Cards Against Humanity

Cards Against Humanity: How the Game for Horrible People Reinvented Gameplay

Today, creators of the ‘game for horrible people,’ Max Temkin, Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, and Eliot Weinstein, eight Highland Park High School alumni, are millionaires. But, in 2010, they were twenty-somethings with a devious idea.

While the eight friends were back home on winter break in 2009, they made up their own card and board games. As introverts, the group found “actual, regular socialization terrifying to us. So we came up with this game.”

Inspired by the German word “schadenfreude,” which means “deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune,” they created a card game that asked ridiculous hypothetical questions.

The group crafted a few hundred absurd questions,  prompts, and responses in a Mead notebook. Then, they typed these up in Word and shared the game with their college friends.

Co-founder Temkin said, “We each had the experience that once someone played, they'd want their own copy…And once you started playing, an hour later, there'd be 30 people in your dorm room.” That spring, the group set up a website and created a logo.

Profits weren’t the group’s original goal. Temkin said, “Our main priority is to be funny--and to have people like us.” They set up a free-to-play online version of the game.

The group heard about Kickstarter, and Temkin told them, “If we ever want to get these out as more than just a free PDF, this is the way to go.

On December 1st, 2010, the ten friends launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $4,000.  By January 30th, 2011, they’d raised over $15,000 toward their goal.

The Kickstarter campaign provided urgency and fueled the team’s success. The group knew “that we'd be relying on earned media to get the word out about our game, which meant we needed to have a compelling story...Project creators on Kickstarter are underdogs who are trying to make their own thing against all odds while the clock ticks down. That's a great story.”

Development wasn’t easy for the group. At the time, all eight worked full-time jobs. Co-founder Hanoot said, “If at that point we had known more about how the industry worked, I think we would have looked at it and thought, 'Well, we'll just leave it free online as a PDF.’”

Nevertheless, they printed 2,000 boxes of their game and launched sales in May of that year.

Only a month later, Cards Against Humanity was the number-one card game on Amazon. When speaking of their early success, Temkin says, “We got lucky because we didn't even know enough to be daunted at that point.”

Quickly, the group recognized that the home-grown fulfillment process wasn’t sustainable. They “didn't want to sell the game or make a deal with a licensor or distributor,” so they used Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA). They said, “at our $25 MSRP [manufacturer’s suggested retail price], they would pay for all of the shipping.” Amazon handled customer service issues, allowing all eight to continue working full-time.

The game’s marketing strategy has always been unconventional, but it’s their key to relevancy and sales. Cards Against Humanity uses an anti-marketing strategy as sarcastic and random as its cards.

The group’s anti-marketing marketing strategy came to a head on Black Friday in 2015. The group added “Give $5 to Cards Against Humanity” to their website and offered nothing in return. The move generated between $54,000 and $71,000.

The group rejects traditional retailers, instead choosing those that align with their brand. Temkin says, “We think people who shop in American Apparel or Urban Outfitters would certainly be interested in buying it, but we don't want to have that cheapen our brand.”

Today, Cards Against Humanity is valued at $500 million. While their financial data remains private, it’s estimated the firm does between $40 and $50 million in revenue annually.

The company’s sardonic cards reflect in their abrasive, bare-bones marketing strategy. The founders said, “We see the most desirable thing as our coolness and our underground nature…” If the firm gave up its anti-marketing strategy, “that will no longer be the case.”

The firm invests heavily in its product and in giving back. It has donated to Wikimedia, among other organizations, and started a $500,000 scholarship for women pursuing STEM degrees.

Here’s what we can learn from Cards Against Humanity about branding, iterative development, and creativity.


Employ a marketing strategy that reflects the nature of your product. “We just do it because it's funny,” Max Temkin, one of Card’s Against Humanity’s founders, says. The Game for Horrible People is designed sardonically and cynically. Their marketing strategy is much the same, creating urgency and consistency. Co-founder Hanoot says, “We're not comedians. We're just a bunch of friends.” Their product’s sarcastic and witty design mirrors the company’s marketing strategy. In 2016, the firm famously garnered $100,000 to dig a hole in the ground. They used the money raised to pay for a crew and machinery, livestreaming the dig. Their seemingly random approach is attention-grabbing, just like the game. Temkin says, “At some level, it's such a stupid product!” Nevertheless, their brand persona matches it exactly. When they released the weed pack expansion, their marketing encouraged customers not to buy it, writing on their website, “We were high when we wrote it, and honestly, it’s not that good. Maybe skip this one.” The pack’s sales skyrocketed, sarcasm and all. The firm’s marketing starts with the product. Temkin says, “Those cards are where we got it right from the start.”

Create a consistent company voice across channels. Temkin says, “The voice of the game has not changed.” Cards Against Humanity creates a unique and consistent brand voice across channels that garners interest in their product. Initially, they addressed their email list, “Dear Horrible Friends.” Since then, the firm has cultivated a unique communication method, giving customers the illusion of complete (and sardonic) unification. Jenn Bane, Cards Against Humanity’s Director of Community, says, “When we bring a new customer service person onto the team, we hold a few writing workshops. We show some old emails and how we answered them or how we could have answered them better or sharpened up a joke. So we're not only teaching new folks how our systems and customer service policies work, but we're also teaching them how to write in voice.” The firm’s rigorous training process unifies communications, boosting sales. Cards Against Humanity’s sarcastic, cynical voice is “the lifeblood of [Cards Against Humanity],” according to co-founder Temkin.

Use an interactive development process filled with feedback opportunities. Cards Against Humanity was founded on the back of UX and feedback. When the co-founders were brainstorming, they collected feedback from their college friends, understanding that these were their customer base. After brainstorming, the firm made the game available for free online. Temkin says, “Nobody had ever heard of us, so making the entire game available for free was a great marketing tool. Even if someone downloaded the game instead of pledging to our project, they would play with some friends who might pledge.” Beyond a marketing tool, players were prompted to review the product. After this, “we made a list of every prominent and semi-prominent gaming blog we could find, and we sent the authors a personal email asking them to consider reviewing it. When the reviews came in, we added them to our project description and they helped lend us some legitimacy.” Co-founders incorporated feedback into the game and cards to improve product design. Over the years, Cards Against Humanity continuously collects customer feedback from its website, asking customers to submit “Your dumb questions.” Based on this feedback, they release expansions catering to comments. This makes customers feel seen, heard and understood. It also contributes to Cards Against Humanity’s collectivist appeal—after all, it’s a game played with friends. While speaking on feedback and UX, Temkin says, “Be as audacious as possible and make it as excellent as possible. Make it the best possible version it can be.…People want you to succeed, they'll believe in your belief.”

Shift your product to remain culturally relevant. Because of its commitment to customer feedback, Cards Against Humanity frequently and quickly pivots approaches, contributing to its relevance. Recently, the original founders recognized their waning relevance and reinvested profits into hiring professional comedians to help consult on their cards. Temkin says, “They come up with card ideas that we would never have thought of in a million years.” The firm incorporates memes, jokes, criticisms, and pop culture into its product and marketing. For example, in 2017, they released a pink ‘For Her’ pack that was $5 more expensive than their regular releases to make fun of the pink tax. Relevance is currency. Founders say, “It's all part of the experience of having a good time when you open the box and play it.”

Employ a structured creative process to stand out against the competition. Cards Against Humanity pushes cultural boundaries, hence its title, “The Game for Horrible People.” To stay creative and relevant, the original founders hold a weekly creative meeting with each other. “Someone is designated the card czar, and they pick cards that they personally like from the hopper and pitch them to the group.” This process “is all done without any names associated; it's all anonymous, so we don't know which one of the eight of us suggested the cards.” They organize cards on spreadsheets, an unconventional yet straightforward system. Creativity is crucial in stifling competition. Without it, product offerings seem stale and ingenuine. Cards Against Humanity’s creative approach allows founders to take risks protected by anonymity and ensures the team focuses on what it does best—humorous, creative comedy. It also allows their customers to partake in their bestselling cards.



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