For a person who designs a party game of punch lines that include Auschwitz, slavery, “Stephen Hawking talking dirty,” white privilege, ethnic cleansing, terrorists, the Trail of Tears, assless chaps, nuclear bombs, “a mime having a stroke,” and more depravity—so, so, so much more depravity—Max Temkin thinks a lot about values.
Cards Against Humanity, the hit card game created by Temkin, 27, and seven friends, may be profoundly irreverent, but it also has a soul. Sticking to principles has helped the group overcome long odds and survive mistakes and bouts of pure stupidity that probably should have doomed their fledgling company. Instead they have the top five bestselling products in the toys and games category at Amazon.com (AMZN), where customers have given them more than 14,000 five-star reviews. That’s a level of devotion that can’t be explained by shock value alone.
The Cards Against Humanity story begins wholesomely, in a Highland Park (Ill.) public school. Temkin and seven other boys—Ben Hantoot, Daniel Dranove, David Munk, David Pinsof, Eli Halpern, Eliot Weinstein, and Josh Dillon—formed a nerdy clique, “primarily because no one else would be friends with us,” Temkin says. As the author of the Cards Against Humanity blog, Temkin is the group’s de facto spokesman, the one in charge of channeling its endearing mix of crassness and collegiality. “We just have a long history of making up games and comedy and wordplay and weird stuff for ourselves,” he says. They kept it up even after scattering to different colleges, and in 2008 one of these efforts seemed funny enough to show to people outside their circle.
The mechanics are simple: Players draw 10 white cards, each bearing a word or phrase, possibly something ordinary, such as “The Rapture,” but more likely a provocation, like “An erection lasting longer than four hours.” Each round, a player called the card czar draws a single black card that contains a straightforward prompt. For example, “I’m sorry, Professor, but I couldn’t complete my homework because of _____.” Everyone plays a white card to complete the black card, and the czar awards a point for the funniest combination. Pass the black cards to the next card czar and repeat.
That’s it. Players quickly learn that winning requires wit, not just dropping your most outrageous card. A vague card like “Another s---ty year” becomes nifty when it completes the prompt “After blacking out during New Year’s Eve, I was awoken by _____.” Playing “The Make-A-Wish Foundation” in response to “Daddy, why is Mommy crying?” is either sweet or darkly savage, depending on the beholder. The humor is calibrated to startle without being outright offensive. People get to be impudent with impunity. The best feature is that it’s entirely analog. While countless would-be Mark Zuckerbergs were buried in code designing apps, the Cards Against Humanity group decided to make their invention as low-tech as possible. Their creation might be crude, but it gets people spending time together offline. “That’s just a fundamental human need that the Internet has not obsoleted,” Temkin says.
The guys introduced the game at a New Year’s Eve party at the end of 2008, then kept refining it. When guests asked for their own copies, they ran them off on their parents’ home printers. As word spread and more friends-of-friends clamored for sets, the group made it available online for free. Thousands of downloads later, it seemed possible that Cards Against Humanity could be an actual, salable product, and the group turned to Kickstarter in 2010 to raise the money to professionally print and box a proper version. “Unlike most of the party games you’ve played before,” their promotion read, “Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.”
They asked for $4,000; they got $15,570. “We used our Kickstarter money to do a first printing, and we sold that and used the money from that to do a second printing,” Temkin says. “And now I guess you’d say it’s a company.”
At the outset, there were any number of reasons the group was likely to fail. “One is that none of us knew what we were doing,” says Munk, 27, who handles customer service. “That’s probably a pretty big factor. We were total industry nobodies.”
“None of us had ever manufactured anything or written any comedy in a professional sense before,” Temkin says. “And how out of place was it in 2010 to make a board game or a card game? It’s just so impossibly old-fashioned. Now I’ve come to recognize those things as kind of what made our company interesting, and that forced us to make interesting and good choices that were beneficial and healthy for us in the long run.”
The group had no contacts at game stores big or small, so they sold exclusively through Amazon, whose fulfillment division handles shipping and returns. That had the effect of concentrating sales in one place, boosting the game’s prominence on Amazon’s bestseller list.
“It’s a very viable business model,” says toy and game expert Christopher Byrne, who appears on morning TV shows as the Toy Guy and is content director at timetoplaymag.com. “First of all, they’re talking directly to their audience. They don’t need to be anywhere else. Second, they minimize their costs, so I’m sure their margins are much better.”
Cards Against Humanity doesn’t disclose its profits. There are no middlemen, the game retails for $25, and all it contains is 2.3 pounds of paper products. Expansion packs of 100 cards sell for $10. “None of us has to have a job for a very long time,” Temkin says.
Of the eight, only Munk actually works on the game full-time. Everyone else contributes as many hours as he wants, and a token salary is paid accordingly. “That salary is a trivial amount of the profits of the company,” Temkin says. “It’s mostly, like, kind of a symbolic thing. The vast majority of the money we make—the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the money we make—is just split evenly eight ways.”
That eight-way split is easily the most unwieldy thing about the business: Everyone has an equal ownership stake, there are no formal titles or hierarchy, and all decisions must be unanimous. It’s the antithesis of the structure a McKinsey consultant would design. “I kind of wonder myself how it doesn’t all fall apart,” Munk says. “But when you know a guy since the third grade—we know each other’s personalities well enough that we have trust in the system to work.”
“Sometimes we can move kind of slowly or really be very deliberate in our decisions,” Temkin says. “But I think overall it’s been really healthy. And we wind up having a lot of conversations about: What are our values? What’s the most important part of this? Why are we doing it?”
That helps explain some of the company’s more baffling decisions, such as continuing to give the game away for free online as a PDF that can be taken to a local print shop. “It’s always been the mission of our company to have as many people play Cards Against Humanity as possible,” Temkin says. “And once we sort of learned that and phrased it that way, it was just an obvious choice for us to post it online for free.”
Board game critics have been effusive. “Cards Against Humanity may well be the easiest-to-learn game we’ve ever played,” wrote Games & Tea, a U.K. site. GameChurch, which evaluates the medium from a Christian perspective, posted a particularly thoughtful take, titled “Our Sin in Black and White”: “Cards Against Humanity is unique in that it is wholly about ideas and their implicit power.” The game “appeals to those who are honest with themselves about the nature of their own world and their own soul. We are horrifically imperfect people and the problems are so big and seemingly insurmountable that when placed before us in unavoidable black and white letters, the only response that makes any practical sense is to laugh.”
In 2012 the company published the results of a special pay-what-you-want holiday promotion. Each 30-card pack cost $1 to make and $2 to ship. It sold 85,000, at an average price of $3.89; about one in five customers paid nothing, and three in five paid $5. Total profit was $70,066.27. The company noted that this was enough to purchase a small island in Belize, a thousand liters of boar sperm, or 5.8 million live crickets. Instead, the group donated the money to Wikipedia.
Making up a business model as they go along has come at some cost. In December the company blew through its projections and the game sold out just before Christmas, preventing an unknowable number of sales. The group explained the blunder to angry customers in an 1,100-word blog post, concluding, “The good news is that we were wrong in an interesting way, learned from our mistakes, and get to share that lesson with you.”
At some point, fans might notice that the makers of this exquisitely offensive game are actually decent people. But not yet. At gaming conventions, the Cards Against Humanity booth is regularly mobbed by customers expecting to meet monsters. “We just want to be nice to people and thank them for supporting the game,” Temkin says. “And they’re so disappointed. They’re like, ‘You’re not going to tell me to go f--- myself?’ ”