Game of HAM
Designer: Bill S. Naim
Publisher: Game of HAM, LLC
Year Published: 2019
Players: 3 - 16
Playing Time: 60-120 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
Do you like hanging out with your friends and making dirty jokes, or seeing who can get the biggest cringe with the most outrageous statement? Well . . . there are lots of options for that sort of thing now. Back in 2011, Cards Against Humanity exploded on the scene by sticking naughty words and vulgar phrases on cards while adapting the gameplay of the family classic Apples to Apples. The game’s irreverent sense of humor appealed to teens and young adults. In a brilliant move, Cards Against Humanity (or CAH) published a free print and play version of the game available for download from their website in addition to launching a Kickstarter for a professionally printed version. All you had to do to get a free copy of the game was print hundreds of cards . . .
Cards Against Humanity was a humongous hit, and by the mid-2010s it inspired a shift in mainstream game design. Other party games started releasing “adult” versions with obscene language and new “adult” graphic design focusing on black. Now even mainstream retailers like Target and Wal-Mart stock these adult games in a specially branded section of the toy and games department. Telestrations After Dark. Cranium Dark. Even Codenames got in on the action with Codenames: Deep Undercover. But all these games just fill in the extra space left over after stocking Cards Against Humanity and its many expansions. Any new “adult” party game will immediately find itself in competition with this behemoth.
Which brings us to Game of HAM. The “HAM” stands for “Hating All Mankind,” so the creators are clearly inviting the comparison. And that’s just what I’m going to do. In a world where Cards Against Humanity exists, is it worth playing Game of HAM instead?
The rules to the game are quite simple. One player begins by drawing a gray card, and reading aloud the prompt. The other players then select a pink card from their hands (because ham is pink) and playing them face down. The first player then shuffles the cards and reads each one out loud, then selects the best answer. So far, so exactly the same as Cards Against Humanity.
But! Each gray card has two numbers on it. When a player wins the gray card, they pick one of those two numbers and then move that many spaces on the board (vertically, horizontally, or diagonally!). There are seven different types of spaces they can land on. A red, orange, yellow, or green space lets the player draw a card from the red, orange, yellow, or green ham decks respectively. A space with a number on it lets the player move that many additional spaces. A white space is a sort of “checkpoint.” Some cards will bounce a player back to the last white space they passed. Or if a player lands on top of another player’s piece that player gets sent back to the last white space they passed. Dark gray spaces are like the white ones, except there’s only one dark gray space, and there are very few cards that send a player back to it. The gold space is the goal of the game. If a player can land exactly on the gold space, they win.
Once a player wins a gray card and moves that many spaces, they become the judge for the next round. This means a player literally cannot win two cards in a row. This means that not every player will be a judge an equal number of times each game, but that also serves as a great catch-up mechanic. You don’t have to worry about the same player winning three tricks in a row and taking an insurmountable lead.
By now you’re thinking, ok, it’s a combination of Cards Against Humanity and Sorry!, right? And you’d be correct. That’s exactly what this game feels like. But there a few more twists to it. Those red, orange, yellow, and green ham cards all have special abilities that you can use at any time. Some will move a player back to a white or gray space, some will let you discard pink cards you don’t want so you can draw new ones, some will even prevent other players from playing cards for one trick, improving your odds of victory or preventing a player from potentially winning. And if you don’t want your card, you can just give it to another player to move your piece one or two spaces.
There’s one last trick to this game and it’s my favorite piece. The back of each gray card has a letter on the bottom: H, A, or M. When you win a gray card, you get to keep it. If you collect one card with each letter, then at any point in the game you can actually play those three gray cards to cancel the effect of a colored card. So let’s say the judge has picked your card to win the trick, and this will win you the game. Then the player on your left plays a green card that forces the judge to pick a different winner for the trick. Now you slam your HAM combo on the table and cancel the green card! You win! Hooray!
Which segues into the best part of this game: Game of HAM ends. Cards Against Humanity . . . doesn’t. Okay, technically it does. If you read the rulebook, it clearly states that the first player to win seven black cards wins. But I have never been in a group that remembered or followed that rule. People just keep playing until they get bored, which is a terrible way to play a game. As a designer, you want people to finish your game eager to play again (like I mentioned last week in my review of Castles of Mad King Ludwig). But most people leave a game of CAH ready for a nap.
That’s not to say Game of HAM doesn’t have flaws. It does. I haven’t played this game as much as CAH, but in the few games we played the pink cards just didn’t “land” as well. Generally we’d only get one or two belly laughs over the course of an entire game. The cards in CAH don’t always land either, but in my experience they work more often than not. Another issue is that you need to win tricks to get access to the colored cards that make the game fun and interesting, but if you don’t win any, you’re stuck with nothing to work with. And once you get access to some colored cards, they largely function as “take-that” mechanics.
Strategically, the best way to play most of the colored cards is to save them to prevent another player from winning, or to ensure that you win. If you’ve played Munchkin, Boss Monster, or other games of that ilk, you’ll know exactly what I mean. The end of the game is a flurry of cards as everyone tries to keep everyone else from winning. Once everyone's resources are exhausted, one player easily snags the win. That’s not my favorite style of game. But it is more interesting than the normal ending to Cards Against Humanity. And, you know, if you’re bored or want to do something else, you can just decide not to play your colored card and let your friend win.
This is a simple game with a couple neat twists to keep things interesting. The “quick-start” rules convey everything on a single page. You can use that to start playing immediately and have a good time. Or you can read the full rulebook. Which is 24 PAGES LONG. Why? Some of the book is dedicated to more detailed rules about the cards and spaces to accommodate future expansions. But the majority of the rulebook (a full 15 and a ½ pages) are variants and optional rules. Some are small changes, some are big, some are for players ages 21 and up who want to incorporate . . . substances . . . in their game. If you don’t like the basic rules and want to change it up, this rulebook has you covered.
That’s both a pro and a con. It’s nice to have options to make the game more fun. Most people develop custom “house rules” to fix perceived issues with games. But Game of HAM’s presentation is just too much. I read game rulebooks for fun, and I lost the motivation to keep reading after the second page of optional rules. I prefer to assume that the designers and developers have found the most fun and accessible way to play to set as the default. And then if there are a few fun variants they found along the way, they can tack those on as a some extra options for when the basic game starts to get stale. But in this case, there’s just too much. It feels like the default game is the framework, and you have to pick and choose the combination of optional rules that will turn this into a great game. Yes, that combination will be different for every group, but I still would have wanted the designer to make an attempt first. Or maybe cut back on the number of options to just three pages, and release the others with expansions.
Finally, I have to address this game’s most egregious issue. Like many games, Game of HAM relies on color-coding as a mechanical shorthand. And one of my close friends and frequent gaming buddies happens to be red/green colorblind. As you can probably see from the pictures of the board and components, both colors show up often in this game, and they are presented in ways where they can easily be confused for each other. Granted, a player can easily ask someone “is this space red or green” without suffering any in-game penalty. Long-term planning isn’t a thing in this game. But at the same time, 10% of the adult male population suffers from red/green color blindness (and a smaller percentage of adult females), and most game designers have figured out by now that small adjustments to their graphic design can allow players to have the same experience without constantly acknowledging their disability. All it takes is associating a shape with a color, or picking different colors. Game of HAM was made by a small team, and it’s a fine first attempt, but this is something that needs to be addressed in future editions/expansions.
One differentiator is that Game of HAM includes explanatory text for cards with more obscure words or concepts. Have you ever played a game of CAH or Apples to Apples where you play a card that’s a perfect fit, but no one else at the table gets the reference? Well, Game of HAM provides that explanation right on the card. This lets them use more obscure references, which are a lot of fun. We all know what “candy filled with razor blades” is, but “A pontianak” (a female vampiric ghost from Indonesian and Malay mythology) would never work without more information. In fact, Game of HAM’s subtitle emphasizes this aspect of the game: “Be a terrible person, and still learn stuff . . .”
Another thing this game does well is it (generally) punches up, not down. Except for body weight issues. Eating disorders, fat jokes, and thin jokes showed up surprisingly often in the games we played. They came up so frequently that they just felt boring and overused, which is surprising since the game comes with over 500 pink cards in the base set. Maybe that’s just a factor of variance and poor shuffling. Still, the game does a great job with new and creative jokes for the most part. This over reliance on body weight is simply disappointing.
All that being said, the real question is simple: in a world where Cards Against Humanity exists, is there any reason to play Game of HAM instead? And I can unequivocally answer: yes. Game of HAM refines and expands upon CAH. CAH lets players laugh at vulgar and obscene phrases. Game of HAM makes that part of an actual game with a goal and simple strategies. It’s not perfect, but it’s a valiant attempt and I found it to be far more enjoyable than my last game of Cards Against Humanity. And, as is apparently tradition, Game of HAM is also available as a free Print and Play download from their website. So if you’re at a party and someone suggests Game of HAM, you should join them and play it.
This week's review was selected by me! That's right, I took control this time! Muahahaha! However, most weeks I hold a poll so my followers can vote on which game I review next. If you'd like to make your voice heard, follow me on Twitter @OrNotToPlay. See you next week!