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Two alums develop risque card game

Fill in the blank: "Alternative medicine is now embracing the curative powers of ______."

Giggling at the possibilities they hold in their hands, players pick their funniest card and play it face down. The judge reveals the cards and reads the answers out loud.

"Alternative medicine is now embracing the curative powers of..."

"... drinking alone."

"... of eugenics."

"... of sweet, sweet vengeance."

The judge chooses his favorite answer, and play continues to the right in a party card game that falls somewhere between a twisted version of Mad Libs and the way Apples to Apples was always meant to be played.

So goes a round in Cards Against Humanity, a game growing in popularity on campus among students with an "alternative" (read: not easily offended) sense of humor. In fact, it's a game distinctly Brown since its origin three years ago - two of the game's developers are alums.


Hyperthetical questions

Ben Hantoot '09 and Eli Halpern '09 met during middle school in Illinois. They were both part of the self-described "nerd crust" of their class - a group of eight close friends who would eventually go on to form Cards Against Humanity, LLC, Hantoot said.

When the friends all went their separate ways for college - Hantoot and Halpern heading off to Brown - they reunited every December to host a New Year's party for their friends.

"It would get bigger and bigger every year," Halpern said. "We started having to come up with structured activities to play at these things."

For New Years '08, the friends developed "Hyperthetical," an early prototype of what would end up becoming Cards Against Humanity.

"There would be a bunch of crazy questions and people would write in answers," Hantoot said. "It was awkward to play, so the next year, we standardized it. All the questions and answers were pre-written. We pushed it much more towards the no-holds-barred offensive angle."

The game was a hit, and over the next spring break and summer recesses, the friends met to refine and test-play the cards they had written and to design mock up cards for printing.

In their senior year at Brown, Halpern and Hantoot played early versions of the game with classmates to get a sense of what worked and what didn't, Hantoot said.

"We had complete printed play decks that Eli and I used to play in our house," Hantoot said. "At the beginning of the game it was full of duds. It was very useful to play with people at Brown and whittle it down."

"By the end of 2010, we realized that it was something that other people might want to play," Hantoot said.

The group launched, a website that allows users to print the game free of charge. At the time, it also featured an online pre-order form for the printed version of the game, which eventually attracted over 1,600 requests.

The newly created Cards Against Humanity LLC launched a campaign on Kickstarter - a site where users pledge money to fund creative startups - offering a professionally printed copy of the game in exchange for a pledge of $15. The initial plan was to print 750 copies of the game on relatively inexpensive business cards, but the campaign took off, eventually surpassing the goal of $4,000 in a week.

"At that point we knew we had to up the production values of it," Hantoot said.

Hantoot, who handles the game's graphic design and manufacturing, worked out a deal with a Chinese printing company to print 2,000 decks of the game on glossy card stock. The extra decks were then sold on Amazon through an independent seller.

"We used all that money to manufacture more decks, so on and so forth," Hantoot said. Though he declined to discuss exact production numbers, Hantoot said that the company now produces a "sizeable volume" of card decks.


'Custom cards'

From its inception, Cards Against Humanity has had an unconventional business model: The full set of cards is posted on the website as a freely available PDF file. Anyone can take the file to a Kinko's and have their own copy of Cards Against Humanity for around $6.

"It's the best advertising we have," Hantoot said. "We're pretty convinced that the freebie has done nothing for us except for balloon sales. Once people become familiar with the game they think, 'Hey this is great, I want to have the professional printed version.'"

The content of the cards is also licensed through Creative Commons, which means "you can use and remix the game for free, but you can't sell it," according to the website.

Current student David Braun '14, who went to the same Illinois high school as the game's creators, has used that open-source licensing to create a free iPad app called "Redacted" that works with the same rules as Cards Against Humanity.

"I started doing iOS developing in Fall 2011" for Apple mobile products, Braun said. "I was thinking of what projects to work on, and I thought of Cards Against Humanity."

"Redacted" supports up to 10 players, all sharing a single iPad that is passed from person to person as the turn continues. The game comes with a set of cards that Braun wrote himself, though users can click one button to download the entire set of Cards Against Humanity cards and can add as many custom cards as they wish.

Braun said the iTunes store allows him to track usage of his app, which is currently sitting at about 800 players from around the world.

"I can see people are creating custom cards," he said. "It's also good to see that people know how to
download the original Cards Against Humanity cards."

"He told me about it at the beginning of year, and I was interested to see what it was," said Woody Rosenberg '13, a friend of Braun's who recently played the game for the first time.

The cards Braun wrote are a bit more academically dense than the original set, including references to Kafka, Shakespeare and current Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"It could improve my vocabulary, but maybe not in any meaningful academic way," Rosenberg said. "It's very Brown."

Success at Brown

With its rejection of political correctness, Cards Against Humanity tends to be quite popular on college campuses - and Brown is no exception.

"It's a kind of humor that only college students would appreciate," said Rachel Schwartz '13. "I recommended it to my sister who's a freshman at Northwestern, and all of her friends love it."

Students said they enjoy the absurd, sometimes offensive atmosphere that Cards Against Humanity fosters and the way the game can act as an icebreaker.

"It's a great game if you have a large enough group of friends or when you have a new group," said D.J. Hoffman '15, who is an "avid card game fan." "For example, the first thing all the new Tech Housies did (when they met) was play Cards Against Humanity."

"I think we could do with a bit more laughter when it comes to controversial issues," Rosenberg said.

Though he declined to discuss specifics for the company's future plans, Hantoot said that Cards Against Humanity is currently working on "something fun planned for the holidays" that will be announced over the next few weeks and added that Halpern has some other upcoming projects on his plate for the company.

"I like to think that Brown played somewhat of a role in allowing this to happen because basically we're not operating a business in a traditional way at all," Halpern said. "We don't have a publisher. We don't have a distributor. We sell exclusively on Amazon. We have the free PDF."

"Eli and I are only a quarter of the business," Hantoot added, "but I think we comprise a good deal of the decisions that get made. And I don't think we would have been willing to pursue such an original - some would say risky - route had we not gone to a school that encourages such free thinking."

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