If you go to Louisville, Kentucky — as my wife and I do as frequently as we can — you have to eat, so you’re always on the lookout for worthwhile restaurants. Frankly, we tend to eat at our favorite spots whenever we visit, but before our last weekend there, I checked the restaurant-tagged Google map for new places. There was one of our favorites, Doc Crow’s — oysters on the shell, exceptional pork rinds — and just behind it was a bar called The Troll Pub. I clicked over to its website and immediately exclaimed “What the fuck?” which was only partly an expression of my incredulity, because at The Troll Pub they have WTF happy hours — Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays — so I was also just reading what was in front of me. But what an offense! I stared in disbelief at WTF, a perfectly good profanity, brought down by a marketing pun. “How often are we taken in by this indirection?” I wondered. In fact, it happens more than you’d think, let alone hope. I learned this when shopping around for fun game night games, some of which perpetrate similar puns.
I wouldn’t worry about finding games about profanity were I not the local profanity guy, or, as one of my neighbors hails me, “Michael fucking Adams!” At Christmas, I sometimes receive vanity profanity gifts from close friends, for instance, a polished-steel bomb-shaped sculpture with a big “f” on it — I don’t have to spell it out — or a polished-steel plate with an “a” next to a hole. My wife aids and abets, bringing me similar items, like a “Feck it” keychain from the only place it makes sense to buy one. So, when people come over for game night, they expect some profanity, damn it! I don’t want to let everybody down, so I’ve combed many a store’s shelves for a game with or about strong language.
I have been disappointed, not least because some game inventors and game publishers indulge the same cynical punning on WTF as The Troll Pub. For example, I spied a box with WTF in big black letters only to discover, on a closer look, that WTF stood, not for one of our favorite profanities, but “What the Fish!” So, don’t expect profanity; that’s not what the game’s about. They just use the simulacrum of profanity as bait, then reel you in.
WTF a.k.a. What the Fish! (2018) is “A Card Game of Survival,” as in big fish eat little fish. To win, one of your fish cards has to swim to freedom, which is confusing, because cards don’t swim. Besides fish cards, players deploy “kill cards” and “protection cards,” but the really interesting cards are the WTF cards, which demand things like “Take 2 Cards Randomly from Another Player.”
I suppose this is where profanity comes in, because if I were Another Player and somebody tried to take two of my cards, I’d probably say, “Dude, what the fuck?” What I wouldn’t say: “What the fish?” Listen to how it sounds: “What the fish, University Games? You lost my trust when you used a self-serving euphemism for WTF as a game name.” A guy named Jim Keifer invented the game, but the trademark belongs to University Games Corporation, so let’s blame them and let Mr. Keifer off the hook. Similarly, little fish who get killed by big fish might exclaim, “What the fuck?” and if you were a big fish stymied by one of those stupid protection cards, you might say “What the fuck?” too, but fish don’t talk, that’s not in the game, so you have to write that script for yourself.
It’s bad enough, I think, that there’s such a thing as WTF: (What the Fish!), but it’s not the only game to appropriate WTF to its commercially motivated euphemistic punning. Consider What The Film?!, “a party game” by Alex Mackey and Mike Szalajko, published by Lethal Chicken Games in 2018 — the year of the WTF games, apparently — in which we “make movies” and “backstab friends.” Seems unlikely that folks would come to my house for some friendly backstabbing, but if they did, I’m sure one of them, catching on, would at least think “WTF.” Still, the game’s content is about as far from profanity as the fish game’s. Players’ hands include Actor, Plot, Set, and Industry cards, on the basis of which players pitch movies at a clip of 36 seconds per pitch. It’s not that I have anything against fish or film games, but, aside from player frustration, where’s the profanity? Where, on the superstore shelf, would I find a profanity game?
When my eyes rested on WTF Did You Say?!? I was impressed by the punctuation and, also, it’s a game in which what you say counts, so that seemed more like the premise of a profanity-focused game. “Yes,” I thought, on closer inspection of the box, “it’s one of those ‘Cards Against Humanity’ games, with the subtitle, ‘A Party Game Against All Dignity and Morality … Humanity Hates These Cards’ — that’s got to be because of the profanity!” I forgot the many ways in which one can offend dignity and morality. The revelations prompted by cards in this game may shock and even disgust some players, but profanity doesn’t seem much in play. Also, it seems it’s not a Cards Against Humanity product. Is What Do You Meme? LLC responsible? Are they also responsible for the supplementary box, Cards Against WTF? The boxes and instructions for WTF Did You Say?!? and Cards Against WTF indicate neither creators, publisher, nor copyright dates — one can imagine a trademark dispute over use of against in the game marketplace.
Having exhausted the store shelves, I went online. What about What the F? from Cheatwell Games? No creators, no copyright date, but at least we know who’s behind it. No, that game’s not about profanity, either, nor is Oh Fruck! marketed to Real Fruckers who belong to the Beneficent Order of Fruckers whose (paradoxically, and I’ve nothing against that) motto is “Don’t get frucked!” Frucking funny, up to a point, but still not a game about profanity, though players no doubt bring it to the table. The What Do You Meme? people are definitely behind 4-bidden Words (Damn — ©2018 again!), the last hope in my limited view of a game about profanity for sweary people. Alas, it’s nothing of the kind, but one of those games where you hold a card against your forehead with words your partners can’t use as clues in the game. The flavor of the cards isn’t even salty, let alone profane.
Well, I didn’t find the profanity game of my daydreams, but at least I have a bunch of new games for game nights. And I learned something about profanity, anyway. Game makers have different ideas about who should play their games.
What the Fish? works for “Ages 8 and Up”? Does University Games assume that eight-year-olds swear? (Actually, eight-year-olds do.) Does University Games assume that parents of eight-year-olds no longer resist juvenile swearing? (Actually, fully aware of the futility involved, most of us still resist on occasion — is a game called WTF? such an occasion?) The audience for What the Film? starts at twelve years, but WTF Did You Say? and 4-bidden Words are games for adults, more or less — less, really, at eighteen and seventeen years, respectively. Of course, the age of the audience corresponds to the whole game, not just the title, but wait until your eight-year-old asks whether she and her friends can play What the Fuck? at the sleepover. We hope to protect our younger children from profanity, well aware that they euphemize like hell until they’re finally licensed to swear.
Still, we need a good game about profanity for people who like profanity. I know the perfect person to design that game: Gretchen McCulloch. If you don’t believe me, read her posts on this site or listen to Lingthusiasm, her podcast with co-host Lauren Gawne. I’m not wrong: I’m Michael fucking Adams.