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$3.5 million for a card game? We talk with Exploding Kittens co-creator (correction)

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Exploding Kittens is a card game where four players come together to help prevent a young, curious cat from inadvertently detonating something. Hand grenade, nuclear power plant, regular-old TNT — the Kickstarter game has it all. Plus kittens.

As of the writing of this article it also has nearly $3.5 million dollars in crowdsourced funding, money it earned in just the first 3 days of its campaign.

It all started with a $10,000 ask and a funny video with some line drawings of pudgy cats. Now the card game has become a runaway success. Kicktraq projects that, at the going rate, trends towards $26 million, which if they continute would make it far and away the most heavily funded project in Kickstarter history.

Polygon reached out to one of the co-creators of the game, Elan Lee, to find out how it all started and where Exploding Kittens goes from here.

Stirring the Oatmeal

Elan Lee is famous in game design circles as the lead designer of The Beast, a promotional event for Steven Spielberg's movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. That alternate reality game was one of the first ARGs to break into the public consciousness. Lee went on to co-found 42 Entertainment, the company responsible for Halo's I Love Bees ARG, as well as Year Zero, the ARG used to promote the Nine Inch Nails album of the same name.

So what in the nine hells is he doing making a card game?

"This game was originally designed by my partner, Shane Small," Lee told Polygon. "We were driving into work at Microsoft ... and he said, 'I have a new game idea. We're going to take a deck of cards and we're going to put a joker in the deck of cards, and then we're going to put the deck face down and take cards from the top. Whoever draws the joker loses.'"

Elan Lee built some of the biggest ARGs in history

It sounds like a pretty terrible game and, Lee says, it was. It took two months of banging on the idea before a real game fell out, one with custom cards including defensive and offensive tricks to play against your opponents. The mockup, called Bomb Squad, accompanied them both on a trip to Hawaii.

That's where they met Matthew Inman, better known as webcomic The Oatmeal.

But for the love of all that's good and fluffy, why were Lee and Inman on vacation together?

"There's another character in the mix," Lee said. "Matt Harding, better known as Where The Hell Is Matt. He does these crazy internet dance videos. He goes all around the world doing a really hokey dance in front of famous landmarks. It's crazy.

"For a while he was the second-most popular video on all of YouTube. He was among the very first YouTube viral videos. And for a long time, I was his camera man."

Around the world

That's right. The same man who created two of the most popular ARGs in history is also the same man who helped create some of YouTube's most popular and viral imagery. Then, while on a group vacation he met one of the most popular webcomics in the world.

Boom. Exploding Kittens? Not quite.

Lee was initially too timid to even play the game with Inman. It took days of concerted arm-twisting.

"I was like, 'Look. Let's play this for five minutes,'" Lee said. "'I'm really embarassed about this game. It's so silly.'"

Two hours later they were still playing. There, in a rented beach house over Halloween last year, they played Bomb Squad for days on end. By the end of the trip, The Oatmeal wanted a piece of the action.

"Inman said, 'Listen, I've got a book deal coming up. I'm about to do a lot of work, but I will call and postpone all of that if you take me on as a partner and let me illustrate these cards. Because this is the best game ever.'"

The only condition, Lee says, was that they re-skin the game to involve kittens instead of bombs. Why?

"Because the internet."

It's around that point in the interview where Lee's phone went berserk. His campaign had just crossed over $3 million dollars.

Horrible people

Who else do you go to for help, Lee said, when you're planning a Kickstarter campaign but the guru himself, Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin.

"We talked to him quite a bit," Lee said. "He is the god of this. Basic wisdom is follow anything he says."

Lee will be using CAH's own manufacturing and fulfillment partners, a company called Ad Magic. They're responsible for most of the heavy lifting for the past two years' Holiday Bullshit, where CAH sent people personalized playing cards, tiny bags of coal and deeds to a private island in Maine. Because of Temkin and company's shenanigans, Lee says Ad Magic is used to dealing in large volumes of unconventional, card-based products.

But they were not emotionally prepared for Exploding Kittens.

"Day one I called Shari [my contact at Ad Magic]," Lee said. "I said, 'So remember when I said we were going to only order 1,000 cards? Well, we've got — right now, at the end of day one — 50,000 orders.'

"She just started screaming. For like 20 seconds straight. Just screaming. At first it was in alarm, but after a while, in listening to her I could hear the smile creeping into her voice."

"She just started screaming. For like 20 seconds straight."

Lee is confident that Ad Magic will be up to the manufacturing challenge, just as he's confident he personally is up to the logistical challenge. This kind of time-intensive project management, combined with game design, is right up his alley. After high-concept ARGs like The Beast and I Love Bees, he feels like he's been training for this moment his whole life.

But for crying out loud, doesn't Lee feel a little disappointed that after so many high-concept, cutting edge play experiences this — of all things, an old-fashioned physical card game — Exploding Kittens is his big moment in the sun?

He just laughs.

"It's not an old-fashioned card game," Lee said. "You have to keep in mind there’s two elements going on simultaneously. This card game is a thing that no one has experienced yet. No one actually has any idea what this game is. We know it’s lovely and really fun, but nobody else knows that yet.

"The second component is what’s actually going on right now, which is a world-wide campaign to build an audience, a community, around a story that they alter in real time. That’s what I do. That’s what I do for a living. That’s what I’m doing today."

So far, that community has helped to create the first stretch goal; the "not safe for work" or NSFW deck for Exploding Kittens. It's not an expansion. It's completely separate game, one that can be played alone or combined to create a larger, eight-player version of the game. And without Kickstarter Lee says, and the community it brought him and his team, it might never have been made.

Correction: As our readers have pointed out, past performance is not an indicator of future success. This campaign is, at the time of this writing, trending towards $26 million dollars. That's very different than a projection, and the text has been changed to reflect that.