Case Study: Cards Against Humanity
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On December 1, 2010, Max Temkin and seven friends launched a Kickstarter project to print a card game they’d been working on for years. Their goal? $4,000 in two months. “Cards Against Humanity is a free party game for horrible people,” they wrote in the project description—
Unlike most of the party games you've played before, Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.
The game is simple. Each round, one player asks a question from a Black Card, and everyone else answers with their funniest White Card. […]
We first created Cards Against Humanity for a New Years party with a huge group of awkward friends. The game was a big hit, and we've been working on it ever since.
We offer Cards Against Humanity as a free print-at-home project on our website, http://www.CardsAgainstHumanity.com, where it has been downloaded and enjoyed thousands of times.
Now, we're excited to sell Cards Against Humanity as it was always meant to be played - as a high-quality, professionally-produced, boxed product.
Would they be able to pull it off?
The Early Years
Max Temkin and Eliot Weinstein met on the playground in first grade. They would make up “elaborate fantasy adventures and space adventures and things like that,” according to Max. In particular, he remembers being “really into Power Rangers.”
Through elementary school, middle school, and high school, Max and Eliot stuck together and slowly built a tight-knit group of likeminded friends. By the end of high school, the group’s composition had crystallized: its members were Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, Max Temkin, and Eliot Weinstein.
When the friends all graduated from Highland Park High School on the north shore of Chicago in 2005, they scattered to different colleges. They intended to stay connected, but they “just weren't good at staying in touch,” according to Max. “I think it's maybe just, none of us really have good people skills at all.”
"New Year’s Eve for Misfits”
But during every school break, whenever they all found themselves back in Chicago, the eight friends would get together. They’d gather to play Pictionary and improv games and argue about movies, rotating their get-togethers among their parents’ houses. Holiday breaks became windows of opportunity for celebrating their shared interests; in an interview with the A.V. Club, Max would later recollect that “We had these misfits New Year’s parties where we’d invite people over just to hang out, and over the years, those parties became bigger and bigger.”
In 2008, close to the end of December, the friends started planning for their biggest party yet. With the year rapidly winding down and a party impending, they needed to figure out how to entertain a large group of people at once. As Max later reflected, “It was increasingly hard to find activities for 30 or 40 people, and we needed structured things like games, because actual, regular socialization is terrifying to us. So we came up with this game.”
The game itself was simple: answering hypothetical questions in the worst, most hilarious way. The eight friends drafted a few hundred objectionable questions and fill-in-the-blank prompts in a Mead composition notebook. Then, they typed them up into a Word document and printed them out on recycled paper—green for the questions, red for the responses.
December 31st rolled around and the friends gathered in Max’s parents’ basement. According to Max and Josh Dillon, most of the cards in play that day wouldn’t meet their quality bar today; the bulk of the original cards have since been retired. But the concept was a hit—Max remembers that it was “enough fun that the next morning we wanted to work on it more.” They’d tried out new game ideas on friends in the past, and none had stuck. But “this one made enough of an impression that it was like, okay, that was pretty funny. We should probably pursue this.” At the time, the game’s working title was “Cardenfreude.”
When the friends returned to school for the spring semester, they brought the game back with them. Soon, a funny thing happened: their friends at college started asking how they could get their hands on a copy.
From Word to InDesign
A few months into 2009, spring break rolled around, and the friends decided they needed to figure out a response to all the people clamoring for a copy of the game. Max and Ben Hantoot hunkered down over a computer and busted out InDesign, with an eye to designing a set of PDFs they could share out with friends at their respective colleges. By the end of spring break, the two self-taught designers managed to throw together a website and post PDFs of the cards, free for download.
Near the download button, Max and Ben added a field where anyone could enter their email address to express interest in a professionally-printed version of the game. In the next year and a half, over 1600 people entered their names into that field.
The group of friends kept improving the game every chance they got. They collected feedback from their respective college friend groups, and they got more and more methodical about brainstorming questions and answers.
In the meantime, an idea started brewing. Kickstarter launched in April 2009. That autumn, Scott Thomas—design director of the 2008 Obama campaign—launched a project to publish a book on the campaign's design. It caught Max’s attention:
When [Scott] did a Kickstarter, that was how I learned about Kickstarter, and I was just so blown away. First of all, by how successful the book was. And I immediately knew the potential of Kickstarter—I just got it, seeing his book done that way.
Scott chose some fancy Japanese silk cloth for the outside of the book, and I totally got it. I was like, "oh, this is why you do this, so that you can have it exactly how you want, and there's no publisher who's going to be like, let's use the cheaper fabric.”
And I went to his office to pick up my copy of Designing Obama, and there he was, putting stuff in boxes, and I was like: that's what I want to do.
In the spring of 2010, Max experimented with launching a small-scale Kickstarter project for another game he’d designed, called Humans vs. Zombies. In hindsight, he would later call this a “bad” project—“we just had no sense that we were over our heads”—yet it still managed to surpass its $2,000 goal by $275. Even that scale of success gave him a sense for how best to use Kickstarter, and convinced him that it was a tool worth exploring further.
Later that year, Max brought up the idea of Kickstarter with the group. “If we ever want to get these out as more than just a free PDF, this is the way to go,” Josh remembers him saying. After reaching consensus as a group, they agreed to make a go of it on Kickstarter.
In part because of his background in politics (Max worked on the 2008 Obama campaign) and in part because of his experience with Kickstarter, the group agreed that Max would serve as the primary point of contact for the Kickstarter campaign going forward.
On December 1, 2010, Max pushed the Cards Against Humanity Kickstarter project live.
Five days into the campaign, on December 6, the group decided it was time to tap into the database of 1,632 people who had submitted their email addresses on the website to express interest in buying a professionally-printed copy of the game. Max composed a message to send out to that list:
Dear horrible friends,
We're emailing you to let you know that after months of work, Cards Against Humanity is available for pre-order for $15 through our partner Kickstarter. You were the first to show support for our game on our website, and we hope you're still interested.
Pre-order your copy of Cards Against Humanity at http://kck.st/fV9Fpp.
We've spent the last few months dramatically fine-tuning the deck and adding dozens of hilarious and inappropriate new cards.
If you pledge on Kickstarter, you'll get the core set of new-and-improved cards as well as 20 exclusive Black Cards and 20 exclusive White Cards written just for our Kickstarter backers. We've put a lot of work into making a premium deck - the cards are 2"x3.5", professionally printed and digitally cut.
If you want 500 horrible cards delivered to your doorstep, claim your copy for $15 today at http://kck.st/fV9Fpp.
We're excited to finally offer Cards Against Humanity how it was always meant to be played - as a high-quality, professionally-produced, boxed product.
Thanks, and we appreciate your support!
- The Cards Against Humanity team
P.S. Check out our new website at http://www.CardsAgainstHumanity.
One week into the campaign, on December 8th, Max sent out the first project update to all backers. The update included a link to an “exclusive expansion” to the free, publicly-available PDF set, and a photograph of the prototyping process at the printer they were working with at the time.
Just over two weeks into the campaign, on December 16, the project met its goal of $4,000—and kept going.
On December 29, about halfway into the campaign, Max sent out a third update. After thanking the project’s 300+ backers for getting the project past the point of being 150% funded, he included a link to a survey set up with Google Forms that asked “What can we do to make Cards Against Humanity even more awesome?”
The two possible answers to “Are you a backer of Cards Against Humanity on Kickstarter?” were “Yes” and “Not yet.” For the second question, out of the 121 survey respondents, 45% selected “Add cards to the deck,” while 26% answered “Higher quality cards.” The 13 wildcard responses included requests such as “random images in lieu of phrases/words” and “ADDITIONAL PYLONS,” a reference to a popular internet meme.
The second page of the survey asked “How did you hear about Cards Against Humanity?” Answers ranged from “somethingawful.com” to “Kickstarter browsing” to “Sorry, can’t remember (it has been a while).”
Getting the game into reviewers’ hands was a top priority throughout the campaign. According to Max,
During the project, 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 at a time when there weren’t many games getting funded with Kickstarter.
The free PDF version enabled these reviews; without a way to play the game, reviewers wouldn’t have been able to evaluate it. Giving people a way to play the game throughout the funding process proved critical overall, in Max’s opinion:
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.
The inherent arc of a Kickstarter project also provided some urgency; that arc was one of the aspects that attracted Max to the platform in the first place:
I knew from the beginning 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. "Some guys are selling a game" is a boring story, but a Kickstarter project is very exciting. 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.
On January 18, 2011, the pledge total stood at over $9,000. To celebrate, and to try to help in the final push, Max sent out a project update presenting two “stretch goals”:
Help us get to $10,000 in the next ten days, and we'll add ten new cards to the game.
Help us get to $15,000, and we'll add fifty new cards to the game.
Sure enough, the project hit $10,000 two days later, and continued to rise. On January 27, Max sent out one more update 48 hours before the end of the project, and included quotes from the press:
In the last few weeks of our project, we've raised more than more than three times what we originally hoped and successfully met the $10,000 challenge. We've also received some great press coverage:
The Onion A.V. Club called Cards Against Humanity "pretty amazing," The Chicago Tribune Puzzler described it as "simple, yet well-executed," and Dice Hate Me said that the cards were "brilliantly crafted".
All of this funding is going to great use - we've listened to your comments, and we're making improvements to quality of the deck by printing on premium-quality playing cards with rounded corners. As soon we we have new prototypes, we'll share the photos with you.
On January 30, 2011, the Cards Against Humanity project closed at $15,570—389% of their original goal, meeting the second stretch goal in addition to the first.
Max composed a thank-you note to all the project’s backers and sent it off. Now, the real work would begin.
The moment they realized that the project would be bigger than they’d planned, Max and the rest of the Cards Against Humanity team began to grapple with how that would impact their manufacturing plans. Two weeks before the end of the campaign, Max sent an update with a postscript that hinted at these discussions:
P.S. This is our current prototype, though we're also looking at versions of the game with bigger cards and fancier coatings. What do you think?
More funding meant more games to deliver, but it also meant that they could improve the quality far beyond what they’d originally envisioned. As Max recalls:
Before we started the Kickstarter project, to arrive at our goal, we made a series of prototypes and got quotes. At the time we were planning to print on business cards and use a stock cardboard box. We were planning to use a local Chicago printer that I work with on political campaigns.
After we blew past our funding goal, we decided to produce Cards Against Humanity like a professional game, so we designed a box and larger cards and brought it back to our printer, who said he couldn't make it.
The problem was the expense of making a game with 550 unique cards - it's a nightmare to set up, print, cut, and sort. Those kinds of things are usually only possible at volumes of tens of thousands, and we only wanted to make 2,000 sets at the most.
We spent a few weeks talking to every card company and printer in the U.S. and getting rejected over and over again. The few people who were able to print it wanted over $20 a set.
The team worked fast to find a company that could meet their needs:
Eventually, we expanded our search to companies that did production in China and found AdMagic. They were one of the first people we talked to but we liked them the best. They sent us samples, we worked on the production details for about a month, and we've been working with them ever since.
Working with AdMagic also meant that they’d be able to design a custom chipboard box. Ben and Max started talking about how to design something that would “look really different on a board game shelf,” as Max remembers it.
In contrast to the bright colors and fancy artwork of most board game packages, the design they settled on “is close to being a stark black thing, it really just pops out…And there's also something almost dangerous about it—it looks like a pack of cigarettes or something. It looks illicit.” The stark design also served to heighten the impact of the already-outrageous content:
We really just made an effort to make it look as corporate [as possible]. It's like, very official. And putting the cards in Helvetica, and putting a period after the nouns, little details like that, it just makes it so…declarative. It's so absurd.
With the packaging design in place, Max shared the good news with backers on March 1, one month after the project closed:
Dear horrible friends,
It's our pleasure to announce that this morning we placed the order for over one thousand copies of Cards Against Humanity with our printer in China.
After the success of our Kickstarter drive, we had to go back to the drawing board and find a way to make more copies of the game than we had planned for. Although it took a few extra weeks of work, we are really pleased with the improved quality of the game, and we think you'll love it too.
We've partnered with our friends at AdMagic to print Cards Against Humanity on playing card stock with rounded corners and a water-resistant aqueous coating. (We have a sample, and the quality is fantastic. These cards are made to last.) They're also producing a custom box that will hold the cards, and helping us package each set with a rules insert.
AdMagic is based in New Jersey and has over 20 years of experience making games and custom playing cards. They've been very helpful moving Cards Against Humanity to press as quickly as possible, and have agreed to help us keep you updated as printing begins.
Overall, backers seemed to take the change of plans in stride. One backer did post a question in the comments on the update: “Nice packaging, though would you mind confirming the card stock you ended up ordering? I want to check the move to China (?) didn't undo your plans to use FSC certified/recycled stock.” Max responded, “I believe we're using the same recycled card stock as before, but I will look into this and get back to you before printing begins.”
On March 4, Max sent out another update on printing:
Dear horrible friends,
We're reviewing the final press proofs from our printer today, and you can see some of the plates below (60 playing cards to a sheet!).
It's still pretty funny to us that the humanity's industrial infrastructure is whirring up to make our horrible game, although in response to your questions, we can confirm that Cards Against Humanity will be printed on 100% FSC-certified stock.
Three weeks later, the cards were in production, but there was no news to share—the process was just going to take some time. After seeking advice from a fellow Kickstarter creator, Max remembers realizing that the project’s backers “want to see that we’re investing time into Cards, and that it matters to us.”
Keeping this in mind, Max sent all his co-creators an email asking them to shoot footage of themselves looking despondent. Most people sent cellphone-shot footage back within a day. He spent another day editing it all together, then posted the update on March 27: a video titled “Waiting for Cards Against Humanity,” depicting members of the team and some of their friends just…waiting.
The video was the group’s attempt to bridge the gap between receiving the final press proofs on March 4 and the sample of the finished product on April 2. For backers, Max believes, “it gave them a feeling that we were also waiting for Cards, and we’re all on the same team. And also that we were still working on their rewards!” The post received six comments, largely in solidarity:
On March 29th, two days after the “Waiting for Cards Against Humanity” video update, Max sent out a substantive printing update, thanking backers for their patience and sharing photographs from the final stages of production.
We're waiting to receive a sample of the game box (should get to us this week, we'll post photos) and once we approve the sample, the boxes will take 5-7 days to produce. After the boxes are finished, the games will get assembled, shrink-wrapped, and shipped to us here in Chicago.
There's obviously a lot of variables, but we think [the] order will ship from China on April 10th, and we'll have them about a month later.
On April 2nd, the sample game arrived and Max sent out an update with photos, as promised. The team reported that they were “super happy with the quality,” and so they went ahead and approved the boxes for production.
On April 29th—almost a full month later—the boxes set sail aboard the M/V Manukai. To build anticipation, Max linked to two pages in the update: one where backers could track the Manukai’s progress live via GPS, and another where they could take a virtual tour of the ship.
On May 4th, the games landed in Los Angeles. Six days later, they arrived in Chicago. Max and David Munk were on the ground in Chicago, and initially asked the truck driver to head to David’s parents’ house—“what I might describe as a castle,” Max said. But it turned out that the driveway was too narrow for the truck to traverse. So Max got on his cellphone and gave the driver directions to his parents’ house instead:
The truck couldn’t back up into their garage, so he just put these pallets on the front lawn. And then my parents were like—you can’t have these pallets on the front lawn. So David Munk and I were the only ones in town, and we broke down the pallets with our hands, and loaded them into my Mini Cooper and brought it Mini-Cooper-by-Mini-Cooper to David’s parents’ castle. And the sun was going down.
It took an entire day by the time we were done. It was the stupidest possible way to do it, filling my tiny Mini Cooper with boxes. It was sagging down to the ground, too, under the weight of all the Cards boxes.
Max put together a 45-second video of the truck unloading process and shared it with backers in a project update. Afterward, David and Max were left with a room filled “floor to ceiling” with boxes—“We would just go in that room and laugh. It was so silly to us.” They waited for reinforcements to arrive.
“Some people came in from out of town,” Max remembers—other members of the group. They got down to work:
By the time we actually got into the packing, we basically spent one long weekend—it was probably three or four days of continuous work. And every box, we had to assemble. So the boxes come flat, they have to be folded into box shape. They have to be taped on the bottom, and then the Cards Against Humanity box gets put in, and then a thank-you note, and then some people had asked for us to draw stuff on the box or whatever.
So we drew a lot of pictures and notes on boxes, and then some people got the custom cards, so we had to match up their box and put their custom cards in, and then tape the top of the box, and then attach a label—a custom-printed shipping label—to it.
After the long weekend, they had stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes. On May 16, a Monday, they transported the boxes to the shipping company they’d decided to work with:
We were actually smart and rented a U-Haul, and then loaded it all up and brought it to this shipping company that we got to do the shipping…so we stacked them up in the U-Haul, we had no idea what we were doing. So as soon as we started driving…it sounded like the world was ending. It was horrible.
The stacks refused to remain stacked. As they pulled up to loading dock at the shipping company in their U-Haul, since the boxes had all slid to the back of the vehicle, “this mountain of cards just slides onto the dock” in an avalanche. Max posted a picture of the moment to his personal blog, with the caption “The guys at the loading dock just told us that while Cards Against Humanity is not the worst-packed order they have ever received, it’s ‘in the top ten.’”
Eventually, the shipping company sorted out the avalanche, and sent the boxes on their way. Max returned home and sent backers an update:
Today we finished processing and packing everyone's copies of Cards Against Humanity and they are at the distribution center awaiting shipping. We expect everyone's games to ship early tomorrow, and as soon as we get confirmation, we will be in touch with any shipping information we can share.
The next day, Max followed up with another update to let everyone know that “Everyone's decks ($15 and $30 backers) were processed today and will ship tomorrow via USPS. We think they will take 3 to 10 days to arrive.” He also reminded Chicago-area backers about the release party:
We're at the English Bar right now setting up for the release party. If you live in Chicago and want to pick your set up, we hope you can come by TONIGHT between 7:30 and midnight to have a beer, say hi, and get your set.
Over the next several weeks, boxes started to arrive in backers’ hands all over the world. One backer, Sean Westberg, posted a component review on BoardGameGeek on May 24:
What started out as a small project to print the game up on business cards and avoid an hour long date with the paper cropper ballooned up into a honey of a game that easily qualifies as a professional offering in every way. […]
The box is sturdy cardboard and sets up the aesthetics of the rest of the game: Namely there aren't any. Black on white & white on black are the name of the game here. No graphics at all on the cards themselves. This is all game. Which is fine, because big, bold, easy to read type is just what you need when you're drunk and trying to see through tears of laughter. No fancy inserts, no baggies, no endless cardboard chits to punch out. Just a page of instructions and the cards. Lots of cards. My god look at all the cards. […]
The cards are playing card sized, plastic coated, and slick. They're easy to read and handle well. My only complaint might be that they're a little on the thin side, but the plastic coating goes a long way towards fixing that. This is a big improvement over the home-made kits, since all that black ink had a tendency to rub off or cost a small fortune if you went the inkjet route.
Selling on Amazon
By the end of May 2011, six months after the project launched on Kickstarter, the team had fulfilled all their Kickstarter rewards. One big question remained: how would they distribute the rest of the boxes they’d ordered? Reflecting on the decision-making process, Max said:
As soon as we realized how successful our Kickstarter was, we decided to find a way to keep selling Cards Against Humanity.
We didn't want to sell the game or make a deal with a licensor or distributor—once we figured out how to manufacture it ourselves to fulfill the Kickstarter orders, it made sense to keep doing that. We liked being able to edit the game's design and content between printings to keep it fresh.
We also knew that after assembling, packing, and labeling thousands of boxes from our Kickstarter orders, we never wanted to do that again.
Eventually we settled on a service Amazon offers called FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) because at our $25 MSRP [manufacturer’s suggested retail price], they would pay for all of the shipping…We also liked that Amazon would handle all of our customer service issues related to shipping so we didn't have to worry about it.
On June 15th, Max sent an update to backers letting them know that a limited number of copies were available for sale on Amazon. Six days later, he sent another update reporting that “Cards Against Humanity launched as the #1 game on Amazon.com. We sold so many copies and got so many positive reviews that Amazon thought the game might be some kind of hoax.”
Over the next year, the team behind Cards Against Humanity ordered increasingly large production runs of the game, and sold out every one. The first shipment had filled a truck; later shipments filled multiple train cars.
The team continued to hold weekly brainstorming meetings over video chat, which developed a certain rhythm over time:
Basically the way it works now is, we all put our ideas into—we call it the hopper. It's just sort of indiscriminate, most of it is terrible, maybe one in a hundred cards in the hopper will get through. And every week we have a creative meeting and it goes for an hour, and someone is designated the card czar, and they pick cards that they personally like from the hopper, and pitch them to the group.
And this 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. And so it's your sense of humor and pitching them to the group and justifying why you want it…and sometimes somebody pitches a card and it becomes something totally different, something totally unrelated, just as a result of having a funny conversation.
And if we have consensus on that, it goes onto the shortlist, and once we meet in person (like we're about to do in a couple days), we go through a shortlist and we pick cards and we finalize their form and we put them into the game or an expansion. And that whole spreadsheet is organized into a Google Doc, but…this summer, we're going to try to develop a piece of web software that is more suited to our needs.
They also started planning in-person writing retreats in Wisconsin. The idea was to recapture the experience of all being back in Chicago together over a holiday break in college. According to Max, “We sort of realized, hey, we work pretty well in these short bursts of very intense focus. So then [we] just tried to recreate that.”
On an episode of the Funding the Dream podcast posted in March 2012, Max shared a number of lessons learned. One was that he would have planned for high-quality cards from the beginning:
At the time we went up on Kickstarter, it was just business cards—you know, very small little business-card-sized cards, in a paper box, and then we were going to do a sticker or a stamp on top of the box, and we were going to get those done in bulk and then assemble it ourselves.
And ultimately, we got very lucky—we got, like, 350% of what we asked for—and that let us design a custom box and print on playing cards and have rounded corners and all of these nice touches, but…I know now that the quality of the product is really important to people. It's all part of the experience of having a good time when you open the box and play it. And we shouldn't have ever tried to do the project in a way that wasn't the best.
It would have been much better to ask for more money up front and fail than to have just gotten enough money and had it suck. Better to fail than to suck, I think.
Another realization was that why people back a project can be as important as what they’re backing:
My background is in politics. And on a political campaign, I think a lot about values—why people believe what they believe, and what makes people proud to support something or to buy something. And I think that's a step that a lot of businesses don't think…they're not values-driven enterprises.…I'm okay saying 'this is for a certain group of people, and this is what we believe in' and never deviating from that.…Having a set of values and treating people like a human being…goes a long way.
…We don't use any weasel words in our marketing, and it even gets into, like, pricing philosophy. We don't like to sell it at $19.99. We're committed to selling it at $25, and it's very evident. When you open the box, it's clear why everything's there.
We try to have a lot of empathy for why someone would back a project, why they would believe in it.
Max closed the interview with some advice for creators thinking about Kickstarter:
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.