrova
Unlike the American version, however, and the many spin-offs around the world, Cards Against Bulgarianness is facing an uncertain future as the country's national Patent Office has refused to register the brand, saying it contradicts "good manners and public order" and is offensive to every Bulgarian. The Patent Office can't ban the product, but it means the company behind the Bulgarian game can't protect its brand name as a registered trademark.
The Bulgarian married couple behind the game -- lawyer Mimi Shishkova-Petrova, 31, and screenwriter Radoslav Petrov, 30 -- disagree strongly with the Patent Office's decision and say the humor is completely harmless. Deeming it offensive, Shishkova-Petrova and Petrov say, is symptomatic of a major Bulgarian problem: national self-esteem. And that, they say, is a result of a misunderstanding about the true meaning of patriotism.
The idea to develop Cards Against Bulgarianness occurred to Shishkova-Petrova and Petrov in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. At that point, Shishkova-Petrova says, people "needed a little more laughter in their daily lives."
Like the other international versions, the Bulgarian game consists of 100 cards with short, incomplete sentences. One of those cards is placed face up and then players have to complete the sentence from their answer cards, which reference either emblematic Bulgarian heroes and antiheroes -- politicians, soccer players, and singers -- or national traits, like tarikatluk, for example: an artful-dodger-like tendency to always look for a the easy way out, even if that means being sneaky or sly. The answer deemed the funniest wins.
"We did not aim to achieve something anti-Bulgarian, to promote some kind of globalism. On the contrary, we wanted to create a cool Bulgarian product, with entirely Bulgarian content, so that people could laugh and have fun and say things to each other's faces, which is also, to some extent, typical for Bulgarians," says Petrov in an interview with RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Unfortunately for the creators, the Bulgarian Patent Office doesn't feel the same.
The title Cards Against Bulgarianness would be perceived by the relevant users as contradicting the recognized principles of morality, appropriateness, and offensive to the basic values of the Bulgarian consciousness."--From the Patent Office verdict
"The expression 'Against Bulgarianness' is offensive and gives rise to unpleasant and angry feelings of national belonging in every Bulgarian," the Patent Office wrote in its decision to deny registering the game as a protected trademark.
In its verdict, the Patent Office also said that the name of the game "will be perceived as an insult to the ancient and eternal values of Bulgarians" and the game's emphasis on "Bulgarianness" will "definitely not be recognized" as an ironic or playful expression.
Marketed with the slogan, "A party game for horrible people," the original Cards Against Humanity is known for its irreverence, gross-out humor, and for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say. In addition to versions in different languages, there are a number of expansion packs on themes as eclectic as '90s nostalgia, climate change, and marijuana. There is also a toned-down version aimed at families.
Petrov and Shishkova-Petrova eventually appealed the decision, but in April the appeal was rejected. In the Patent Office's final ruling, it concluded that the name of the game violates the "rules of public order" and "good manners," 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 recognized principles of morality, appropriateness, and offensive to the basic values of the Bulgarian consciousness," the verdict continued.
The game's creators aren't giving up though and, in September, their case will be considered by Sofia's Administrative Court. According to Shishkova-Petrova, they are challenging the Patent Office's verdict on a number of grounds, namely that they are trying to register the brand in the more frivolous domain of games and entertainment rather than the more serious domain of political parties or educational projects.
"That's why it was a big surprise for us [that it was rejected]. Because something has to be very serious and unequivocally incompatible with the legal order and the moral code in order to curtail it in this way with [talk of] 'good manners,'" says Shishkova-Petrova.
According to her, the argument that the title of the game will inevitably "offend" many people is also strange. So far, she says, they have received fewer than five negative reactions after selling hundreds of the games.
What the game creators particularly object to is the way in which the Patent Office interprets the word "Bulgarianness," which according to them is one-sided and restrictive.
In Bulgaria, one must be careful not to damage the national self-awareness, because it is fragile."-- Mimi Shishkova-Petrova
"What the people from the Patent Office have done is to look at Bulgarianness as something completely positive and completely wonderful," Petrov says. "We do not agree with this at all. For us, the word Bulgaria combines many positive and negative qualities of Bulgarians."
Being Bulgarian, adds Shishkova-Petrova, can also have negative connotations, such as the aforementioned tarikatluk.
"It's like a kind of national disease: People don't like to be honest. If you're honest, you're a sucker. If you pay taxes, you're a sucker," she says. That is also the reason why their game includes cards with answers such as "Drawers Full Of Government Cash" and "To Enjoy Stealing."
After RFE/RL sent questions, the Patent Office responded, saying that since the registration procedure was not complete, they could not comment on a specific case.
"We strictly adhere to established national and European practices in trademark registration," the written response said.
The two young Bulgarians agree that the state's attitude toward their game is actually symptomatic of something much bigger -- something that is neither censorship nor political correctness.
"I wouldn't call it political correctness. In Bulgaria, the nuance is different. Here it's more like nationalist correctness," says Shishkova-Petrova. "In Bulgaria, one must be careful not to damage the national self-awareness, because it is fragile."
People, she says, are "offended" because of a lack of national self-confidence.
However, the correct action in this situation is not to try to ignore our problems as a society and to tell ourselves that we are Bulgarians only when we are proud of it, adds Petrov.
"There is a difference between real patriotism and our common misunderstanding of what patriotism is," he says. "Being a patriot does not mean being blind to our negative qualities as Bulgarians. We believe that in order to overcome one's negative sides, one must be able to identify them and laugh at them. They should not be taboo, because if we pretend our problems don't exist, we won't be able to solve them."