A Disastrous Game of Buzkashi

Buzkashi is a Central Asian sport analogous to polo, if polo were played in a wild scrum of thousands of mounted players, all shoving one another aside to grab hold of a decapitated calf carcass. It’s an intense game! Our source, G. Whitney Azoy, studied buzkashi in northern Afghanistan before the communists seized power in 1978. One particular multi-day buzkashi event he witnessed in 1977 leaps out for how gameable it is. It was a disaster! By running such a bad event, its organizer torpedoed his reputation as a local leader. That conflict – and the wild and chaotic game it centered around – makes a terrific situation into which you can thrust your PCs!

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Image credit: Peretz Partensky. Released under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Buzkashi, as it applies to the gaming table, is all about the people playing it. The best players are the chapandazan (singular chapandaz). A chapandaz is a semi-professional athlete. For most of the year, he’s a land-poor farmer same as anybody else. In winter, when there’s no farming to do, he gets sponsored by a local big man (khan). The khan offers him a salary and use of a stable of trained buzkashi horses. Khans have no formal authority; they’re just people with more land and influence than their fellows. They range from folks whose influence extends no further than their tiny village to the warlords and power brokers whose names appear in media reporting out of Afghanistan. For a khan, having a successful chapandaz on staff brings prestige. Buzkashi competitors need not be chapandazan with khan sponsors, but it sure helps.

The rules presented here are for the version of Buzkashi played in rural Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, in the mid-1970s. There are any number of variants across Central Asia, from Afghanistan as far north as Kazakhstan. Organizers cut the head and hooves off a calf carcass: the former so it balances better, the latter so no one cuts their hands. Thousands of people gather, all male, all on horseback. The chapandazan muscle their way to the center of the scrum, near the carcass. So too do any amateurs who think they have a shot. The next ‘ring’ out is where you’ll find the khans and their retinues. The next ring beyond that is for the ordinary spectators. Thus, even while perhaps only a few dozen people will actively play for the calf, you have thousands of horsemen all pressed together in a scrum trying to get the best view.

When play begins, someone first has to get the calf off the ground. You do this by sliding around the belly of your horse until you’re parallel with the earth, hanging onto the saddle horn with one hand and reaching for the calf with the other. Your buzkashi horse has been specially trained to stand still over the calf while you reach, resisting the other horses whose riders are urging them to shove yours aside. It’s worth noting that horses hate this. That’s why you’ve got to ride a special buzkashi horse! Even if you grab the calf by one leg, the carcass has three more, so you’ll probably have to tug the calf out of the hands of other men who are trying to do the same to you.

Image credit: Peretz Partensky. Released under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Then you’ve got to fight your way free of the scrum. You urge your horse to push through the press of bodies. The direction matters not at all, just out. Meanwhile, other competitors try to snatch the carcass from you. The calf will probably change hands many times during the process. Eventually someone manages to ride clear of the scrum, probably because all the other horses are too exhausted to keep fighting. If you manage to leave the mass in possession of the carcass, without anyone else holding onto it, and drop the calf to the ground in full view of witnesses, you’ve won the round! Play continues for hours, with chapandazan swapping their tired mounts for fresh ones as needed. The buzkashi event may last several days.

A key player in all this is the crier. When the calf is deposited and play begins, he calls out the value of the prize the winner will receive. Prizes start small. But as a round continues, the crier raises the price, driving the chapandazan to new heights of competition. It’s not worth exerting yourself hard for a 100-afghani prize, but as the minutes creep by and the value rises – first 200 afghanis, then 500, then 1,000 – all of a sudden it’s worth trying risky maneuvers that might get you hurt. When the calf is carried free and dropped, the crier awards the winner his money and improvises a song praising the virtues of the khan who sponsored the chapandaz, the chapandaz himself, and the winning horse. The crier is a political nonentity on the buzkashi field. He’s not a khan, nor is he affiliated with a khan. His task is so menial, so demeaning, that he’s barely a man. This is important, since it means that no one is going to get angry when the crier rules against him – you can’t be insulted by a nonentity.

If you see reporting about buzkashi today, it’ll look different. For one, reporters usually only get to see urban, government-sanctioned buzkashi. Even the new Taliban government sponsors games. This buzkashi is a team sport, and involves dropping the goat (not a calf) in a chalk ring. Only chapandazan can participate, and spectators are neither mounted nor permitted on the field. This makes the scrum smaller and less chaotic. It also makes buzkashi more recognizable as a sport to our western eyes.

I’d like to call out some interesting headgear in this photo from 2011! The fur-ringed hats in yellow circles indicate the men wearing them are chapandazan. The hat in the red circle is a pakol, a hat common in Afghanistan. The headgear in the blue circle is a turban done up in one of the local styles. And the hat in the green circle was intended for use by a soldier in a Soviet tank! These Soviet tank caps seem to be common in modern government-sponsored buzkashi games. I wonder whether in the years following the American withdrawal the gear we left behind will make its way in too.
Image credit: Peretz Partensky. Released under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

We also need to talk about hosting buzkashi festivals. The hosts are khans. They throw festivals (not limited to buzkashi) to celebrate the marriage or childhood circumcision of a male relative. Such festivals are an opportunity to show off. You need a lot of help (volunteer hosts, volunteer servants, etc.) to house thousands of guests, and you can only get that help if you have a lot of influence with your ‘volunteers’. It also lets the khans demonstrate piety, since Islam rewards generosity and hospitality. Plus, buzkashi is just fun. Khans who don’t like the sport can and do organize other sorts of festivals. While the festival’s sponsor (tooi-wala) provides leadership and pays for all, the day-to-day administration of the festival is delegated to a trusted ally (tooi-bashi), ideally a brother or the son of your father’s brother. The tough decisions required to organize such a large event (“I’m sorry, we only had so many hosts, so we couldn’t invite you or your retinue”) require imperfect generosity and hospitality, so the tooi-wala can’t be responsible for them. The tooi-bashi, on the other hand, is not required to be perfect. The tooi-wala might not even appear at the buzkashi grounds so he can appear focused on hospitality. And while the tooi-bashi is on hand at the buzkashi field to act as a referee, he only steps in when the crier gets in over his head.

Let’s look at a specific (disastrous!) buzkashi festival and where we can insert the PCs. This festival occurred in Kunduz Province, northern Afghanistan, in 1977. It was a bad idea from the very start. For one, the tooi-wala (the sponsor) was the wrong ethnicity. He was Pashtun, but in Kunduz at the time bushkazi was seen as an Uzbek pastime. Elsewhere in northern Afghanistan, it was also a Turkmen pastime, and since the ‘70s Pashtuns across Afghanistan have gotten more into buzkashi. But in this time and place, this khan couldn’t take for granted that his closest relatives would be just as excited about buzkashi as he was. When he sent out invitations to prominent heads of household in and around his (ethnically-mixed) village to see who would volunteer time, effort, and hospitality for the festival, only half showed up – and most of those were Uzbeks, over whom the khan had less sway. Also unfortunate was his choice of tooi-bashi (day-to-day manager): his father’s brother’s son. They were very close, and everyone in buzkashi circles (even Uzbeks) liked the guy, but he was a chronic invalid. He couldn’t sit a horse for uninterrupted hours down at the buzkashi field. How could he adjudicate disputes and act as the referee?

Image credit: Peretz Partensky. Released under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Other things went wrong. Right when written invitations were about to go out, unanticipated invitations arrived, notifying the khan of another buzkashi festival on the same three days. Last-minute, he shifted his festival two days to the right, but the first day of his festival still overlapped with the last day of the other festival. The heads of household who volunteered to host were generally unwilling to defer to the khan. This was possible since a khan’s authority is reputational, not formal, and buzkashi is “just a game” anyway. So even though the tooi-wala drafted a list (presented by his nephew the tooi-bashi) of who should be invited and which guests and retinues should stay with which host, the volunteer hosts had their own ideas about who they wanted to stay with them. No one wanted to be stuck with low-status guests that would reflect poorly upon them as hosts! So the final guest list had some weird holes in it of guests no one wanted to host, even though by rights those guests should be present.

When the first day of the festival arrived, few guests showed up. Everybody was still at the other festival! The tooi-wala was counting on the money he’d receive as gifts from his guests to cover the prizes for the first day of the buzkashi, so prizes on the first day were smaller than expected. That meant the chapandazan didn’t play hard, since it’s not worth risking injury for a small purse. That meant the guest khans didn’t get the prestige of having their chapandazan win any notable, hard-fought victories. 

Since the tooi-bashi couldn’t serve as referee, things turned ugly on the buzkashi field: “I dropped the calf free and clear! I’m the winner!” “No you’re not. When you let go, I still had one of its legs. Then I let go, so I’m the winner.” Then the khans of the respective chapandazan step in: “Is your chapandaz calling my chapandaz a liar?” “No, it sounds like you’re calling my chapandaz a liar!” Etc. On the first day, the invalid tooi-bashi delegated the role of referee to the crier, a member of the supposedly contemptible Jogi ethnic group. He was a social nobody and could therefore not be insulting. It was a clever choice, but because no one respected the crier, he could not impose his will on angry khans. On day three, a compromise was reached: there would be two referees, one Pashtun and one Uzbek, and they would govern by consensus. Both men were (mercifully) honest and impartial, so no one ever had to referee a dispute between the referees.

Image credit: Peretz Partensky. Released under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Once, while the crier was still referee, the calf was dropped while four different players still had claim to it. This meant four different khans were suddenly in each other’s faces shouting about how their chapandaz was the real winner. The crier had no ability to intercede and was ignored. For ten minutes, the khans and their people shouted. Some of their followers started shoving one another, but nobody threw an actual punch, so no one had to get off their horses and have a real fight (which would have had long-term consequences). Other khans who had ties to the disputing khans got involved, supporting the claims of their friends. Things crystallized into a single argument between two powerful khans, neither of whom actually had a chapandaz in the dispute: they were arguing on behalf of their allies. But one of the two was from nearby and had more retainers on hand, while the other was from farther away and couldn’t bring as many. The one with fewer retainers, not willing to escalate to a brawl he would lose, announced he and his people were leaving. This was a black mark against the (not present) tooi-wala, since it was a public demonstration that he wasn’t influential enough to control his own festival. The invalid tooi-bashi begged the leavers to remain and promised to duplicate the prize and award it to both disputing chapandazan. This was a further humiliation, as it demonstrated that the tooi-basha (and by extension the tooi-wala) could be pressured into concessions. But it did permit the buzkashi to continue.

Back in the tooi-wala’s house, the host khan got into a disagreement with one of his guests over something totally unrelated to buzkashi. The guest khan was a big deal, and things got out of hand. The tooi-bashi tried to mediate on behalf of his uncle, but ultimately got so fed up with the guest that he threw the guest’s gift (a bundle of cash) back into his lap. The guest stood up, brushed the bills onto the floor, declared that since his gift had been returned his obligations as a guest were at an end, gathered his retinue, and stormed out. Other folks tried to jump in and mediate (had they succeeded, their reputations would have benefited), but to no avail. The dramatic departure of such an important person almost scuttled the whole festival. A lot of other guest khans wanted to show their friendship to the departing khan by departing as well, but ultimately their love of buzkashi kept them at the festival – even though it was clearly second-rate buzkashi.

The festival was a disaster for the tooi-wala (sponsor). He failed to be perfectly generous and hospitable. He failed to control his own festival. It demonstrated to everyone who even heard about the festival that he could not be counted on to do big things. While he had not ended his career as a khan, he had capped it. He would extend his influence no further than it already reached.

Image credit: Peretz Partensky. Released under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

At your table, have your PCs be invited as guests to a fictional festival in your campaign setting based on the 1977 buzkashi. If your party isn’t important enough to receive an invitation in their own right, maybe a powerful NPC they’re on good terms with invites them along as part of her retinue. Or they can always just wander into town right as the festival is happening! The festival could make a wonderful complication to whatever they were going to get up to in town. You were planning on robbing this guy’s mansion? On the bright side, most of his staff is down at the buzkashi grounds (or your fictional equivalent). On the other hand, if you’re noticed, there are several thousand angry horsemen only a few miles away!

If the party arrives on the first day, there are weirdly few people competing. If they arrive on the second or third day, the bad blood is already deep, and the PCs should be able to feel the tension in the air. They can compete in the buzkashi for cash prizes, and thereby get drawn into the local political squabbles! The dice show that this PC won the match free and clear, but this other competitor claims she won it, and now khans are arguing both for the PCs and against them. Can the PCs make their voices heard?

If the PCs are outsiders, one among them could be assigned the role of referee. Like the crier, they’re social and political nonentities and incapable of causing offense. But now, like the crier in real life, they have the job of imposing their will on a bunch of NPCs who don’t respect them.

If the PCs do have a little legitimacy – maybe because the NPCs have heard of their exploits elsewhere – this buzkashi festival could be a great way for them to steal a little more. If they can successfully intercede with one of the angry khans storming off (either on the festival grounds or in the tooi-wala’s house) or mediate a dispute on the buzkashi field, their reputations as people of consequence will grow. And for combat-oriented NPCs, there’s always a chance the festival will turn into a brawl!

This is the week for voting for the 2022 ENNIE awards. I’d like to endorse the following nominees and strongly encourage you to vote for them:

– Best family game – Good Strong Hands
– Best online content – Across RPGSEA
– Best production values – Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall
– Best rules – Rest in Pieces and/or Haunted West
– Product of the year – Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall

Check out my book Making History: Three One-Session RPGs! Three awesome historical one-shots with pregenerated characters and a very simple rules system designed specifically for that story. Norse Ivory is a game about heritage and faith in the Viking Age. A Killing in Cahokia is a murder mystery in the Native American temple-city of Cahokia. And Darken Ship is a horror-adventure starring junior sailors on a U.S. Navy warship who wake up one morning to discover they’re alone on a ship that should carry three thousand.

Source: Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan by G. Whitney Azoy (1982)

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