It arrived on my doorstep in a plain FedEx envelope. I jiggled the contents to the bottom like a packet of sugar, sliced off the top with my pocket knife, and then upended it on my kitchen table. There, in a little orange box, was the most heavily funded game in Kickstarter's short history — Exploding Kittens, the $8.78 million titan.
It landed with a small thud. A deck of 50-some cards along with a handful of yellow and orange paper scraps.
"Whelp," I wrote co-creator Elan Lee via email that afternoon, "the confetti was a very nice touch."
"It's fire colored!" he wrote back.
Indeed it was.
But how does his game play?
Lee is himself a game designer, famous in some circles for his work as the lead designer of The Beast, a promotional event for Steven Spielberg's movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, as well as Halo's I Love Bees ARG. Together with his partners — Shane Small and webcomic Matthew Inman (who is better known as The Oatmeal) — promoted Exploding Kittens as a "a highly strategic kitty-powered version of Russian Roulette."
The simplicity of that description, when coupled with The Oatmeal's viral art, helped push the Exploding Kittens Kickstarter campaign to obscene heights.
How obscene? The next-most successful game of any kind — inXile's Torment: Tides of Numenera — earned less than half what Exploding Kittens did, while the next-most successful physical game — a Conan the Barbarian-themed board game — earned roughly a third as much money.
Making the Exploding Kittens campaign all the more remarkable is the fact that it was accomplished without anyone outside of a very small group of creators and play testers ever having experienced it.
Was the deck of cards laying there like a cat turd on my kitchen table a fun game? Was it even functional? It was time to find out.
I handed over the deck of cards, still in its shrink wrap, to my friend Tricia a few days later. By the time I got back to the table with a beer she was already halfway through her glass of wine and the deck, giggling like a little kid at every single card.
She handed me one of them as I sat down, and continued laughing uncontrollably. On it was a picture of a kitten.
The kitten was farting.
Mechanically, Exploding Kittens is fairly straightforward. The thematic goal is to prevent curious, cuddly little kittens from detonating themselves and, via proximity, you.
To begin a game, you count up the number of people at the table, subtract one, and insert that many exploding kitten cards into the deck. If you have say four players, as we did, by the time you reach the bottom of the deck three of you will be blasted to smithereens. It is inevitable. Everyone at the table draws a card from the pile in succession, until only one remains.
By hook or by crook, players need to make sure they are the last one standing. To do so, they need to avoid drawing cards if at all possible. If you are forced to draw a card, and if that card happens to be an exploding kitten, you can use a defuse card like the flatulent feline I was holding.
This is where the game gets weird.
Other defuse cards feature laser pointers, belly rubs, and catnip sandwiches, all viable and thematic ways to distract a cat dead-set on blowing you up.
But it's not just defuse cards. There are also attack cards which force other players to take your turn, and draw a card, instead of you.
This is where the game gets weird.
Attacks unleash bizarre, Oatmeal-themed horrors such as the bear-o-dactyl, the catterwocky and the thousand-year back hair. If you're not familiar with The Oatmeal and his body of work, you're going to be completely lost. As was Tricia's husband, Steve.
"Yeah, that's funny," he said while not laughing.
There are other types of cards, including skip cards which allow you to skip your turn without assigning it to someone else, favor cards that allow you to take cards from someone else's hand, and see-the-future cards that allow you to view the top three cards in the draw pile. The art for these cards features, among other things, a portable cheetah butt, a depiction of a man letting squirrels lick peanut butter from his navel and adorable bunny rabbits wearing night vision goggles.
My favorite card type to play ended up being the nope card. If something happens, anywhere on the table to any other player at any time, you can use Nopestradamus or the Nopebell Peace Prize to stop it.
Exploding Kittens is quick, it's fun and yes, it is functional. It's safe for kids, too; in fact, my 5-year-old spent much of one game on my lap telling me what to do, and loving every minute of it. (I can only imagine that the NSFW deck, an add-on that expands the maximum player count from four to nine, would not be advisable for a child. Hard to say, as I didn't try it.)
Over the course of play, however, the game does tend to bog down mechanically. The options at your disposal begin to narrow. Meanwhile, you have to literally reshuffle the dwindling deck repeatedly. This is because when you pull an exploding kitten card and then defuse it, you then have to take the entire draw pile, hold it under the table and surreptitiously replace the kitten somewhere in the deck.
It's a bit tedious, to be honest.
It's remarkable how, ultimately, the entire game is reduced to a The Princess Bride-style test of wits. Once there are only a half-dozen or so cards left in the draw pile, and you're staring across the table at one another like Tricia and I found ourselves staring at one another, you have to make a decision: Is the other player trying to screw me over with the top card in the deck, or with the one just below it?
Do they know that I know that they don't have any more defuse cards left? Or do they know that I think that they think that I know ... You get the idea.
It's a bit tedious, to be honest.
Eventually, you just drink the iocane powder. Either you blow up, or you don't. Grab another beer and/or glass of wine, reshuffle the cards and start again. There will be giggles, if not outright guffaws.
But is this game the second coming of Cards Against Humanity? Will Exploding Kittens become the go-to party game, a veritable cultural touchstone played by us commoners as well as the high-born aristocracy?
I really don't think so.
I'm also at a loss as to how, exactly, to keep this game as fresh or topical as Cards has remained so many years after its launch. If, as Lee told me months ago, the Exploding Kittens Kickstarter was really about creating a community of more than 200,000 people and then keeping them hanging around with interesting things to do together ... I'm not really sure this game, in and of itself, has those kinds of legs.
But as an ice-breaker to a longer night playing games, it's hard to go wrong with Exploding Kittens. It's a good time, even if you're not quite sure where you stand with regard to the legacy of Nikola Tesla or the latest goings-on with the Bob Cats.
Exploding Kittens is in its third playtest phase right now. You can try it yourself at one of many playtest parties happening around the world in the coming weeks.
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