In an age where honesty is often reserved for anonymity, and social media accounts are scraped for off-color content, a deck of cards with the slogan “a party game for horrible people” on its box has, for many young people, an undeniable allure.
That is part of the reason Cards Against Humanity, a card game that rewards the absurd, the offensive and above all the hilarious, has become hugely popular over the last three years, popping up at birthdays and bachelorette parties, happy hours and lake house gatherings (“Last summer, we tried to get it delivered to our house,” said Cristina Gibson, 30, who was playing the game at a recent gathering of friends. “But Amazon was sold out.”)
“There’s that kind of risk,” said John Sullivan, 28, who organizes monthly Cards Against Humanity sessions in New York City via the group meeting site Meetup. “It’s not a PC game. It’s a pretty harsh game, so you’re bound to offend somebody.”
Created by eight friends from Chicago for a New Year’s Eve party, Cards Against Humanity became publicly available through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in 2010 and surfaced on Amazon soon after that.
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Demand quickly exceeded supply (“It just caught us by surprise from the beginning that people were interested,” said Max Temkin, 27, one of the game’s creators), and while the company doesn’t disclose sales figures, its $25, 550-card starter pack has consistently been the No. 1 best-selling toy or game on Amazon since it debuted there in 2011, ahead of Jenga, Legos and Disney’s “Frozen” dolls.
“The biggest thing we can say about the success of the game is that we can write any kind of joke,” said Temkin, who, like the rest of the creators, maintains a day job (he runs Maxistentialism, a design consultancy in Chicago) and treats Cards Against Humanity like a hobby. “That, to us, means we’re successful.”
The game is sort of an adult version of Apples to Apples, where one player asks a question with a black card and the others answer with their funniest white cards.
Although some of its cards have the potential to offend pretty much every group of people under the sun, the game draws diverse fans. On a recent Wednesday night, nine gay men gathered at the West Hollywood, Calif., home of Ryan Ross for Cards Against Humanity, wine and snacks. As guests helped themselves to Malbec, Ross, 36, pulled a tray of pigs in blankets out of the oven. “It’s Cards Against Humanity, so I figured something disgusting had to happen,” he said.
Marcus Pimentel, 33, introduced the game to his friends in 2012 after finding out about it at a party. “It’s the most un-PC game in the world; I thought it was hilarious,” he said. And while most of the gay-themed cards elicited hoots from the group, “praying the gay away” in response to “This month’s Cosmo: spice up your sex life by bringing ‘blank’ into the bedroom” fell flat. (“Stephen Hawking talking dirty,” by contrast, was a hit.)
While the game generally attracts individuals with low to no boundaries of decency (at least among friends), sometimes lines are crossed. As a hand played out on a recent Thursday evening at the New York City apartment of Uma Krishnan, 26, and Prem Chandrasekaran, 31, Catherine McGath, 26, recalled when a friend “got really upset about the ‘dead babies’ card.”
She said: “He is really opposed to dead-baby jokes, apparently, which I did not know.” She shrugged and took a sip of her cocktail, hot apple cider spiked with vanilla vodka. “He kept playing.”
Major brands are aware of the game’s reach. Before the second season of “House of Cards,” Netflix joined with Cards Against Humanity to release a deck themed around the political thriller (it sold out within hours, though a free version is available on the Cards Against Humanity website, where all of the game’s cards can also be downloaded free and printed).
“They gave us a pretty wide berth to make fun of the show and poke fun at it,” said Temkin, noting that “there was some degree of compromise” on jokes that producers and executives perceived as potentially offensive. It appears Netflix knew what it was getting into. In an email, Shauna Spenley, the company’s marketing director for original programming, wrote that the game “was a great fit for ‘House of Cards’ given the show’s theme and tone” and she touted the “funny, irreverent” cards the partnership produced.
More such collaborations may be ahead, but Temkin noted, “we don’t want to sell other people’s things.”
Nor do he and the founders want to water down the game, which they produce and print independently, for mass consumption. It’s hard to imagine a big-box retailer marketing cards that say things like “What’s that smell?” and “Oprah sobbing into a Lean Cuisine.” That’s not to say there hasn’t been interest.
“I got in trouble on a call,” Temkin said. “I said I’d rather people bought Cards Against Humanity out of a paper bag in a truck than out of a Barnes & Noble or Target or someone. They didn’t like that.”