08 May 2015

bandwagon jumping: thoughts on cards against humanity

Given the sheer number of shares I’ve seen relating to this, I’ve decided to break my writing drought chipping in my two cents about “Cards Against Humanity.” And at the same time boost for a game I feel is far superior, that doesn’t get enough love as far as I’m concerned. You may direct criticisms of my rantings to me in person through the creative application of pies and/or homemade soup. 

my favorite is Italian Wedding, btw

I first discovered Cards Against Humanity at ConnectiCon 2012, when I was drawn into a game with some friends and fellow geeks. We took over the Starbucks inside the convention hotle for about two hours, during which time I laughed at a lot of the cards, and began making up a fantasy list of my own, in the event I ever managed to score a set. Three years later, have a massive custom set of cards chock full of weird in-jokes (Baron von Schaftenrectum, The Floating Head of Henry Rollins), references to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (Getting Blasted In The Ass, Pretending to Have Cancer So A Girl Will Have Sex With You), political topics (Things Conservatives Want to Eliminate From the National Budget), and other, more strange collections of words, all run off at my local Staples and shared with anyone who requested a copy. 

At first I found the game to be a hilarious diversion, something suited well for downtime pickup games, or indulging the thoughts that always seem to lurk around the back of my mind. I didn’t know about where it had come from, only that somebody had finally decided to make the homebrew Apples to Apples Adult Edition, and promptly sold out of each and every printing. A true American success story if I’ve ever seen one: getting paid to be racist, sexist, homophobic, or just plain evil. (Well, mostly just plain evil.) This vision of the game was further validated in my eyes when a friend (and self-professed sociopath) decoded exactly how to win, just by observing who was in the group and making decisions based solely on the questioner’s sense of humor. Needless to say, said friend won straight away almost every hand.

The game barely had a year’s worth of active play for me in the end. Maybe it was the six hour long marathon at Otakon, or the 22 person game at Conbust where half the people didn’t get a turn, or me just finally having enough of the same bloated card combinations/attempts to gross everybody out, but by mid 2013 I had shelved my set for good and had moved on to other things. Call it a consequence of growing up, but I found the distinct lack of sarcastic/snippy/witty cards to be a game breaker, as well as the heavy reliance on gross-outs or inappropriate dialog. Nothing that hasn’t already been said in the lovely article going around right now. Or maybe I was just growing up, and my sense of humor changing based on repeated scrapings of the junk barrel. 

The problem I found mostly with CAH is much like has been previously said: its building blocks for tasteless humor that does little to elevate the gameplay or make light of really anything. It aims for the lowest common denominator, and players are either encouraged or more than willing to dive right in, either to indulge in the “-isms” with a “clear conscience” (because “its only a game”) or allow socially conscious facades a moment of release (for the same reason). As someone who doesn’t really feel the need to do either of those things, it was little wonder the game fell flat after a while. I can only see the same jokes on repeat for so long, and even when my 200 card custom set was all I used, I eventually gave up adding to it, because the effort involved in thinking up witty commentary was no longer worth the invested time. 

Fortunately there is an alternative. See, right as CAH was wearing thin for me, my friend Doug introduced me to Channel A, possibly the best title ever to come out of Asmadi Games. Like Apples to Apples, it encourages creativity. Like CAH, he provides parameters. But where the game truly shines is that it forces the player to rely on puns, ridiculous names, and a keen understanding of the fine art of BS. 

For those who have never heard of this gem, the premise is nearly identical to CAH: one player plays the “producer” each round and selects two cards from a pool of genres. The players each take turns pitching new anime series to the producer by creating series titles from a hand of cards containing the sort of words one would find in any anime season. Once the series title is in place, its up to the player to pitch the show in a clear, concise method, highlighting how it relates to the genre premise. In the end, the producer selects the one he likes best, and the round concludes. 

What makes Channel A so enjoyable is that it encourages all the things CAH claims to, but adds a healthy dose of creativity to the mix. Players don’t try to appeal to crude humor, they instead aspire to wit and enthusiasm. Case in point: during one game session at ConnectiCon 2013, my friend Jed was tasked with creating a show based around the topic “Versailles Wrestling.” His creation, Fraulein Muscle Detective Story, wove a complicated metaplot about the best female wrestler in Germany hiding out from assassins in the French court of Louis XIV, solving crimes while horribly dressed as a man. Everyone at the table knew that was the winner from the moment he opened his mouth, because come on. That’s not just creative- its hilarious, just like any irreverent 90s anime series. 

(Of course there are moments when this backfires completely, as during that same session, the indomitable Ink got a hand full of suffix cards, and had to pitch “Gear-tan” to an impossible topic. I think he won anyway, just for trying.) 

I like to claim that Channel A is what people need to move on to when they finally tire of CAH, and they should. It’s a great outlet for creatives, can provide actual fodder for art endeavors, and rewards wit and the ability to sell more than nonsense combinations. It also rewards quick thinking when nonsense combinations show up, because anyone can successfully spin a bland title into something great with a moderate effort, or solid showmanship skills. 

worked for this guy...

Channel A is (thankfully) available on Amazon. It wasn’t when I got into it, which required tracking down Foam Brain Games and hoping they had a set. I’ve been seeing it pop up more and more at conventions these days, which I hope indicates a bright future for the game. Because how many other titles allow you to come up with something called “120% Plastic Man,” a show about a reincarnated android Billy Mays fighting crime with a giant bottle of Oxy Clean and a massive Hercules Hook. 

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