Cards Against Humanity is first and foremost a ripoff of Apples to Apples. The rules are identical, only the cards are different. There’s no copyright on game mechanics, you see.
Apples to Apples is a family-friendly party game, published in 1999. It had a lot of staying power; I recall playing it in college about ten years later. My boyfriend and I have an old copy on our shelf, which proudly states, “Over three million games sold!” Going by their website, that number is now 15 million.
Cards Against Humanity was published in 2011. I don’t know how many copies it has sold, but it obviously became a bigger deal than Apples to Apples.
To be honest, I was never hot on Apples to Apples. It’s the lightest of light party games, a great board game for people who don’t really like board games. Nonetheless, I appreciate it’s clever design, and I’ll talk about how Cards Against Humanity used and abused that design.
(If you are already familiar with the rules of either game, you may skip this paragraph.) In Apples to Apples, each player has a hand of cards, and each card has a noun on it. The judge draws a new card with an adjective, and shows it to everyone. Each player picks a noun from their hand, puts it face down in the center. Then the judge looks at the nouns and picks their favorite to pair with the adjective. The person who played that noun claims victory. This whole process repeats, with players taking turns as the judge.
The rules of Apples to Apples solve a lot of problems with party games, particularly for people who are shy or easily embarrassed. For example, in charades, players have to act something out, and I’ve definitely seen people stall because they didn’t know what to do. In telephone pictionary, many people are embarrassed about their drawing ability. And let’s not even talk about icebreaker games.
In Apples to Apples, there’s no pressure to be creative or artistic, and nobody gets put on the spot (except perhaps the judge). You just pick a card in your hand. Easy, right? And if your choice is bad or uninspiring, nobody will know. After all, only one person is identified, and that’s the player who put down the best card. Furthermore, even if people discover which card you played, you can say that you picked it because all your cards are bad.
Nonetheless, if you want to be creative, Apples to Apples offers plenty of opportunity. In our box, there are 749 noun cards and 249 adjective cards. That’s a space of 749*249 pairings, there are things you can do with that. So basically, Apples to Apples is game about being creative, but which doesn’t punish people who can’t muster the creativity. The bad thing about party games is that you’re often coerced into playing by the momentum of your social group, so it’s nice to have a game that everyone will be comfortable with.
Now, I said that Cards Against Humanity is identical to Apples to Apples, only the cards are different. To give a sense of the flavor, I’ll draw some cards at random.
Apples to Apples adjectives: Honorable, Shy, Fragrant, Bright, Sensitive
Apples to Apples nouns: Giant Squid, Attack on Pearl Harbor, The 1980s, Pokémon, Al Pacino, Lucille Ball
Cards Against Humanity prompts: “As part of his contract, Prince won’t perform without [blank] in his dressing room.” “[blank]. That’s how I want to die.” “This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but with [blank].” “If you can’t handle [blank], you’d better stay away from [blank].” “MTV’s new reality show features eight washed-up celebrities living with [blank].”
Cards Against Humanity responses: “A beached whale.” “Self-flagellation.” “Some sort of Asian.” “Eating an entire snowman.” “The token minority.” “A 55-gallon drum of lube.”
The differences are quite obvious. Cards Against Humanity is more risque, including topics of sex, gender, and race. (You can certainly find Apples to Apples pairings that are risque, but they are not the norm.) Cards Against Humanity also has much longer text.
The design of Cards Against Humanity makes a lot of sense. It takes the rules of Apples to Apples, which are used to make people feel comfortable, and applies them to topics that people usually don’t feel comfortable with. It lets people feel rebellious while actually being relatively safe.
There is, of course, a question about whether this is morally right. If a game makes people feel more comfortable saying horrible things, is that really a good thing? Cards Against Humanity has been criticized for a number cards which were considered transphobic, ableist, racist, or dismissive of rape. Cards Against Humanity might make one person feel safer to joke about the “profoundly handicapped”, but another person might feel they are attacked with no opportunity for recourse, no opportunity to even say that anything had been done wrong. Remember, people are often coerced into playing party games, and they won’t necessarily say when they’re not enjoying themselves. Even if you enjoy the game, are you sure people around you enjoy it too?
Even accepting the premise of Cards Against Humanity, I have often been struck by how poorly designed it is, even for what it’s trying to do. I just don’t find the cards very funny, not after the first time seeing them. Since there are 90 prompts and 460 responses in the base set, you might think that there’s a space of 90*460 pairings to explore. But it’s really a lot less than that, because many of these cards are trying to be funny all by themselves, and what was that about pairings?
To give an example, there is a card that says “Pac-Man uncontrollably guzzling cum”. It probably isn’t funny the first time, and certainly isn’t funny the third or fourth time. Pairing this card with another rarely or never adds anything new to it, so the best you can do is find a way to laugh at the same joke repeatedly. There’s another one that says “Jerking off into a pool of children’s tears.” Same issue. And there are just cards and cards like this. The game hardly lets you be creative, because the game designers were too busy being creative for you. Even if you like Cards Against Humanity for what it is, its poor design makes it get old fast.
I agreed with the critical review of Cards Against Humanity on Shut Up and Sit Down:
Don’t get me wrong. The idea of someone arriving at their very first game night and assuming that the table gaming scene is this insensitive upsets me. But even worse is the thought that someone might sit down to play Cards Against Humanity, and assume the entire hobby is this boring.