Three of a Kind: Around the Table(top) with Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens, and Joking Hazard

What is it about tabletop games that mobilizes such a passionate and enthusiastic fan base? And how do successful creators balance their creative vision with the desires of the devoted community that’s supported them? We took these questions and more to the table with the current crème de la crème in party game creation: Cards Against Humanity’s Max Temkin and Jenn Bane, Exploding Kittens Elan Lee and B Cavello, and Joking Hazard’s Rob DenBleyker. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the process of making a winning card game, and insights on how and why tabletop game creators have carved out a home for themselves on Kickstarter.

Why in the world would you make a card game?

Max Temkin: It was more a series of accidents and incompetence that ended with us having a card game. The original prototype of Cards Against Humanity was made on business cards, because the print shop that I worked at only had a die cutter — but we didn’t have any money to make a die.

A handful of Cards Against Humanity

We wound up raising more than our original $4,000 budget on Kickstarter, so then Ben [Hantoot, Cards Against Humanity’s co-creator] was like, “You know, we probably shouldn’t make this on business cards. We should probably make this like a real game that you would get in a store.” And that’s when we Googled “How do you make a card game?”

B Cavello: I’m from a generation of people that went to school where there were game design classes offered, which is a new and awesome thing happening in the world. And one of the first things your teachers will do is take away all the computers and force you to use paper. Whether it’s making a paper board game or card game — it’s all tabletop. It forces you to think about things a lot more. Not that the mechanics of video games don’t have uniqueness to them. But I do think that at their core, a lot of games can be done in a paper format, and in that respect building a paper card game or building a card game at all is something that really encourages you to think about the mechanics of fun instead of just relying upon a theme to do that.

Elan Lee: I’ve been making video games for the last fifteen years — some really big, some really small. And what I have noticed about the video game space is that I was doing a really good job of making people stay in their basements and have no friends. The games were really immersive and really epic and took sixty, one hundred, two hundred hours to complete. But they were becoming really isolating, and it was bothering me. Sure, people can chat online with each other, but people tended to become anti-social as a result.

Exploding Kittens’ Elan Lee

I took 2015 off from making video games, and I decided to make a card game. Specifically a card game because that’s what I do when I want to hang out with friends and be social — I host game nights and people come over and we laugh, we drink, we just have fun. I wanted to take all the learning that I’ve gained over the last decade in making video games and apply that to something very, very social.

Rob DenBleyker: We made this thing for our website called the Random Comic Generator — we made about a hundred and fifty of each panel and had this randomizer that our fans could play with, and there’s something like ten million possible combinations. And as soon as we put it up, fans started sending us the funniest comics they were finding. They were finding comics that were so funny, we couldn’t have thought of them if we wanted to. It was really impressive what this algorithm was generating.

Within a month of this thing being online and getting thousands and thousands of comics sent to us, we thought, “Hey, what if we print these out and play with them and see where it goes?” And that’s what we did. We printed out every single panel, cut them up, and we just started playing with them, and that’s where the rules for our game emerged. We never thought, “How could we make a card game?” We just created what we thought was funny and then asked ourselves, “What if this could be a card game?”

The Cards Against Humanity project wound up having a much bigger fanbase than you expected. How much of that was you nurturing your community and how much of it was organic?

Max: I don’t know. I guess I don’t know what it means when people ask, did we grow this community or nurture a community. I mean, everybody does that. Everybody does what they think is the best thing to make people excited about the product they’re making and get people interested in it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that’s just a case where every project needs to figure it out on their own terms, as their own creative endeavor.

Cards Against Humanity’s Max Temkin

But this is the big difference when we did our Kickstarter five years ago and what the landscape is like today: I just completed a game called Secret Hitler, and it did pretty well. We had a pretty large number of backers — nowhere near Exploding Kittens numbers, though. Five years ago, when I did Cards, we really had to explain what Kickstarter was. It was very hard to convince people to trust the platform and buy into this thing. Now, that problem is totally gone. There are so many more people who are willing to believe in a game and back a Kickstarter.

Rob: That’s interesting. We produced season one [of The Cyanide & Happiness Show] on Kickstarter, and season two we’re producing more traditionally, with a network. And what we’re seeing is that some people who backed season one are upset that they backed season one but season two isn’t coming with that for free.

B: The great thing about Kickstarter is that it allows you to have direct access to a creator. You’re not going through licensure and distributors and all that stuff, so you know that whatever they are taking from the Kickstarter they’re using to make something awesome. And that’s really great.

Elan: I understand the challenges in creating a community, but I think I look at it a little bit differently. When we started our Kickstarter campaign, one hundred percent of our audience came from The Oatmeal, and those were huge numbers. We immediately received 20,000 backers because of The Oatmeal’s shop. And then we started watching [the momentum] die, and we started watching it die very, very quickly. We had a little team huddle and we talked about what it means to build a community in 2015 or 2016. And the conclusion that we came to was this has to be interactive. If we want people to participate, if we want to build a community, if we want to build this thing big and strong and healthy, there has to be shit to do all the time. And so we fostered a very different kind of community — a very different kind of Kickstarter page — in order to earn that community.

B: And not all of that stuff was related to the game itself. It was like a metagame people could play outside of that — but that didn’t mean they were making decisions about paper stock.

This is an exploding kitten.

Elan: The games, the activities we gave people to do, were things they could do anyway. There were things they could do on their own social media pages, things they could take pictures of, surveys they could participate in, and we would reward them for that. What it comes down to is this: Kickstarter is a game of sorts, but it’s a terrible game [that only has one button]. I think that’s such an important aspect for a creator to keep in mind — you need to add more buttons. Otherwise you don’t stand a chance.

What’s the secret then?

Jenn Bane: Max and I often get emails from people who are halfway through their Kickstarter or about to launch their Kickstarter and they’re like, “What’s the secret? What is it going to take to get me a million backers?” And there definitely is no secret. It’s more about what you’re doing every single day to get people to pay attention to your project. What are you doing to get people excited about it? Find out what’s exciting, and exploit it like crazy. What I loved about the Secret Hitler project was that [the creators] did a live stream. They started a live stream at the beginning of the week and had like two hundred people watching, and by the end of the week it had caught fire and thousands of people were watching because it was so interesting. So they found something really exciting and really pushed that.

Elan: I’ve been designing games for a long time. I think specifically in regard to a card game, the secret sauce is really that the game itself should not be the entertaining thing. The game should be a mechanism by which it can allow the people sitting around the table to be entertained. Cards Against Humanity does a tremendously good job of that. We work really hard on our game design to push that in every possible opportunity.

B: Yeah, we were just playing Joking Hazard the other day and laughing a whole bunch because it encourages you to set up your friends, not as a challenge but as a creative effort — let’s be ridiculous together.

Rob: Right. It kind of asks you to add context to the three panels you’re looking at. How the hell did these characters get into this situation — this kind of metanarrative.

This game looks like a real joking hazard.

B: But I’m actually going to disagree with Elan about that. Like, I definitely think it’s true of our games. We are in the party game category. And party games are meant to be enjoyed by people at parties. But there’s certainly a world of competitive games that are not about how great and entertaining your opponent is. Some of them are more serious, more purely strategy-related, and I don’t think that’s the same type of game. It doesn’t encourage people to be silly and in the same space.

What other advice would you have for tabletop game creators?

B: People are always going to try to put your product into a one-sentence comparison with something else. And I know with Joking Hazard, people are going to say it’s Cards Against Humanity. In our case it was Uno or Kittens in a Blender. People who want to critique you are going to want to come at you with the idea that what you’re doing isn’t original enough to be worth time. I think that’s really flawed [logic] because the idea that everything has to be completely original is kind of problematic. There are great iterations on things that play to particular audiences. I, for instance, really love the mechanics in the Joking Hazard prototype, where the judge gets to kind of set up the joke that gets told. And that’s something you don’t get in Cards Against Humanity, for instance.

Elan: The other thing I would say that’s really important, and we figured this out just in the nick of time: the original preview page we put up on Kickstarter was essentially an infomercial. It was straightforward, to the point, and really easy. And it was actually Dan Shapiro, who did Robot Turtles and now Glowforge, who pointed it out to me, saying, “You’ve made a really awesome infomercial and it has no business being on Kickstarter.” It was really eye-opening for me, because what he was actually saying was that when you put a campaign on Kickstarter, one of the things you are obligated to do is explain why this is on Kickstarter. We changed our entire page around as a result. We said, “Here’s where this thing came from, and here’s why we’re here, and here’s why we need you. And yeah, we could go through a traditional marketing campaign, but we want this to be for the people, by the people. We want your help to make this game as good as it can be, and Kickstarter is the best place in the world for that, and that’s why we’re here.”

This conversation was moderated by some of Kickstarter’s resident funny guys: Campaign Strategist Michael Stewart and Comedy Lead Taylor Moore. Help support Joking Hazard right over here—the Kickstarter campaign wraps up Thursday, March 10.