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The Game That Makes You Work for Your Fun

An ode to Apples to Apples.

Apples to Apples on an illustrated pedestal
Photo illustration by Slate

Read Slate’s complete list of the 40 Best Family Games.

It’s easy to dismiss Apples to Apples as the childish predecessor of its adult counterpart, the wildly popular Cards Against Humanity. Where Apples to Apples fills its cards with simple words and basic celebrities—“smelly,” “the moon,” “Steven Spielberg”—Cards Against Humanity’s cards are offbeat, politically incorrect, or just plain dirty. How can “smelly” compete against “autoerotic asphyxiation”? But I am here to tell you that you can and should return to the prelapsarian innocence of Apples to Apples.

The gameplay of A2A, created in 1999, and CAH, created in 2010, is so similar that I’ve never understood how the latter got away with essentially ripping off the former. (I’m no expert in game trademark law.) In both games, there are two sets of cards, the first of which contains prompts and the second of which contains things that might answer or otherwise match those prompts. For A2A, prompts include stuff like the aforementioned “smelly,” etc., but in CAH, a prompt tends to be something more verbose like, “In his newest and most difficult stunt, David Blaine must escape from _______.” A new judge draws a prompt each round, and then the rest of the players try to pick, from the cards they’re holding, the one that best answers it. The person who wins the most rounds—who therefore has mind-melded the most times with her companions—wins the game.

Of course CAH, the game full of prefabricated jokes, seems like a better time. (Although it’s worth noting that the cards in CAH are written for an imagined audience of straight, white, able-bodied people, and their treatment of those not in those groups ranges from dismissive to offensive.) But CAH so foregrounds its attempts at shock humor that it can be a pretty uncreative experience for the people playing: You’re just reading off and laughing at the company’s idea of transgression, rather than remixing it into your own thing. When every card contains a vulgar line, they’re all about equally funny and equally special—or unspecial. The NFL has an ad slogan: “Together, We Make Football.” Together, we make Apples to Apples: In order for the game to be good, players have to bring something to it. The best thing you can bring is your relationships and knowledge of how a fellow player thinks and what he or she finds funny, aka social intelligence. But you can also bring an understated cleverness that is sorely lacking in CAH.

It’s been a while, but I still remember with pride a round of Apples to Apples I won with the card “Friction.” Yes, it was about sex, but not in a cheap, overt way; it was subtly hilarious, dammit! This is less likely to happen in CAH, where usually the winning card is some dirty non sequitur; sometimes it fits just right, but just as often such single entendres are ultimately interchangeable.

The indisputable fact is that A2A represents more of a challenge than CAH. It’s not automatically fun: You have to make it fun, which is so much more rewarding. When you actually do it, find yourself cracking up at this wholesome-ass game, it feels like a real achievement. I recently returned to Apples to Apples with a group of friends after a years-long hiatus. It had been so long since anyone had played it that we didn’t remember the rules; we looked them up on YouTube. I won’t lie, it took a few rounds to get back into the groove. But around the time someone won a round for “Soft” with the answer “Robert De Niro,” it was just like old times. It doesn’t sound that funny, but trust me; the whole point is that you had to be there.

Apples to Apples product image with optimal age (12)

Apples to Apples

Types: Card, Creative, Party
Players: 4–8
Time: 45 min.
Variations? Y
Expansions? Y
Play without kids? Y