This article contains discussions of themes that may be inappropriate for younger readers.
At UKGE 2017 a handful of would-be designers approached our stall with a host of prototypes and pitches. Among these excellent and creative designs was one pitch for a game that revolved around cultivating, manufacturing and trading drugs in a fictional black market setting. Although the game may well have been excellent, we avoided it based on its un-family-friendly theme alone. This example, however, is not the most shocking theme for a game we’ve ever received. Earlier this year a pitch was submitted through our site that essentially treated human slaves as collectible characters, and featured design elements and thematic choices that most would find deeply offensive.
A number of controversial game designs have prompted heated discussions in online groups recently. From the cheeky to the crude to the downright disturbing; it seems that nowadays nothing is off limits when it comes to tabletop design. If you can make it someone out there will find it.
In today’s golden age of design and theme there are hundreds of games that stray far from the wholesome family-friendly pastime some of us consider tabletop to be. As publishers and designers try again and again to push for innovation new themes and ideas, including those not suitable for younger players, enter the hobby – sometimes successfully and sometimes not. This shift from ‘traditional’ themes and settings is especially noticeable in party games, where the need to carve out a niche and draw attention is much greater.
The rise of these light-on-mechanics, high-on-outrage games is a trend that has led to dozens of designers creating fun and edgy games that sit somewhere between tongue-in-cheek and in-your-face. The growing popularity of adult-oriented party games could be attributed to hundreds of overlapping factors, but when it comes to the design behind these games one game in particular has been hugely influential: Cards Against Humanity.
Released in 2011, the hugely popular fill-in-the-blank game has been a staple of party games ever since its release. Gamers and non-gamers alike love the incredibly simple, yet wonderfully designed, game – in which a group competes to shock their peers with hilarious statements that can range from the bizarre and offensive to the heart-warming and sweet. (Although they’re more often than not rude…)
The huge popularity of CAH (as well as it’s copyright-free release) has spawned a handful of expansions, imitators and even blatant rip offs. Many of these direct inspirations attempt to recreate the magic of CAH with shocking and provocative elements that imitate CAH’s provocative responses and questions. Although a few rare examples end with a solid and enjoyable game, the majority fall flat of what makes CAH truly great.
Many designers inspired by CAH unfortunately misunderstand the best qualities of the game, and instead focus on the edgy and attention-grabbing elements in their own game. CAH, however, is far more than an adult-themed party game when it comes to design. The brilliance in it is that it is only really as offensive (or as funny) as the group you’re playing with. The hugely varied questions and responses are designed of course to push at the edges of good taste, but in actual play groups adapt to their own level of humour and offendibility.
CAH challenges sensibilities on whatever level they exist. If your friends enjoy bizarre whimsy then the game can cater for that. If they revel in the darkest, most twistedly inappropriate responses possible then the game can do that too*. It’s this subtle ability to exist on many levels that some designers miss, instead focusing too heavily on the powerful shock-factor that adult and provocative themes lend their game, rather than creating a game which focuses on player creativity and variability.
In breaking new boundaries, CAH showed that adult-oriented games could not only succeed commercially, but also exist as fun and well-designed games too. This success opened the floodgates for dozens of games that use adult-themes, sometimes well and sometimes poorly. The massive success of CAH also allowed these games to thrive, with many people seeking similar experience, eager to send cash flowing towards this formerly niche area of tabletop.
Many veteran gamers resent the recent trend in shock-first-gameplay-second games, seeing it as a ‘dumbing-down’ of the hobby. Of course, this argument doesn’t account for taste. Many tabletop fans simply enjoy games that are puerile, silly or even outwardly offensive. At the same time many others that don’t consider themselves boardgamers are drawn to games where humour is first and foremost in a game’s design.
The reason why so many games have fit into this category in recent years is obvious. With the floodgates opened, it’s difficult to see if the future of casual party games will continue to exist as it does today. Perhaps this is a passing trend, or perhaps it is one that has staying power. What is most interesting, however, is how these casual games will influence and shape tabletop gaming as a whole. Will casual games return to their family-friendly roots? Is this just the start of a permanent divide between the old-style and the new, adult-oriented school of design?
To say that games are dropping in quality because of any kind of games’ popularity is always wrong, and even with games that put many off this is true. Whether or not the hardened old guard of ‘serious’ tabletop gamers appreciate the influx of these sorts of games, it’s incredibly difficult to argue how more boardgamers of any type could be bad for the hobby or the industry.
*Later versions of the game have been criticised for blatantly offensive elements, which have been discussed in this excellent article from the Daily Dot.