Knoxville, TN

Running a Board Gaming Event: Cards Against Humanity

August 11, 2019

Yes, a single game merits an entire post, because there’s a pretty good chance that this game will be your event’s problematic fave.

I’ll be honest, I liked Cards Against Humanity. Liked, past tense. When it first came out, all the expressions of bigotry and cruelty and general horribleness felt like “punching up”–making fun of people who actually believe and say all that stuff for reals.

I now believe that’s a rationalization, or at least it was on my part.

Let’s be honest: it can be funny to say inappropriate stuff simply because it’s taboo. And then, you have two options: (a) suppress that urge and don’t say it because it’s morally wrong, or (b) make up a reason as to why it’s actually morally good/neutral to say bad things. But I believe the more we give into the urge to choose (b)–whether for CAH or anything else–the more socially acceptable it becomes for people who really believe it to express it openly.

Sermon over.

So anyway, Cards Against Humanity will probably top your list of check-outs and it will spend the most time on the table, and if you do not like that you will be disappointed.

You will feel conflicted when young teenagers ask to borrow it. (I actually escalated the question to con ops the first time it happened, because I didn’t know if that was a liability for the con.) And yet, it will probably be young teenagers who most often ask for it by name.

You will have people walk in, ask “Do you have Cards Against Humanity?” If you say, “no, it’s checked out,” they will immediately turn around and leave, even if you offer similar suggestions.

If you love the breadth and depth board games have to offer, all of this may sting a little. Sometimes, you might even feel like it’s your calling in life to stand athwart Cards Against Humanity yelling “Stop!”

But it’s not all bad

So… maybe “Cards Against Humanity is a problematic game that creates and enables problematic people” isn’t the whole story.

Yes, people like CAH partly because it allows them to say horrible things without consequence, and that’s funny. But that’s not everyone’s #1 reason for playing.

For some people, it’s because CAH enables a type of play that you don’t find with a lot of more traditional board games:

  • You can learn the rules in minutes.
  • You don’t have to focus on the gameplay; it’s literally something that can go on in the background while you socialize.
  • You don’t have to be competitive; as long as everyone’s laughing, everyone’s winning.
  • There’s virtually no intimidation factor, because you can’t screw up the rules and you can win even if you’re new.

This is partly the name recognition effect: you know exactly what to expect with CAH. You don’t know what you’re getting with Channel A or Say Anything or Larceny or Fake News. Not really. The grognard who swears those games are just as fun and easy as CAH is likely not going to make it feel like a safe newbie choice. After all, have you seen the complex games they play?

And that’s unfortunate. There are a ton of really creative games that play like CAH. I’m thrilled when I get to introduce improv games like Channel A and Larceny to people looking for CAH, but it doesn’t happen often. And by all means, you should actively engage it. But more often than not, there’s a direct drop-off in interest when you’re not talking CAH.

What can you do?

For starters, I think it’s a completely valid decision not to carry Cards Against Humanity.

I’m currently struggling with this question. Part of me wants to destroy my copy now that Hamacon has ended and I don’t need it. But if I ever run analog gaming for a convention again, it completely changes the landscape of the room if there’s not a copy. Do congoers appreciate that refusal as a moral stand against bigotry? Or have I saddled the con with a reputation of being prudish?

Alternatively, you can remove the most offensive cards from the deck. For example, I wish I’d taken out some of the words from the Design Pack, which featured Carlin’s seven dirty words.

Finally, you can try to engage it head-on. For Hamacon, I used a print-on-demand service to create a custom version called “Cards Against HAMAnity.” This was over $50: $40 for two decks printed at The Game Crafter, and $10 for a long deck box from SuperiorPOD, not counting shipping.

We built a list of about 300 white cards and 80 pink cards (to match Hamacon’s pig mascot), referencing anime, pop culture, and con culture (including a few in-jokes), plus a couple of the milder cards from the original CAH.

Importantly, we kept everything PG or PG-13. I also made sure to couch potentially offensive cards in more neutral terms. For example, “A costume people suspect is just an excuse to walk around half-naked” would have been less wordy without the “people suspect” bit, but I didn’t want the cards to directly serve as a cudgel for anyone.

I’m not sure of the legality of selling such a thing (especially since it included a few reprints from the original), so I controlled access to the card designs. If you wanted to play, you could only do so at the convention.

Did it work? Well, sort of. Some people were excited at the idea of a convention-themed deck, and preferred it over the original CAH. But it was pretty obvious some people wanted the original, and realized that Hamanity just wasn’t as dirty.

Perhaps the “Someone who’s obviously too young to be playing Cards Against Humanity playing Cards Against Humanity” card made it too obvious?