The Secret Sauce Behind Hit Party Game ‘Cards Against Humanity’

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Poking fun at capitalism proves lucrative.

On Black Friday in 2013, when every business in the US was offering big discounts, one company went the other way – they charged their customers more. For one day only, fans of Cards Against Humanity could buy the game, usually US$25, for the special price of US$30.

The ‘buy’ button was replaced with one that said ‘consume!’ And people did – the game enjoyed a spike in sales, which went up again the following day when the price came back down.

For Black Friday the following year, everything in their online store was removed and replaced with a US$6 box of ‘bullshit’. The internet was abuzz – what could be in the box? It was literally cow dung. They shipped 30,000 boxes of it before the sale ended.

The unusual exploits didn’t end there. In 2015, the company invited customers to pay them US$5 for nothing in return. A total of 12,447 customers forked out US$71,145 on the hot deal – some giving more than the US$5. After Black Friday was over, the money was divvied up between the company’s employees, who were asked to report back on how they chose to spend it.

Then, on Black Friday 2016, Cards Against Humanity asked people to throw their money into a (virtual) hole. They live-streamed an excavator digging a hole for absolutely no reason, with a donation ticker in the corner of the screen. It would keep digging as long as the donations kept paying for it.

The hole was dug for 52 hours, raising US$100,573. Later in the week, the hole-to-nowhere was filled back up.

Yet, these bizarre business strategies seem to work for the creators of the ‘party game for horrible people’, which became a global talking point and a viral sensation upon its release. Cards Against Humanity is probably the only company on the planet that can not only get away with making fun of rampant, pointless consumerism, but also profit from it. What else can you do when you accidentally make millions of dollars from a bunch of fart jokes in a box?

In case you haven’t heard of the game (where have you been?), it’s simple. Players take turns reading a question from the black card deck. The others then each play their best responses from a hand of white answer cards, and the questioner, or ‘Card Czar’, selects a winner.

Sample questions include, ‘What are my parents hiding from me?’ and, ‘War! What is it good for?’ Sample answers: ‘Cheating in the Special Olympics’, ‘Passive-aggressive Post-it notes’, ‘Bees?’ and ‘William Shatner’.

The game usually results in absurdity and hilarity, and a niggling feeling of ‘you can’t say that!’ wrongness. Political correctness has no place here.

Founded by eight guys from Chicago, who have known each other since high school (some earlier), Cards Against Humanity is the runaway hit that every entrepreneur dreams of. But the creators – Max Temkin, Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof and Eliot Weinstein – didn’t have commerce in mind when they invented the game. They just thought it would be fun to play at college parties. Friends started asking for copies, then, as the game began acquiring a cult following, they decided to release it as a free online download. Thousands of downloads later, they set up a Kickstarter to release it as a physical product. The campaign reached its US$4000 goal in two weeks, and ended on January 30, 2011 with US$15,570.

So, at what point did this rag-tag bunch of nerds with a penchant for poop jokes realise this was a real, live business?

“I think that point probably hit people at different times,” says Dan. “For me, when it started to get big, I was living in Hawaii and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. So I was optimistic early on. But Eli had a full-time job at the time. I think he was like, ‘Is this really going to be anything?’”

“My mom was like, ‘Do not quit your job,’” Eli adds.

Eli’s mother might have warned him not to resign, but she needn’t have worried. While the company have not released any official sales figures, an article by Inc., published in 2014, estimated they had sold half a million decks, and made US$12 million; they quickly became the number-one-selling card game on Amazon.

The original eight still hold equal footing at the head of the company – another factor that would probably sink any other business – and decisions are made democratically.

“We always shoot for unanimous, and if we don’t have it, we’re going to spend a long time arguing,” says Dan.

Having such a big team initially helped smooth over the process of scaling the business so rapidly. “We were all just out of college, we didn’t know anything,” he says. “It was nice to have so many people, because there were so many different wheels to reinvent.”

These days they have a couple of dozen employees, as well as contractors working under them, including a writers room made up of improv comedians. This has brought a lot more diversity to the team – an important shift after some early cards caused offence.

Another big shift has been in the type of content they do, which has become more political – especially since the 2016 American election. In the lead-up, they released Vote for Trump and Vote for Hillary expansion packs, with the caveat that all proceeds would go towards the Clinton campaign.

Last year’s holiday promotion centred around a patch of land that they bought on the US-Mexico border, in an effort to put an extra obstacle in the way of Trump’s attempt to build a wall.

“Prior to Trump our stunts weren’t all that political,” says Dan. “We supported charities that spoke to our values. But I think Trump has definitely made us feel like this guy needs some tearing down.”

Ultimately, though, it’s really all about keeping one big ongoing joke alive and playing the hand they’ve been dealt.

“The way we’ve always been is very existential, self-referential, like, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing? We have all these employees, we have this company and people know our name,’” says Eli. “It becomes a theatre of clownishness, trying to expose something absurd by being absurd.”

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