Max Temkin is giddy. “That’s really cool. Oh, I love that,” says the cocreator of Cards Against Humanity, pointing to a vaguely Turkish square of satiny fabric splayed across the sidewalk on Superior Street in River North. Wearing a plaid shirt, dark jeans, and stylish black Toms slip-ons, the cherubic-looking Highland Park native, 27, is being fawned over like the plum client that he is by the architect designing the interior of his company’s new headquarters.
“We could splash these around one of the conference rooms to spice it up a bit,” says the firm’s principal, Chip von Weise, a shaggy-haired Harvard design school alum in his 50s. “We’ll have to get this priced out. I’m sure it’s superexpensive.”
Scheduled to open early next year, the rehabbed 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Bucktown is a big step forward for the company behind the zeitgeisty “party game for horrible people.” The company is sparing no expense outfitting the $1.5 million bow-truss-ceilinged brick building, which replaces the modest Logan Square storefront Cards Against Humanity currently calls home. When completed, it will feature writers’ rooms, a podcasting studio, and, to contrast the neutral tones of the rest of the space, two shipping containers modeled after a Japanese tearoom and a hookah lounge, respectively.
“Sometimes it’s nice to go into a room with a totally different energy,” Temkin says. The grand plan for the new headquarters is to offer the majority of the initial 30 desks (there’s room to accommodate 60) to designers, writers, artists, and comedians, who’ll pay low rents (possibly around $100 a month) and work alongside five full-time Cards Against Humanity staffers and three interns. “One of our design ideas is, we wanted a more refined space,” Temkin continues. “We don’t want it to be a dumb startup office with scooters and whatever else they do. We’re already weird enough.”
“Refinement” is probably the absolute last word that comes to mind when people think about Cards Against Humanity, the profane and hilariously subversive card game that has become a runaway hit since its official release three years ago. As the game continues its march toward the mainstream—in August, The New York Times did a piece on its ubiquity at bachelorette parties and Hamptons getaways— the smart-ass 20-somethings who have been running the company mainly by instinct now appear to be at a turning point: one-hit wonder or enduring brand?
Created by eight college-age pals from Highland Park, the game calls for one player (the card czar) to draw a black card containing a prompt: “In Michael Jackson’s final moments, he thought about ——.” Or: “War! What is it good for?” The czar deals 10 white cards to each of the other players; these cards have answers for the prompts, ranging from recognizable names, simple phrases, and everyday objects (boogers, magnets) to the absurd, dirty howlers and un-PC provocations that are the game’s signature: “Children on leashes,” “Asians who aren’t good at math,” and “Firing a rifle into the air while balls deep in a squealing hog,” to quote just a few. Each player lays down a white card, and the czar awards a point for the funniest combination. This continues until the novelty wears off or you run out of beer, whichever happens first.
The genius of the game is how it provides an anodyne outlet for the normally well-adjusted to indulge their darker side. “It’s like Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary in that it’s bringing people to the table again,” says Mary Couzin, CEO of the Chicago Toy & Game Group, which organizes events for toy makers and consumers. “In the age of social media, people are craving real dialogue. They’ve hit on a naughty way for people to do that.”
(Not everyone is in on the joke. In June, a 19-year-old who identified himself as transgender showed his displeasure with a card that read “Passable Transvestites” by lighting it on fire and posting the photo to Instagram. The company publicly apologized and said it had already pulled the card from the deck.)
Although the creators refuse to say how many copies they have sold, in May 2013 the Sun-Times ballparked the figure at 500,000, a number Temkin insists the paper “completely pulled out of their ass.” One measure of the popularity of Cards Against Humanity is its ranking on Amazon, which sells 15 percent of all games and toys in the nation: The 500-card game ($25) and two of its four 100-card expansion packs ($10 each) are currently among the site’s top five best-selling toys and game. At the moment, only Princess Elsa from Disney’s Frozen is challenging its dominance. Considering that the company oversees the manufacturing of a product with a unit cost that one estimate puts at less than $10, its founders are likely now millionaires.
To keep the game culturally relevant (even Miley Cyrus jokes have a shelf life), the eight self-described nerds who invented it—Temkin, Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, and Eliot Weinstein—convene every Monday night via Google Hangouts. The sessions allow the far-flung founders, who share an equal stake in the company, to hash out everything from production issues to creative partnerships. But more than anything, they serve as a way for the group to recapture the scatological silliness that spawned their jackpot idea back in the winter of 2008, when they were home from college on holiday break.
All of them say that the company is secondary to other pursuits, whether attending grad school (Dillon, Pinsof, Weinstein), touring with an interpretive dance company (Halpern), or opening a coffee shop in L.A. (Hantoot). Though no one works on the game full-time, everyone has a creative role. And that’s intentional.
“We have this informal rule that if we ever need to hire someone who doesn’t make anything, where their job is to manage people who make things, then we’ve gotten too big,” says Temkin, who has emerged as the spokesman and is one of five founders who still reside in Chicago. “We would rather shut the company down than bring in the grownups to tell us what to do.”
As I sat in on this virtual writing room in August, I could imagine these former social outcasts, all 2005 graduates of Highland Park High School, huddled in their parents’ basements, fingers caked with Cheetos dust, competing to crack each other up. During a whiplash-inducing 45-minute brainstorm, the group is intermittently laughing hysterically and struggling to stay awake.
“We could use some jokes about Buddha,” says Pinsof, not at all nerdy looking, sitting in his L.A. apartment.
“Some of these might be too meta to actually be funny,” adds Dillon, the project manager when he’s not studying astrophysics at MIT. His receding hairline gives him the appearance of the resident adult, and he plays the part by continually steering the meeting back on track.
“There’s clearly room for some space porn,” says Munk, whose taste in humor might be responsible for the game’s bawdier cards.
“There’s nothing terribly original about the game—it’s just a remix of a lot of stuff that’s existed in pop culture,” Temkin remarks later. “It always was this inside joke for ourselves. It’s constantly caught us by surprise that other people want to play it.”
When the eight friends brought copies of their creation back to their respective campuses—and eventually made it available to download for free—they discovered that thousands shared their twisted sense of humor. In 2010, the group turned to Kickstarter, the crowdsourced funding website, to transform the game into an actual product. By January 2011, they had raised $15,570, beating their fundraising goal by $11,000. (Other Chicago-based makers of tabletop games are all over Kickstarter; see “Big Ideas, below”) Cash in hand, they found a New Jersey playing card manufacturer willing to crank out 2,000 units in its production facility in China. (This year, Cards added domestic production in Dallas.)
Clueless that they needed a publisher and distributor to get their product into retail stores, the fledgling entrepreneurs then turned to Amazon, pricing the game as low as they could to qualify it for free shipping. It went on sale in May 2011. By July, the first run had sold out.
Black-market demand fueled even more word-of-mouth interest. During the 2012 holiday season, the game sold out again. This is the point in the story when a young startup, realizing it can’t keep up with production, sells its licensing rights to an established player. But Cards Against Humanity opted to stay independent—and therefore avoided having to pay a distributor the typical 20 to 50 percent markup. “By holding on to the manufacturing rights, they are making a lot more money per unit,” says Richard Gill, an industry consultant who shepherded Trivial Pursuit through its international rollout in the late 1980s.
Handling the manufacturing also gave the company freedom to pursue brazen marketing moves. In 2012, it experimented with pay-what-you-want pricing on its 30-card holiday-themed packs. Some 85,000 units sold, at an average price of $3.89 each, netting $70,000 in profit. The company donated the money to Wikipedia. In 2013, it skewered the Black Friday shopping madness by raising the price of the game by $5. “We thought, What’s something we can do that nobody else would do? Which is to say, we don’t care if you buy the game or not,” Temkin explains. Fans played along, and the company handily beat the previous year’s sales. All Temkin will say about this year’s holiday plan is that it involves “livestock dealers and a bunch of lawyers.”
“It’s a balancing act,” says Dillon about the company’s corporate persona. “We have this public voice that does good things and says vulgar things. We’re often mean to our customers in emails. We tell them to fuck-off. And a lot of people seem to like that. They find it refreshing.”
Rather than get sucked into the never-ending pursuit of profits, Cards Against Humanity claims to want to be judged by one thing: the quality of the game. But even if the company is dead set against selling out, its continued existence will, one assumes, require additional revenue streams. But whereas games like Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly could broker deals to release, say, a Star Wars–themed version to expand sales, the raunchy subject matter of this game makes those sorts of licensing deals all but impossible. “I don’t see them doing a kids’ version,” chuckles Gill, the game industry consultant.
Partnerships with more “mature” entertainment brands like Netflix, which in February released a House of Cards–themed pack, appear far more likely. As do international editions. A British version is available, and fans have already translated the game into 20 or so dialects, including Pirate-speak. Would the company ever venture into other product lines? “We’re not going to make Cards into something else,” says Temkin. “We’re not going to make T-shirts; we’re not going to make other games. If we ever do something like that, then that’s the death rattle.”
The company’s future might be tied less to new products than to last May’s launch of its own virtual storefront. Temkin says Cards already sells more games on its own than through Amazon, and the company has entertained the idea of opening this e-commerce infrastructure to other indie creators. It already supports fellow makers by hosting Tabletop Deathmatch, an online design contest in which inventors compete to receive a first-run printing of their own game, funded by Cards Against Humanity.
Although there hasn’t been any real competition thus far, there are plenty of imitators. Many exist because the game was created under a Creative Commons license, which means you can download it, print your own copies, and make custom versions for free—as long as you don’t try to sell it. Temkin estimates that the game has been downloaded “at least a couple million times.” The Cards guys don’t love the fact that a group of fans started selling an expansion pack under the moniker Crabs Adjust Humidity last year, but they haven’t threatened legal action either.
But more pressingly, if my mother-in-law is now playing the game with her bridge group, has it jumped the shark? At a local shop that buys the game on Amazon just to get it on the shelves, I see a sign next to the display for something called Word Whimsy: “Ask us why this is way better than Cards Against Humanity.” I take the bait, and the beefy guy behind the counter rails against the game’s repetitiveness. “The ‘Michelle Obama’s arms’ card was funny the first 10 times I saw it. It’s not funny anymore,” he says.
I ask if Word Whimsy sells more.
“Oh no, we sell much more Cards Against Humanity,” he says.
When that changes, Temkin and his buddies will be fine with it. “It’s a party game,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s not going to save the world.”
What will be the next local Kickstarter-launched megahit? These four campaigns for tabletop games—including a project from Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity—are only a few of the latest gunning for viral success.
Campaign Launched: August 18, 2014
Money Raised so far: $54,900
Inventors: Ben Beecher, Trevor Moorman, Justin Quick, Brad Sappington, Joe Sklover, Max Temkin, and Chris Weed
The game: A card-based game with a Wild West theme in which you try to decimate your opponents’ gangs. The first person to slap a weapon card when it is dealt may kill one member of another player’s gang—by pointing at the victim with fingers shaped like a gun. Expected ship date is April 2015.
Campaign Launched: July 18, 2014
Money Raised so far: $16,339
Inventors: Dave Mazurek and Tim Swindle
The game: In this card game, players combine stereotypical accents with outrageous phrases to create ridiculous sayings. Expected ship date is October 2014.
Dig Down Dwarf
Campaign Launched: April 8, 2014
Money Raised so far: $50,120
Inventor: Jason Glover
The game: A fast-paced dice game in which you, a dwarf, roll to get gems. The player who ends up with the most valuable set of gems wins—and becomes king.
Campaign Launched: June 9, 2013
Money Raised so far: $58,766
Inventors: Jameson Carbary, Noah Lane, Daniel Misura, Jack Nowakowski, and Matt Onica
The game: The rules of this card game—which also features staring contests and thumb wars—change as you play. First player to empty his or her hand wins.