Friends shown playing the card game The Ultimate Clap Back.
Screenshot: Kickstarter

MaryMartha E. Ford-Dieng’s eyes light up, and I turn to find the source of their delight.

“Watch this, this is my favorite thing—seeing a black woman find it,” she says. “She’s thinking to herself, ‘Wait, is this what I think it is?’”

We’re on the balcony level at the second annual Play NYC games convention, where Ford-Dieng is tabling her card game The Ultimate Clap Back, with several neophytes kneeling on the floor and clutching their cards. An African-American woman has strolled by the booth in pursuit of their laughter and is over-the-shoulder reading the different cards in play. From my vantage, it’s almost rude; she’s like, getting in there, squinting to read the text.

Ford-Dieng gives her a little time to investigate, but soon introduces herself and explains the game, whose name is emblazoned on the back of her single-issue satin jacket. The rules are simple: Players get five yellow cards containing clapbacks, quick retorts to an insult placed on a randomly drawn pink card. The variety of subjects include bad hair, worse dating habits, and your big ass mouth—yeah, you. Each round, a player draws an insult card and throws it to a target of their choice, who then has to clapback at it with what’s in hand, or draw another yellow for help. The winner of this engagement gets the point, though that winner might have to be determined by a table vote if there’s any disagreement.

It’s actually a very simple game loop that can easily be taught in a single round of play, but there’s a bit more nuance to effective dressing-down. You need to sell that clapback to secure it, making the rare situation where witty defensiveness is your greatest ally. In other words, you need to say it with your chest, maybe slightly alter your language or tone of voice to give it that oomph. A meek or perplexed response, even with what is otherwise the perfect clapback, might not spell a win.

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The Ultimate Clap Back channels language skills, charisma and even personal history, though there’s a spirit of good fun, rendering its potential absurdities —like the soft-spoken white man at the table, who is now defending himself against a bad-weave accusation—still relevantly in the spirit. It’s a great icebreaker that lacks the privileged caustic voice inherent in the mega-hit Cards Against Humanity, and attention and interest in it has been growing since its launch back in 2017.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Ford-Dieng stands out among her tabletop game-developing peers. Any time I’ve seen her dazzling personality hold court at nerd conventions one thing is abundantly clear: black women continue to be conspicuously absent in this space. I’m upfront with her about this point, while hesitant to diminish her unique creation by assigning her some kind of ad-hoc ambassadorial role, though I do learn that she was partially inspired to create it from Black Card Revoked (which was turned into a game show on BET).

So, how did The Ultimate Clap Back get made? It actually started with a hugely unexpected turn of events: brain surgery.

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“I was sitting there watching TV, and my face started to twitch. It was a twitching like I had never felt before. Like you could actually see it fasciculating. I had this terrible noise in my ear, and I was like, am I having a stroke? What’s going on? What is today’s date, who is the president? Turned out I have a brain disorder called Chiari Malformation. So, that happened, and I had to have some brain surgery. It’s going to be seven years since on Aug. 16.”

In the years since recovering from the procedure, Ford-Dieng found herself juggling self-care, stress and the increasingly complicated medical needs of her mother, who had to be moved to a nursing home close by her daughter. Her overall state of health was imperiled: “I found myself a doctor, a good therapist, and an even better anti-depressant. I was like, okay, I’m going to take care of myself; now, what are some other things I can do to channel this negative energy? Since I found myself always snapping at people, I was like: I’ll make something ... [but] I had no idea what I was doing.”

“At the time, there was a new-ish, popular game that was out, called Black Card Revoked. Within my community, there are these inside jokes that we have with each other. So I thought, what if I made a game about clapping back at people?”

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That was back in 2016 when she was working on part of the mechanics with her husband and testing it on friends. Ford-Dieng threw herself completely into the writing. She hired a graphic designer early on, but when that partnership didn’t pan out, she abruptly decided to handle it on her own, teaching herself InDesign and creating the pink/yellow/black color scheme to be noticeable and to represent her hometown team in Pittsburgh.

Now living in New York City, Ford-Dieng spends her 9-to-5 as an advisor at Columbia University, though her relationship with the city began at a very young age. Her brother, a working actor, began taking her along to Manhattan when she was 11 years old, where she would sit behind the scenes and listen to backstage headset chatter for shows like Miss Saigon and Smokey Joe’s Cafe. It turned out that this was a formative education, which would send her in pursuit of stage management work after graduation.

I relate this history to color her primary creative game-development focus today: Ford-Dieng didn’t come from a background in games or development, and rarely played video games or even cards in her free time. The magic of The Ultimate Clap Back is in the pain she processed through it, something which feeds the surprising catharsis that sometimes emerges in a heated session.

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“There is something about hearing other people play the game and laugh that warms me in a way that I cannot even describe. I like when I’m doing these conferences, and someone sees the game and they’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can play this ...’ I’m like, sure you can! And then they start, and they’re like, ‘Okay, so just say it?’ Just say it! Mean it! No one’s going to get offended, this is your opportunity! This is something that you wanted to say to somebody, whoever it is, just say it!”

“And it’s like, ooooh, this weight just got lifted off of me! Like they’re tapping into what I put into the game. So it’s nice to see when someone presents as shy, maybe even a little mousy, but suddenly has this confidence. And wins the game!”

Despite the potential anachronism in this concept—a game about insulting people that is actually meant to heal—it visibly works. While there’s certainly variations on the type of experience, depending on whether participants are strangers, good friends, or more likely a mix of both, the designs put forth are well-intentioned, and The Ultimate Clap Back is now expanding.

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An interesting, possibly unexpected detail is the utter lack of profanity in the original boxed edition, but a Kickstarter project earlier this year helped Ford-Dieng print the first ever expansion, Sometimes You Gotta Cuss. The update offers 100 brand new cards which combine with the starter edition, adding more than a few expectant references to body parts and some after-hours language. Luckily, the crowdfunding campaign for the expansion narrowly hit its $8,500 goal and debuted for sale to the public at Play NYC.

“At the heart of it, it’s for the culture. A black person who reads this game, they know, there are just certain things that you hear that are here. But it’s still universal, because ... every culture has a clap back — that’s just what we do,” says Ford-Dieng.

“And sometimes you have to gather people. Sometimes they must be gathered ... very quickly.”

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Leonardo Faierman is a writer, editor, comic creator and podcaster. Born in Buenos Aires, bar-mitzvah’d in Queens, furiously writing it all down in the Bronx.