Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Cards Against Humanity and Invisible Ropes

I wanted to speak up for a moment about Cards Against Humanity, and all the recent chatter about it. First, some context.

This week, Shut Up & Sit Down wrote a review of CAH, in which three different reviewers discussed why they disliked it. They took it to task for enabling people to make jokes about marginalized people. Good humor punches up at figures of status and authority, but CAH punches down and makes fun of people who are hurt. It’s a bully. They also point out that making fun of minorities is not fresh or new, but an old relic of cheap comedy, and that the game feels lazy – “Cards Against Humanity opens and closes the joke for you. It’s limp, passive, inert.”

This review got a huge amount of support on social media (1874 shares on Twitter, 20,030 on Facebook at the time of this writing), but also some pushback. Bruno Faidutti was the most notable dissenter. He wrote an article called A Case for Cards Against Humanity (all his articles are in French and English, so scroll down if you need to). He wrote that the game is vulgar, yes, but so vulgar that no one could possibly take offense to its humor.

It’s offensive, it’s crass, it’s vulgar but all this is deliberate and obviously to be taken with a good pinch of salt. I even think that such a game could not have been designed, and probably could not really be played, by people susceptible to take at face value any one of the sexist, racist or just plain stupid jokes on the cards. I’ve played a dozen games of Cards against Humanity, I’ve bought all expansions, I’ve had fun just browsing through the cards, and I never felt uneasy in the slightest way. It was obvious for me first that this was just a game (something that ought to be reminded more often about many games, especially war games), and it was obvious for me and for all the people I played with (among which blacks, gays, jews and women) that the game is not mocking blacks, gays, Jews or women – to name a few – but the stereotypes about them. I think it’s socially important that humor could target everything, including the worse aspects of our society. Refusing to do this is not defending the victims of sexism or racism, it is preventing us to see (and laugh at) our social problems.

I am a fan of the writings of both Shut Up and Sit Down and Bruno Faidutti. But I think Faidutti missed the mark here, and I think the reason why is related to something I’ve been talking about on the site already: invisible ropes.

Faiduitti falls into a trap a lot of well-meaning straight white men fall into when discussing this stuff. They hear that some people don’t like the game because it makes fun of minorities and horrible crimes. But when they play the game with minorities and victims of horrible crimes, they see the “victims” laughing along. Therefore the game must not be offensive, therefore the people who are stressing about the game being offensive must be wrong.

When I discussed invisible ropes a couple of months ago, I wrote about how this:

…a lot of people usually take this kind of thing to mean offensiveness. They think there’s a line between “offensive” and “inoffensive”. If you’re on the “inoffensive” side, everything’s fine and peachy, but if you’re on the “offensive” side, then you’ve just insulted every single woman (or whatever non-straight-white-male demographic you’d like), without exception.

Same thing here. I don’t think the problem here is offensiveness. I think it more a vague discomfort. It’s not an angry exclusion; it’s not a wall. It’s a rope. But enough ropes make a barrier. Sometimes all it takes is one.

So let’s say you’re playing a game of CAH with someone who is missing a limb. The “amputee” card gets played. Maybe it was even the person missing a limb herself.

The attention now swings over to her. All the attention is focused on her reaction. Will she be okay with it? Will she laugh?

I’d say that 10 times out of 10, she will laugh, and everyone else will relax, and say that the game isn’t offensive. But let’s look deeper at the choice she had to make.

Here’s a woman programmer, @SaraJChipps on Twitter, talking about dealing with unpleasant jokes in the workplace. Twitter’s threading functionality is half-baked, so I’ll take the liberty of editing her tweets into a paragraph:

I’d like to talk for a second about sexual and racial jokes at the workplace and junior developers. Something happens quite often when you are a new developer on a team and the only woman/minority. Someone on the team tells a sexual or racial joke (something they deem innocuous) and the entire team looks to you for your reaction to see if you are “cool or not”.

Something that is lost on these people is that you actually have no choice. If you react to the offensive joke you are at high risk of losing your job and killing your career. You will be dubbed as “uptight” and “not a fun person to work with”, your work will be scrutinized and every mistake will be magnified by the fact that you “aren’t a team player”. So, you do what you have to, you laugh along. Maybe joke back, if you really want to endear yourself.

But the consequences of this are long lasting, the jokes get worse, you lose a little of your soul each time, and you are driven to either leave or draw an arbitrary line somewhere and complain. Once that happens, your job is over (see above).

I’m in management now, one thing I appreciate is the fact that you can set a culture of that not being okay early on. I say this because even if the person on your team laughs along or “seems cool”, the reality is they have no other choice.

I experienced this on every engineering team I was ever apart of. I laughed along each time, and though it helped my career it ultimately hurt me as a person. I’d like a world where this doesn’t have to be an issue.

(Emphasis mine.)

Gaming is certainly a lower-stakes arena than the workplace, but I’m convinced this no-win decision exists and is something a lot of women have to put up with. I’m know there are many women gamers who grit their teeth and endure uncomfortable situations just because it’s their only shot at gaming. Could be tasteless jokes or gendered insults; could be inadvertently condescending strategy advice; could be a lot of things.

And in gaming, people don’t just have to laugh and accept it, or stand up and risk making a scene. There’s a third possibility; the person involved may just leave gaming entirely. They just really didn’t feel comfortable. Gaming just isn’t for people like them.

Let’s get back to that game of CAH. The woman missing a limb is laughing along. Is she comfortable? Is she just trying to fit in and get along? How many times today has she had to make this choice, even if the people forcing her to make it have had the best of intentions?

Look, I don’t want to be The Fun Police, and it’s not up to me to tell you what games to enjoy and what not to enjoy. But do you ever wonder why are there so many more male gamers than female gamers? It’s because of stuff like this. One of the reasons women don’t stick to the gaming scene is because they see people laughing at a “Date Rape” card. They may not be outrightly offended; they may even laugh along. But the scene doesn’t feel comfortable. They’re excluded, even if everyone they’re playing with thinks they’re being inclusive.

As I said in my previous article, the technical term for this is “microagression”. It usually comes from people who mean well – mostly straight white guys who don’t have the perspective to see the problem.

This takes us back to Faidutti’s response. Again, I respect him greatly, but any time a straight white guy tells you that something isn’t racist or sexist when women and minorities say it is, it’s a red flag. I think Faidutti has the best of intentions, but people aren’t saying they dislike CAH because that’s how they get their rocks off. They say they dislike CAH because they dislike it.

How can we get more women to play games? By listening to them. When a woman says she’s uncomfortable with something, don’t tell her that she shouldn’t be. Listen. Try to see things from her point of view. Figure out what’s making her uncomfortable. It’s possible that it’s something that’s invisible to you.

And of course, this applies to minorities and the marginalized as well. When they say they’re not comfortable, let them speak, and consider their perspective. Your perspective is not the be-all end-all. No single perspective is.

* * *

I wanted to take this opportunity to make a few other points about CAH’s legacy that I find interesting.

First, I should tell you how I feel about the game. As a straight white guy, the edginess of the humor doesn’t make me uneasy. But it’s not a game I own or ask to play. I find the game lazy. It’s like people on the internet who think humor is just a matter of applying an existing meme to any situation. It doesn’t take many Condescending Wonkas to stop being funny and start being annoying.

This is where CAH fails for me. And that’s what SU&SD summarized so well:

Jokes aren’t Lego. Cards Against Humanity gives you two or sometimes three pieces to snap together, and it tells you you’re done. That’s it. And you know what? Often, many of these combinations aren’t very good. They aren’t very good whether you find their subjects funny or not, offensive or not. They aren’t very good because they’re sometimes nonsensical or just weird… There’s very little creativity in combining cards into a joke, because the work and the structuring is done for you. It’s almost like copying someone else’s homework. There’s no life in there.

I think good humor is creative. It shocks you, not with “edginess”, but by coming from a place you didn’t expect. CAH isn’t that funny to me because it’s just a bunch of stock, set, meme-like options. I want more control; I want to tell the joke, not pick it from a multiple-choice menu of sorta-funny options.

The interesting thing is that, for most folks, this is a feature, not a bug. My friend Dave Chalker summarized this well on Twitter (edited into paragraphs for easy reading again):

Part of the reason CAH is mega-popular (as Apples to Apples, its clear predecessor) is that it DOESN’T require any work for the humor. There have been plenty of other games I adore that run into the wall of asking people to be funny on the spot, which can be hard. My friend Kory [Heath] made “Why Did the Chicken…?” about writing punchlines from prompts, and it wasn’t nearly the success, because it required work.

So while I think WDTC is a much better experience (that auto-tailors to group), it’s never going to be the breakout hit of a CAH. (And to be clear, you’re not a worse/less interesting/etc. person if it’s easier to play a game that writes the jokes for you – it’s hard!) …While I think the content of CAH is absolutely fair game, making the jokes self-contained is part of its success in selling.

This is a great point. CAH isn’t funny to me because it’s too easy, but a lot of folks (non-gamers especially) enjoy it specifically because of that.

I also want to point out two big positives that CAH’s has provided in its legacy. First, its creators have consistently paid forward to the game community, with its Tabletop Deathmatch program and charity work. It’s a little like how Alfred Nobel set up humanitarian prizes in his name because he didn’t want to be remembered solely as the person who invented dynamite (albeit on a much smaller scale).

Second, if someone had pitched a party game with off-color humor to a publisher in 2010, they would have been laughed away from the table. Before CAH broke out, the conventional wisdom was that gaming was entirely pure with no room for adult humor, because successful games had to appeal to families. Games that didn’t were on the fringe; they were consistently poor sellers.

CAH proved that a myth. It exposed a market of high-school, college, and post-college players who enjoy edgy themes and risqué, off-color humor in their games. And as a designer and publisher of a game with a good amount of scatalogical humor, I have to be thankful for that.

Ultimately, I think it’s the responsibility of game designers to look at CAH’s faults and limitations, and try to improve on it. As anyone who’s been exposed to Justin Bieber or Twilight knows, just because something sells well doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I’ll leave the last word to my friends at GamesByPlayDate:

Bad Medicine Kickstarter postmortem

The dust has settled, and the Bad Medicine Kickstarter is done. The final result: 1,066 backers raised $30,130 of an $8,000 goal. That is well beyond what I ever expected when I started out.

I’ve seen other creators come up with these kinds of studies, and folks have asked me to write one up. Here’s a few observations I have.

It’s not enough to offer a good game. You must offer a good product.

I’ve spent the last 15 years intensely studying good game design. But publishing requires studying a game through a different lens: what makes a good product?

I caught a wave of backers from the medical and pharma industries. I feel that most of them didn’t back Bad Medicine because of its well-thought-out rules (although I worked hard on those). They backed it because it’s a funny game about a subject that’s near and dear to them, and there aren’t many of those out there. The price was right, and my campaign page explained the game thoroughly through graphics, text, and a clever video with good production values.

I think my study of successful (and unsuccessful) Kickstarter campaigns really paid off. I tried to make the campaign page easy on the eyes, and I spent a long time on the campaign video, as well as the two tutorial videos. All this made people confident in pledging their money.

It’s funny; I see new designers posting pictures of their prototype on its first test, asking what people think of the look of the game. Or they’ll ask about the look of their components before showing the rulebook for review. I think those new designers are looking at making a good product, but they don’t know yet how to make a good game. And yet for a Kickstarter, all you ever get to see is the product; you won’t be able to tell if it’s a good game until you actually play it!

I’m still getting used to wearing a publisher’s hat, but I hope I get better at looking at making a good game that is also a good product. It’s not impossible; Tasty Minstrel, Stonemaier, Dice Hate Me, and Minion do this on Kickstarter all the time. But it’s not a skill we can take for granted, and I want to get better at it.

Look past your national borders.

Going in, I wasn’t expecting Bad Medicine to get much traction from outside the US. I thought Big Pharma and its advertising was a uniquely American phenomenon. I considered not even shipping outside America.

I’m very glad I changed my mind and signed with Spiral Galaxy Games to fulfill Bad Medicine in the EU. Over 27% of my backers were from outside the US. I got a surprising number of backers from Australia, and I noticed a movement of Korean backers working together to get good deals on shipping.

Time will tell if I calculated shipping correctly, but I’m optimistic that I won’t regret my worldwide reach. I’m so happy that my game has gotten enthusiastic recognition from people around the world, from Scotland to Kuwait to Singapore. This is an amazing time to start a business; the world has gotten ridiculously small.

Kickstarter doesn’t have to be just a pre-order system.

This is one of the recurring complaints I hear about Kickstarter, that it’s a glorified pre-order system, and there’s no need for people to really back games when they’ll just appear on store shelves a year later (and likely forgotten the following year).

I’m really happy that I found a few opportunities to engage my backers. For example, I wanted to make most of Bad Medicine’s cards look like small prescription slips. I wasn’t sure what the best font was for the cards, so I posted a few samples of the different fonts, and asked my backers which one they preferred.

The conversation took an unexpected turn. My non-American backers pointed out that prescription slips look completely different outside America, and linked me to some examples. This was a bummer, but it was also an opportunity. I noticed that the example non-American prescription forms all had yellow backgrounds. So I ran another poll, asking two questions: do you prefer a blue or yellow background (with sample images for both), and do you consider yourself from the US, from outside the US, or a bit of both?

It turns out that both US and non-US backers preferred the yellow background. So instead of going with a blue background that didn’t mean anything to a quarter of my backers, I have a card front that reads like a prescription slip almost anywhere in the world. Plus, I gave my backers a chance to get involved in the game’s final look.

I also had backers making fantastic suggestions for the game, reminding me to make sure the box will fit all the cards if they’re sleeved, pledging extra money to customize some of the cards, and voting to make one of the stretch goal components capsule-shaped instead of pill-shaped. Pretty good for a so-called glorified pre-order system!

Have most of your art done, but not all of it.

I initially regretted not having my art completely done when the campaign launched, and a few would-be backers complained to me about the “prototype-y” look of the game. In retrospect, I should have had more art done before the campaign started.

But I learned how valuable it is to not have everything done at the start of the campaign. Backers want to be involved, and the opportunity to see the game evolve, especially with backer input, is one of the best things about Kickstarter. So in my next campaign, I will aim to have the art 80-90% done when the campaign launches. No less, but no more either.

Reach out to more reviewers earlier.

I sent review copies to about four reviewers, and advertised on a couple of podcasts. That wasn’t bad, but one of my reviewers was late, so the campaign should have had more reviews on the site. I should have sent out three times the number of review copies, and I should have sent them out two months in advance instead of one. Speaking for myself, if I see a Kickstarter campaign from a publisher and/or designer I’ve never heard of, I default to skepticism until I see a trusted name in the review section.

Of course, there’s a larger conversation to be had here about the trustworthiness of Kickstarter previews, since a lot of them are paid. But I know that a lot of reviewers won’t preview a game they didn’t like. It’s not worth the money if it means a lack of credibility. So at the very least, a Kickstarter preview shows that the game has at least passed a basic bar of competence, and is worth a more involved look.

Don’t be afraid of the alpha backer.

Before I launched, I was really worried about hypothetical “squeaky wheel” backers who would want me to bend over backwards to accommodate a whole host of unrealistic demands, from cheaper shipping to lower pledge levels to unrealistic components in the box.

Thankfully, I didn’t get anyone like this! I did have a lot of enthusiastic backers who shot all sorts of great suggestions my way, but none of them were rude or bossy about it. My backers didn’t want to dictate my game to me; they just wanted a voice in the conversation. Talking to them in the comments was excellent; I got to see where they were coming from, and I was grateful they had such a stake in the game.

I’ve learned a lot from reading Jamey Stegmaier, and one thing he suggests (and I wish I could find a link to this article!) is to never just outrightly deny your backers a suggestion. Instead, if a backer wants to see something in your game that can’t be done, it’s best to explain the obstacles to that suggestion, and ask the backer what they would do in your situation. They understand almost all the time, and because you gave them the opportunity to look at it from your point of view, they feel like they have a stake in the decision.

I can see how some creators find working with vocal backers difficult. But if you’re willing to give them your ear, you’ll emerge with your most enthusiastic supporters.

Pounding the pavement beats the Early Bird.

I’m not a fan of Early Bird reward levels. Sure, they may build critical early momentum, but you pay for that by disincentivizing backers from raising their pledges late in the game, as well as the obvious loss of goodwill you’ll encounter from people who stumble onto your campaign late.

Instead, I did a bunch of campaigns. My tour took me from Boston to Baltimore in the weekends leading up to my campaign launch. UnPub was an especially critical convention, with a bunch of early backers signing up for my mailing list there. By marketing my game (and making sure people signed up for my mailing list) well before my campaign launched, I built a lot of momentum at the start of my campaign without having to lock backers into an early-bird reward.

Mind the combinations.

One of my regrets was that while I offered a multi-game level (3 copies of the game) and two limited customization levels (name a bit of a drug, and name a side effect), I did not have an uber-level that combined all of them until the last day of the campaign. It wasn’t a bad late update, but it’s possible I could have gotten another high-level backer if I offered it earlier.

It’s not over when the campaign ends.

Of course, I expected this, but it bears repeating: even though the visible part of the campaign is done, the invisible stuff is in progress. I’m working with the artist and the printer now to get my game in my customers’ hands by September. I’m confident I can do it, but it’s not work that will do itself. My biggest nightmare is Bad Medicine becoming one of “those” campaigns that promised but never delivered. I want to be able to launch another Kickstarter later this year, but I won’t do that until I have this one signed, sealed, and delivered.

It’s been an amazing ride so far. I can’t wait to send the game off to the printer!

The Formal Ferret game design manifesto

I don’t have a lot of time to write today because I’m tending to my Kickstarter campaign. But in one of the many interviews I’ve done in support of the game, I brought out a manifesto I’d been working on.

Why a manifesto? I wrote it after playing a game that ran counter to everything I love in games. It left me unhappy and agitated, but it also made me wonder what I value in games. So I wrote it down.

  • Games played for recreation should be fun.
    • I’m carving out space for transformative games here, which aren’t played for recreation, and don’t have to be fun to be effective.
  • Games should reward players for accomplishing interesting goals.
    • Sounds obvious, but can never be emphasized enough. Games are about incentivizing players to do cool things.
  • Games should not expect players to target or punish the leader.
    • This is a dynamic I personally detest. My favorite games are about planning and building. There are a few games about bashing other players that I like, but most of them have such an awkward balance between building and attacking that they lose my interest.
  • Players should always feel mostly in control of the game. Never full agency, but never none at all.
    • This goes back to opacity and transparency. I’ve been playing a lot of Camel Up lately, and I find the math behind the race beautifully done. You always have a good idea of who’s leading and who’s trailing, but rarely do you have the full picture, and the mechanisms serve that opacity with incredible precision.
  • Games should have lively, refreshing themes.
    • This is a tough balance to hit. On one hand, I don’t mind playing games with the same retreaded themes (and I feel that a lot of them have those familiar themes for a good reason), but I’d rather not design a game with them. I just don’t find them compelling enough, and I think the theme of bloodless colonization in particular is dangerously disingenuous. On the other hand, if you make a game with a crazy theme, you risk distracting players and losing your game’s focus. But I think it’s possible to walk the line and deliver a game with a fun theme and well-integrated mechanisms.
  • Elegance is useful, but is not a goal in and of itself. Complexity has its place.
    • This is a big one for me, personally. I admire elegance and I try to use it when I can. But a heavier game gives me more flexibility, and I enjoy playing games with interesting wrinkles in their rules. I’d rather have a fun but dense game than a game with a few rules that feels disposable. The first game may appeal to fewer people, but they’ll be much more passionate about it. I want to make something that stirs that passion.
  • All board games should look beautiful. Even stodgy economic games.
    • We’re in a new age now. Economic games don’t have to look like prototypes anymore. I’m so happy that Battle Merchants is an example of a great-looking economic game, and I think we could use more.

I don’t expect other designers to write their own manifestos, or to agree with every item here. But it’s a cool exercise to go through. What’s your own manifesto?

Bad Medicine is now LIVE on Kickstarter!

4P wasn’t the only thing I did in January. This is now live on Kickstarter:


Let’s make Bad Medicine a reality!

On talent, failure, and giving up

Note: There’s no huge announcement behind this post. I’m not giving anything up, or experiencing any setbacks. Perhaps failure is on my mind because I’m about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for my first self-published game in a month, and this stuff is on my mind. Maybe I’m just in a reflective mood. Maybe I just ate some bad fruit.

In any event, I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, and I felt like sharing it here. Nothing more!

If there’s one thing I absolutely believe in, that’s to believe in no absolutes.

Here’s an example. No one likes to fail. Too much failure is a problem. Too much failure disheartens us. There’s a point when you realize the mat of the boxing ring is more comfortable than any other position you could be in at this moment. And all the pep talks in the world won’t get you back onto your feet.

I’ll be honest: The idea that “if you put your mind to it, you can do anything” is complete garbage. No one is good at everything. There are some things in this world that you and I just will never be able to do.

I found a bunch of things I couldn’t do when I was a kid at school. Sports. Foreign language. Singing. I just couldn’t do them at any level of competence, regardless of how much time I put into them. My life became immediately better the moment I gave them up (or in the case of foreign language, the moment I was allowed to give them up, which was when I passed the mandatory state test by one point).

It’s not self-deprecation to realize you can’t do something well enough to be competent. We are all mortals; we all have our limits. Acknowledging them, and working around them, is huge.

If there is something in life that you can’t do, then the sooner you realize you can’t do it, the better. Giving up is not always a bad thing. It doesn’t always mean admitting defeat. For me, it usually means gathering reinforcements.

But, on the other hand…

I’ve seen people discuss “talent” in the past. Like, a person either has an innate talent at something, or they have no ability. I’ve seen people quit new creative endeavors almost immediately after starting them, claiming they were “no good at it”. They figured if they didn’t feel like a natural at first, what’s the point?

One thing that is important to me is failure. This blog was originally named “Fail Better”. Failure is at the core of iterative design. It’s all about failing, and failing quickly. It’s about exploring the ways you fail. It’s about embracing failure, and figuring out why you’re failing. Because if you do that enough times, you find yourself not failing.

I recently cracked open a box of my oldest game designs from 15 years ago, and it stunned me how bad some of those games were. What was I thinking? If I knew how bad those games were back then, would I have continued plugging away at designing games?

If you’re a game designer, and you’re feeling the boxing glove of failure repeatedly striking you in the abdomen, you can take some time to reflect on your life decisions while you’re lying on the mat. It’s part of the process.

If you feel like you’ve had enough, and you’ve given things a fair shake, no one will blame you for staying on the mat.

But don’t decide on that nap too early. Getting up is part of the process too.