Problems with Cards Against Humanity

Cards Against Humanity is possibly the most popular party game right now and for the past few years. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any aggregation of data readily available, but I really doubt anyone would doubt that it’s the most popular party game you can buy. Truth or Dare, Would You Rather, Never Have I Ever, and Beer Pong might give it some solid competition, but the first three don’t involve any materials, and the fourth is only a party game inasmuch as it’s usually played at parties. (Perhaps the genre party games is a broad category with two big subcategories: stuff like Cards Again Humanity and Would You Rather, and stuff like Beer Pong and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. The former is more about verbal interaction while the latter could be played silently for all it matters to the game. Robots could meaningfully play the latter category of games.)

Regardless, the game is popular. It’s also somewhat popular to hate, as a quick web search will show. I’m currently working on a new party game (somewhat similar to All Your Friends Are Assholes). To help design the game as well as possible, I’m going to be looking at the problems with some of the more popular games. As All Your Friends Are Assholes is most commonly compared with Cards Against Humanity, and the game is so popular in the first place, it seems like a good place to start.

I should note that this post is not to say Cards Against Humanity is on the whole a bad game. I think it has problems, sure. I think there are plenty of party games that are more fun. But it does some things very right, as will be evident in some future posts where I find flaws in other games. But for now I’ll point out that it’s massively popular for reasons. Apples to Apples was popular enough, but it was usually one party game among the others, on the high end of popularity, but not a genre-definer. People who had Apples to Apples usually knew about other party games. A lot of people who have or like Cards Against Humanity aren’t even aware that other games serve a similar social function. And when I bring out other games, the comparison is always with Cards Against Humanity. Perhaps this is a matter of accessibility. It’s not difficult at all to figure out how to play. Teaching others can be done in a round or two. The humor is not very complicated. People can enter late or leave early without really impacting the flow of the game. The materials consist of a deck of cards with incomplete phrases on them. The incomplete phrases are simple enough that it’s not as hard as games with directions all over a card to follow, but also detailed enough that it’s not the exercise in abstraction that Apples to Apples is. Now onto the problems. (And I will abbreviate Cards Against Humanity as CAH from here on out.)

The game doesn’t work well in small groups.

This isn’t, strictly speaking, a problem. Plenty of games require more than two or three people. However, there are a few reasons that make a two- or three-player CAH desirable. One is that often CAH is the only game in someone’s wheelhouse. Whether it’s the only physical game they own or Pretend You’re Xyzzy (PYX, the online clone of CAH) is the only online game readily at their hand, this means every game will require four or more people. For some people that’s very easy to find. For others it’s a rare occasion to have four people in one place who have the time and inclination to play a game. But, fine, do something else then. It is a casual game after all.

Another reason that isn’t based on the target audience so much is that the game itself doesn’t really have anything to what it is that demands a bigger group. (One might say here that it being a party game implies a party of people, but traditional party games like Truth or Dare (TOD), Would You Rather (WYR), and Never Have I Ever (NHIE) work fine as two-player games.) The game is about picking funny cards to fill in blanks. The part people really like, seeing the funny combinations, doesn’t itself demand the bigger group, so it not working for a smaller group is disappointing.

One more reason is because people move in and out of the game in many instances, there’s a risk of dipping to two people and abruptly ending the game. For CAH, this isn’t too bad as either a third person can be found, the two remaining can leave the faded game for the rest of the party, or the party is over anyway. For PYX, this mechanic just kills the game in progress. It’s obnoxious at best.

Now, none of these are that big of problems, though combined with the next there’s a bit more of a problem for CAH. Regardless, I’d like the new game under design (tentatively, Lying Assholes (LA)) to avoid this problem, so I have included it. This problem, as far as I can tell, lacks any sort of general solution. The game has to be built with this in mind.

The game doesn’t work well in large groups.

This problem is a bit more pernicious. Party games should plausibly work with a larger group of people. TOD, WYR, and NHIE all work fine with a larger group. The reason CAH fails is because the group falls apart. Conversations get going without any connection to the game and people have to be reminded to play a card, leading them to plopping down something quickly to resume their conversation. When the games without this problem get large, either the game itself gives someone serious engagement (like TOD having someone either giving or receiving a truth or dare) or keeps everyone involved at all times (like NHIE).

CAH, on the other hand, leaves plenty of space for someone in a large group to fall out of the game. The long gaps between being the czar keeps one from being actively engaged in full round very much. The large group makes the process of everyone selecting cards generally quite a bit longer as there’s more people to add lag. Then people get distracted, making the rounds take even longer to get to the judging, and the problem snowballs.

This problem is averted a bit in PYX since there’s a hard time limit. That creates a new problem of people being kicked, and the time limit actually being met encourages tabbing in and out, making the problem worse again.

Two solutions are evident, and this might be fixable for CAH. The first is to follow the lead of TOD or WYR. Only two people are needed at a time, but the engagement level is very high for them. Everyone else either enjoys looking on or else can disengage entirely until the game calls upon them. This avoids people dropping out of the game because of the annoyance of being only a little engaged in a game. There is no apparent way to incorporate this into CAH without radically changing the game, though this is the way I intend for LA to go.

The other option is to reduce the low-engagement time. CAH has two phases to each round; call them the picking phase and the judging phase. The picking phase is where the biggest root of this problem is found, and the solution could be to increase engagement. This can be done by having more black cards out at a time. It’s a bit more chaotic, but, say, assigning seven white cards to seven black cards and then having seven rounds of judging in a row keeps the game moving. If people are disengaging in the judging phase, one somewhat known house rule is to have the judging be done by voting rather than czars. This keeps people from slipping into very low engagement for rounds at a time.

There’s very little creativity involved.

The choices the players make include which of seven pre-written cards to play with another card to hopefully make a funny statement and choosing which of the combinations is best. Sure, a lack of creativity is not a fatal flaw, but most party games that work have some. Or, perhaps the more general problem is the real matter to discuss:

The players themselves are not very involved in the game.

Party games thrive on the involvement of the players. Games like TOD and NHIE are almost entirely player-created. There’s only the involvement of the players. But sometimes people have trouble coming up with ideas. Games like Pictionary and Taboo have scripts to help along with idea generation, but then player input is needed for the actual fun part of drawing pictures or trying to communicate a word without using certain other words. Even the Messenger game The Test does alright with this as even though it’s just a series of multiple-choice questions you answer about yourself and then guess the other player’s answers, the game involves the two players as people. There’s something to that.

CAH fails at this. Even a rather basic script could play CAH. With a group that knows each other well enough, sometimes you can start to get a grasp on people’s humors, but then usually the white cards fall into a limited number of categories. Save this card for the player who laughs at political jokes and this card for the one who always laughs at the racial epithets. (More on that in a moment.) PYZ offers a bit of a solution in the form of a ton of blank cards, though those usually end up saved as they are known to be very powerful. They may offer the best solution though: flood the white deck with blanks. Then you get the fun of seeing whatever everyone came up with rather than which batch of hands happened to be randomly generated at the given moment.

The humor is generally just shock value. And often pernicious.

CAH has acquired some media attention for the humor ranging from child-unfriendly to unabashed vitriol towards various marginalized groups. On the child-unfriendly side, whatever, it’s a game for adults. That Target once put it in the children’s games section on accident and some parents are too lazy to spend any time at all looking at what they’re about to purchase is hardly a fault in the game.

The other side is less clear. I don’t at all intend to say anything approaching that the game shouldn’t be allowed to include whatever toxic combinations of words it wants, but I do think it makes generally for a worse game, or at least a worse choice of activity. People defend the inclusion of the most offensive cards by pointing out that the game is designed as “A party game for horrible people”. There’s two ways to take the being “horrible”, and the people defending CAH are in error on either one. The first is the plain, horrible as unchoiceworthy use. If this is the use of “horrible” then it’s better to not be horrible than to be horrible. Playing CAH conditions the horribleness. By playing CAH, you will be worse because you’re training yourself to be worse. So the best move is to not play it.

The other use is horrible as in contrast to societal norms. Then being horrible can in many cases be quite good. However, to just be contrary for the sake of being contrary is simple and ill-advised. The creators of the game seem to have recognized this and are taking out the actually-pretty-bad cards while leaving in stuff like “A windmill full of corpses”. This has resulted in some backlash for some players. While taking the bad cards out was, on the whole, good, the backlash is not groundless. Unfortunately, the game’s fun comes almost entirely from the shock. By toning down the shock by not crossing some of the more sacred taboos, they’ve toned down the fun. If they toned it down all the way, they’d be Apples to Apples (AtA). Perhaps there’s still some room for some difference as CAH is more Mad Libs than the pure word association of AtA. Based on some trials of relatively tame PYZ decks, I imagine that could be pretty fun, and perhaps encourage more cleverness.


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