Harris: 'Nerds' play the hands they were dealt

8 friends from Highland Park have found success with Cards Against Humanity

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Cards Against Humanity is the No. 1 selling game on Amazon created by a group of Highland Park High School alumni. Cards Against Humanity was at Uncharted Books in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood and at Gen Con in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS

— Josh Dillon's sister nicknamed them "the nerd herd."

That was back when Dillon and seven friends from Highland Park High School would lug their computers and monitors to their parents' basements, wire them together and play games until the wee hours.

Now in their mid-20s, the group has created the top-selling toy or game on Amazon. Called Cards Against Humanity — "a party game for horrible people" — the edgy card game and its three expansion packs occupied Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 6 on Amazon's best-seller list as of Friday.

"This game has corrupted my children," one mom told two of the co-creators at the company's booth at Gen Con, a large gaming convention here. 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 who has become something of the public face of Cards Against Humanity. "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 _______ for the first time." Players then submit the funniest card in their hand that completes the sentence. Some combinations end up absurd, others are obscene.

My answer: "Horrifying laser hair removal accidents." Or option B: "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 will reveal little about other upcoming projects and 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 comedy game for release in 2014.

Meanwhile, at Gen Con, the Cards team is holding a contest to find an undiscovered board game to support. They received more than 500 entries in their "Tabletop Deathmatch" competition. The group will promote and fund the first printing of the winning game in return for bragging rights and more industry experience.

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.

"Well that didn't surprise us," Karen said. "He's been on that path since he was 4. This was totally …"

She was at a loss for words.

In addition to Dillon and Temkin, the other co-creators are Eli Halpern, David Munk and Eliot Weinstein of Chicago; Daniel Dranove, who recently moved from Hawaii to Sweden; and Ben Hantoot and David Pinsof of Los Angeles. 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.

Temkin said he was the only one of the eight who didn't overachieve in high school. (Dillon, Weinstein and Hantoot finished one, two and three in their class.)

Yet it was Temkin who had the crucial business experience. He had already helped turn a game into a worldwide phenomenon.

During his freshman year at Baltimore's Goucher College, Temkin befriended Chris Weed and Brad Sappington, creators of Humans vs. Zombies, or HvZ, an elaborate version of tag played with Nerf guns and sock grenades. Temkin participated in the very first HvZ match and built the game's website.

"Very early on he made a 40-minute documentary about one of the games we were running," Weed said during an interview at Gen Con. "And then that went online and then that actually spread the game incredibly."

The HvZ creators give away the rights to organize the game for free under a creative commons license, meaning anyone can play the game for free but not profit from it.

It's the same business model the Cards team is using; fans are allowed to download a home version for free.

By the end of spring break 2009, Temkin and Hantoot, the most experienced Web designers of the eight, had posted PDFs of the Cards Against Humanity deck online for free download. (It's still available there for free.) The most important thing they did was post a field where fans could enter their email addresses if they wanted updates on the game. More than 1,600 people did so.

Temkin had organized a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for Humans vs. Zombies, so he took the lead on the Cards Against Humanity campaign, which launched in December 2010. Early on, Temkin shot an email to their database of fans announcing the Kickstarter. It began: "Dear horrible friends."

The campaign closed in January 2011 with $15,570, exceeding the goal by more than 300 percent.

But word of the game's rapidly growing popularity hadn't spread to the printing industry. The Chicago printer who produced the prototype and with whom Temkin had worked on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign declined the job.

Hantoot, who oversees production, initially wanted to order 800 sets of 550 unique cards. The printers who were willing to work with that much customization at that volume wanted to charge more than $20 a set.

So they turned to a New Jersey company, Ad Magic, which found them a printer in China.

Temkin said the guys inserted an answer card in one of the decks to express their guilt over the manufacturing decision. It reads: "The tiny, calloused hands of the Chinese children that made this card."

Moving forward after the Kickstarter campaign, the co-creators wanted to retain control and be able to refresh the deck regularly. So they decided to sell directly to consumers for $25 on Amazon. The decision was savvy. Selling direct is potentially more profitable than sharing revenue with retailers, and it avoids the potential headache of putting a taste-challenged game on toy store shelves.

"Pinsof was the one who really had been pushing us to make the game in the first place, just to play it for fun," Hantoot said. "It was Max's idea to do Kickstarter. It was sort of my idea to say, 'Hey, we're making more money, let me take this over and manufacture it properly overseas.' And it was Josh's idea to take the overflow from Kickstarter and sell it on Amazon. But that's not the way we think about the business. People don't come up with these ideas in a vacuum."

Cards Against Humanity hit No. 1 in its category the day it launched on Amazon in 2010, Hantoot said.

And then they ran out.

A black market formed on eBay and Craigslist. Periodic shortages didn't cease until March, when the Cards team added a second production facility in Texas.

"The thing that our parents would have worried about — we were lucky — we didn't have to really ever risk that much," Dillon said. "We never took out any loans. Individual members put in a little bit of their own money at the very beginning. ... The only thing we could have ever possibly wasted was time."

Every Monday night the co-creators organize a video conference call on Google Plus Hangouts. It starts at 10 p.m. and goes past midnight.

On Monday's call, Halpern munched on chips. Hantoot held his dog on his lap. Temkin stroked his cat in his Logan Square living room.

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 _______ repossessed by Bank of America."

The card selection process may begin with instinct, but it ends with science.

Hantoot created 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. And Dillon wrote a computer program to analyze the results.

"We write every one of our cards stone-cold sober," Pinsof said. "So we can have analytical debates about semantics, verb tenses and punctuation marks, etc., because when we're writing a boob joke every little detail counts."

The eight friends' next step is to "dip their toes" into game publishing. They're not taking an ownership stake in or a cut of the profits from the games they invest in — for now. Essentially, they're making a non-tax-deductible donation to a competitor.

"I didn't say I was smart," Temkin said when pressed to explain why.

Of course Temkin is smart, but the bigger story is that he and the others have become ... cool.

Even the pope of nerddom — Wil Wheaton of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" — stopped by the Cards booth Thursday to buy the most recent expansion pack. Although it was the first day of a four-day convention, they had sold out of that item. Wheaton accepted two Temkin-designed Werewolf card packs instead.

"Oh, dude, thank you!" Wheaton gushed to Temkin as he opened one.

"The whole culture is having a 'Revenge of the Nerds' moment," Temkin said. "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."

mmharris@tribune.com

Twitter @chiconfidential

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