The Cards Against Humanity party game has been in the news recently, both for an allegedly toxic work environment and a co-founder who was a bit of a loose cannon. The articles are beginning to appear now, decrying this game that we are all embarrassed to love, but in fact, I hated the game the first time I played it.
See, this was a game that was, at it’s heart, all about punching down. It made sport of people who were different from classic WASPs, typically minorities and at-risk populations, and I found it annoying at best, and, well, there was worse. But it was considered “edgy” and “challenged stereotypes.” To me, it was an excuse to say things you normally couldn’t get away with – an adult way to act naughty. And honestly, the only thing it really challenged was good taste.
To be fair, I don’t have a copy in front of me – I refused to purchase a copy – and my recollections of precise wording of cards is fuzzy at best, so I won’t try to recreate that here. All I can truly recreate is my feeling of revulsion at the game. I had friends who loved it, and after playing it a second time I grew enough of a spine to refuse to play it again. Despite MANY claims to the contrary by the creators, it seemed clear to me that this game “borrowed” heavily from another game that was a big hit – Apples to Apples. Players hold cards that describe actions or types of people, or that even named historical figures or generic people from the card viewer’s own life (for example, “Your Mom”). One player sat out, and was the judge for the round, and read a card that set up a basic situation. The remaining players would play a card to answer or complete that scenario, and the one deemed funniest or best by the judge won that round. A new judge was chosen, the players replaced the card they’d just played with a new one, and another round began.
The style of play was identical to Apples to Apples, except that it was horrible in its attempts at humor, whereas Apples to Apples, a more family friendly game, was more sanitized. Frankly, you could be as dirty and suggestive as you wanted with AtA, and it worked, but not many people played it that way. I guess most people don’t have enough imagination to devise their own style of play without explicit instructions to be, well, explicit.
My other experience with CAH comes indirectly. Within the first few months of CAH’s debut, the game store I worked at (Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin) tried to open an account with them to sell the game in the store. Pegasus was great about that during the old days: they took a chance on new games to help support the industry. They were one of the first stores to sell Trivial Pursuit in the US, and after the game hit it big, Pegasus’s oder for a dozen copies no longer interested the Trivial Pursuit people. But I digress.
These efforts to buy CAH at wholesale rates met with uncertainty, confusion, and what we later learned was outright stalling as the CAH folks negotiated an exclusive deal to sell their entire inventory to Target stores. They certainly have the right to sell to whomever they wish, and cutting an exclusive deal certainly was a cost-saving measure, but they didn’t even have the guts to say “no, we’re not interested” to us. Instead, they kept stringing us along claiming the paperwork to make that happen was “almost completed and approved” when they had no intention of selling to us. So they lied to us. For MONTHS. Finally, the deal was announced, so there was no point in continuing to try. I know of a number of other stores who bought copies at Target, marked them up, and sold them in their store just to be able to say they offered it. Hard-core gamers typically are super price-sensitive and would balk at paying $5-$10 more than MSRP for a game, so to the Pegasus staff this seemed like a good way to lose money and we declined to follow suit.
The Cards Against Humanity folks have done some remarkable things with their profits. They’ve supported numerous worthy causes, basically gave the employees at their Chinese printer a week off by buying up the entire week’s production capability and then doing nothing with it — intentionally, and generally supported the underdog with their cash. Some of these stunts were clearly promotional in nature, while others demonstrated a unique take on things, and it was sometimes baffling to figure out how the company (or anybody else, for that matter) would benefit from some of these schemes.
With the company currently reeling from numerous employees’ charges of a toxic workplace environment, it seems clear that the company is headed for a public relations fall. Whether they can regroup and rebuild after that fall is an open question, but frankly, they built their brand on being horrible; I see no reason to give them another chance to prove that they were right the first time.