Harris: 'Nerds' play the hands they were dealt

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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