Cards Against Humanity


Cards Against Humanity (2009) (NSFW)

Warning – this review is Not Safe for Work. It’s Not Safe for Children. This review may contain potassium benzoate. This review does not affect your statutory rights.

You can find our equally NSFW accessibility teardown here.

CAH box

There are demons in this box

Cards Against Humanity is straight up a bad game. Not just in terms of its actual mechanics, but also in terms of the fact it is absolutely full of the most horrible, terrible content that twisted minds could dream up. It also happens to be one of my favourite things in gaming. I love Cards Against Humanity (CAH) so much I wrote my own version for my Other Project. In that game, the interactivity of the setting allowed for me to make it far more personal and cruel. An evening of CAH with the right people (or perhaps that should be the wrong people) can be genuinely hilarious. That said, it might be a little surprising to see the two and a half star rating we’ve given it. There’s a reason for that – keep going!

Cards Against Humanity is an incredibly simple game. At the start of play, each person gets dealt a hand of ten white answer cards from this overwhelmingly massive deck:

CAH deck

You’re gonna need a bigger box

Yeah, that’s how many cards are in the base game. There are far, far too many cards.

CAH decks again

I call this Card Henge

A player is picked as ‘Card Tsar’ each round, and they are the ones responsible for playing one of the ominous black question cards. Everyone else picks the answer card from their hand that they think best matches the question and plays it face down. These are shuffled, and then revealed – the Card Tsar reads these out in turn, fitting the answer that was played into any blank spaces on the question card.

The Card Tsar then picks the answer that they think is best by whatever judging criteria they choose to use. Funniest, most apt, cleverest, most shocking – it doesn’t really matter. The player that played that card gets a point. Play continues until enough people get bored enough to call it a night. Some question cards have extra instructions, such as ‘draw two and pick three’, which means that you draw two cards and then play three. Just what it says, in other words. Otherwise, you recharge your hand based on the number of cards you just played after the round has ended.

There are variations provided in the instructions as a set of ‘house rules’ that change it around a little, but that’s the basic core of the thing. A game of Cards Against Humanity is a merry-go-round of awfulness, made more awful as time goes by as a result of the natural human inclination to try and actually ‘win’ the game. It lends itself well to escalations of horror and upset. But there are no winners in CAH. There are only losers.

It probably doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and it certainly doesn’t sound like it’s as awful as I’m saying it is. But that’s because we haven’t yet gotten to what’s on these cards. The cards you see are loaded up with dark, horrible abominations, and you have to take the responsibility for playing them.

The questions, for the most part, are innocuous enough. They’re things like:

‘Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s <blank>’

Or

‘Instead of coal, Father Christmas now gives the bad children <blank>’

Or

‘In Wormwood Scrubs, word is you can trade 200 cigarettes for <blank>’.

That’s all reasonably safe and sound. You could play all of those in mixed company with elderly relatives. But then we get to the answer cards. There are less appropriate for children and small animals. I’ve just removed a small pile of them from the box, and I’ll type them in full, without alteration of order:

  • Genuine human connection
  • Funky fresh rhymes
  • Natural male enhancement

Okay so far.

  • Cottaging
  • Doing the right thing
  • The glass ceiling

Hang on. Cottaging?

  • Puberty
  • Used knickers
  • Slapping a biscuit out of an orphan’s mouth
  • A cooler full of organs

Wait, I…

  • A bit of slap and tickle
  • Shitting out a perfect Cumberland sausage
  • Three dicks at the same time
  • Child abuse
  • Surprise sex!
  • Dick fingers
  • William Shatner
  • Soup that is too hot
  • Seeing Granny naked
  • Having anuses for eyes

I think we’ll stop there. It goes on and on and on – you saw how many cards there were.

Your hand in Cards Against Humanity will tend to consist of roughly equal parts arch-sarcasm, innocent remark, and raw horror. Questions that come will give you an opportunity to demonstrate your fundamental lack of human decency by trying to make a funny connection within the constraints of your hand. Sometimes, what you end up with is wickedly funny. Sometimes it’s actually profound. Sometimes, if the stars align, it might actually be genuinely clever. At its best, Cards Against Humanity is an exercise in collaboratively engaging in a ritualistic exorcism of cultural taboos. At its best.

But, to get the best out of it you need to meet a list of social pre-requisites longer than a horse’s cock. This isn’t agame you can break out on a whim – this is a game that requires you to be mindful of the group makeup before you even consider it. That’s true of most games, but for the majority of titles what you’re looking to do is find an intersection of game preferences. With CAH, you have a more complex job of finding a social context in which the game can thrive, and which nobody feels upset, agitated or uncomfortable.

You cannot play this game with anyone that believes there are topics that are ‘off limit’ for humour. Anyone that has a set of things they do not joke about, for whatever reason, will not find this game at all appealing – I guarantee you, that topic is in the answer deck somewhere. Obviously, it’s not a game you’d want to play with anyone that has suffered serious emotional trauma in their lives, because the cause of that is going to come up. The entire box of Cards Against Humanity is its own massive trigger warning.

I also submit that you want to play this game in a very particular context of people – you don’t want to give outlets for people to express their own hidden prejudices. A game like this makes light of the actual shock and repulsion most people feel for things like rape, misogyny, child abuse, and racism. In exploring these topics within a playful setting, it validates in the minds of certain kinds of people that this stuff isn’t so bad, really. More than that, it gives a shield of ambiguity for the expressing horrible views that can allow then to be validated, rather than denigrated. What can be more empowering for a genuine racist for example than to be able to make a joke about black people living on benefits and have everyone at the table laugh? What’s more enabling for a rapist than to joke about sexual assault and have people give them a high five? Your mad racist aunt will be thrilled that she can finally put forth her thesis about how the muslims are raping children and get a glow of warm approval. There are demons in this box, and they need to be safely contained.

'They control the media you know' WE KNOW, AUNTIE.

‘They control the media you know’
WE KNOW, AUNTIE.

What you need then is a group of people that understands the importance of the magic circle – that the normal rules of social engagement are temporarily suspended within the context of the game. You need a group of people that understand the rule is to play something that will shock and amuse people, not to play something truthful, or that they secretly believe. You need people that understand laughter is contingent on the game, and it does not carry outside of the circle. You need to be in a group of people that are willing to accept that ‘funny excuses everything’, and that it’s a binding contract that it must be funny, not merely offensive.

Funny CAH hand

It’s okay, this one is funny. You can trust me.

So, that’s the first issue – man, you need to be careful with whom you play it.

The second issue is that it’s not actually a very good game. It enables some very funny interactions, but as I said in the Under the Boardwalk review – you can get all of those interactions while also playing a *good* game. I enjoy the time I spend playing Cards Against Humanity with people, but I suspect I’d have exactly the same amount of fun if we just sat around telling each other dreadfully offensive jokes. In fact, I know that’s true because that’s a thing I’ve done often enough to be sure.

Let’s talk about why it’s not a great game. The first thing is it is so driven by novelty that once you’ve played it a few times you’ve already seen all the moving parts. There are a huge number of cards, but the game requires a minimum of three people (and ideally, a lot more) to get going and everyone is going to be working through those cards very quickly. Unlike Dixit, there isn’t a wealth of meaning and symbolism to draw on to give the cards freshness in new contexts. It’s just raw text, and often not very deep text. You’re going to need expansion packs before too long, and that makes the already overwhelmingly large deck of cards even more unwieldly.

The second thing is that the card design seems to have been driven from the top down. My suspicion is that answers are written for specific questions, rather than with the expectation they will be generally funny in multiple contexts. You spend a lot of your play ‘saving’ good cards for when the ‘good question’ comes up, and that’s very limiting. Similarly, many of the cards just seem to be written for inherent shock and comedy value rather than for their role in offering expressive play. Some too are just ludicrously dated by the time they make their way into a pack, utilising tired memes and obscure Internet trivia to supplement their meagre meaning. Unless everyone at the table gets the reference, you’re screwed. To be fair, there are optional house rules that let people discard the cards with text they don’t understand, but they shouldn’t really be needed – they’re required though because so much of the deck is desperately faddish. The result is that even though that deck is huge, it’s stuffed to the gunnels with unenticing filler.

Jimmy Savile card

Jimmy Savile fits in everywhere. So to speak.

As time goes by, your hand tends to accumulate these crud cards. Again, there’s a house-rule that lets you trade in your hand at any time in exchange for one of your points, but it’s a band-aid on a deeper, structural problem.

Taking a card at random, I grabbed ‘Walking in on Dad peeing into Mom’s mouth’ from the deck. That’s a card that’s going to elicit a response when it’s played to almost every question, even if the response is ‘ew’. You might manage to play it creatively in one of the more open ended question cards (such as <blank> + <blank> = <blank>), but it’s very situational. Other cards are just almost unbearably weak. If you can make me laugh, in any context, with ‘One thousand Slim Jims’ I’ll eat this box of cards right now. I don’t even know what a Slim Jim is.

Ironically, the game is much stronger when it’s dealing with large, abstract concepts rather than minutely described perversions. The card ‘Suicidal thoughts’ or ‘Daddy Issues’ are more likely to lend themselves to play than ‘deflowering the princess’ or ‘chunks of dead Hitchhiker’. ‘Moral ambiguity’ is a card that can be brutally funny *and* witty in the right question, but ‘being a dinosaur’ is just a bit dull. ‘The true meaning of Christmas’ has a lot of meat to it, but ‘Centaurs’ doesn’t. A lot of the time, rounds end up being full of completely disconnected answers as people try to discreetly dump their boring cards in the hope of drawing better ones. Don’t get me wrong, when there is a good conjunction of question and answer the results can be glorious. I managed to play this once and I’m still unspeakably proud about it:

a genius haiku

I am still very proud of this

Often, the funniest plays are the most understated. This little masterpiece is from Mrs. Meeple Like Us, and it shows how a little smut can go a long way:

lent in cah

That was a great Lent. Or a terrible Lent. It depends on which way you read it.

That would not be nearly as funny if it were more explicit – it’s amusing because of the clever wordplay on ‘giving up’, a more offensive card would have just killed the joke.

Strong cards lend themselves to multiple questions, but the majority of cards don’t lend themselves especially well to *any* question except as a way of getting people to react to the shock of the text itself.

It’s not all randomness and waiting though – a big part of CAH is being able to read the Card Tsar, and working out what they find funny. If you play to their preferences, you can start accumulating points from even relatively weak hands. There’s not a lot of strategic play, but there is a lot of intricate social play. Jokes may be hit or miss for the group as a whole – your main job is trying to make sure they’re a hit with the Tsar.

At a certain point though you become numb to even the random shock value of cards such as ‘Andre the Giant’s enormous, leathery scrotum’ and it all devolves into more or less polite smiling. Cards Against Humanity, in my experience, always ends with a whimper rather than a bang. It leaves you at the end wanting less, but you only realise that once you’ve passed the tipping point. It’s rare that someone says ‘That was fun, let’s do it again’ at the end – after a while, they’ll likely be keen enough to play once more, but the entire core of the game is an exercise in prolonged desensitisation. It takes time to wear off.

I said earlier though that CAH is one of my favourite games, and that remains true – but it’s one of my favourites because of the people around me, not because of the game itself. I’d certainly recommend it as an experience to shake up an otherwise undistinguished evening amongst a group of friends. I wouldn’t hold it up as a game to be envied or emulated. Make of that what you will, motherfuckers. I’m off to take a piss in your dead niece’s mouth

 


If you like what we're doing with Meeple Like Us, please consider liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, and sharing our content. Drop us a comment too in the discussion section below! We appreciate every thing you do to help us get the word out!