Josh Dillon’s sister nicknamed them “the nerd herd.” That was back when Dillon and seven high school friends would lug their computers to their parents’ basements, wire them together and play games until the wee hours.
Now in their mid-20s, the eight Chicago natives have created the top-selling product in Amazon’s toy-and-game category. Called Cards Against Humanity — “a party game for horrible people” — the edgy party game and its three expansion packs occupied Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5 on Amazon’s best-seller toy list this week.
“This game has corrupted my children,” one mom told two of the co-creators at the company’s booth at Gen Con, a gaming convention in Indianapolis. Then she bought all three expansion packs.
“We hoped it was a good idea, and we thought it was funny,” said Max Temkin, a co-creator. “But it’s our weird nerd humor that we were, like, made fun of for our whole lives. So how are we supposed to know?”
Here’s how it works. One player, the judge, picks up a black card: “In the new Disney Channel Original Movie, Hannah Montana struggles with (blank) for the first time.” Players then submit the funniest card in their hand that completes the sentence. Some combinations end up absurd, others obscene.
One answer: “Horrifying laser hair removal accidents.” Or: “Poor people.” (Offensive, we know, but that’s by design.)
The judge selects a favorite response, and the player who supplied it wins the round. The contest repeats itself with a new judge and a new black card until “someone flips the table over in frustration,” the creators say.
“My daughter brought this game home from college and it is the most tasteless and disturbing game I’ve ever seen,” a fan from Houston wrote on the company’s Facebook page. “We played for hours and laughed until we peed ourselves. … Make more cards!”
That’s what they’re doing. A UK edition and carrying case are set to launch this year. Temkin declined to disclose revenue figures other than to say the co-creators have sold hundreds of thousands of decks. They also are working on a new game for release in 2014.
Cards Against Humanity “certainly isn’t the type of thing we ever expected from this particular group of boys,” said Karen Dillon, Josh’s mom. “I don’t know if Josh told you what he’s doing for a living.”
Yes. He’s working on his Ph.D. in astrophysics at MIT.
Four of his co-creators remain in the Chicago area, while two are in Los Angeles and one in Sweden. Those who do more work on the game get higher salaries, but profit — revenue minus expenses — is split evenly. No one lives with their parents anymore, and some have quit their jobs or stopped looking for them.
Every Monday night, they organize a video conference that starts at 10 p.m. and goes past midnight.
They debated topics like “whether there’s anything funny about eviction” as they weighed a black card along the lines of “I knew I was in trouble when I had my (blank) repossessed by Bank of America.”
The card selection process may begin with instinct, but it ends with science in an online “lab” where anyone can play a simulated version of the game. The lab tracks which cards are used most often and in what combinations.
“The whole culture is having a Revenge of the Nerds moment,” Temkin says. “Being able to go to [these conventions], which are these celebrations of gaming culture and of weirdness and weird people and feeling like I fit in. It’s an incredibly emotional experience. I wish I had had that as a kid.”