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Exploding Kittens co-creator teaming up for Spaceteam card game

How do you turn a successful mobile game into a tabletop game?

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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.

The popular co-operative mobile title Spaceteam is being turned into a tabletop game. Helping to test and produce the card game is the co-creator of the smash hit Exploding Kittens, which raked in nearly $9 million on Kickstarter earlier this year. So how do you turn a successful mobile game into a card game? We sat down with Mathew Sisson, one of its designers, to find out.

For the uninitiated, Spaceteam is a local multiplayer co-operative experience for iOS and Android devices created by Henry Smith, a former programmer at Bioware. Players connect a handful of devices wirelessly and then frantically try to push buttons and pull virtual levers in time to keep their imaginary spaceship from being smashed to bits. It's free-to-play, quick to set up and requires virtually no instruction. You can basically hand someone a phone with the game running and they're instantly participating.

So where, exactly, do you draw inspiration to translate such a frantic, hilarious game to the physical space?

You lock people in rooms for a living.


"I'm originally from Boston and moved out to Boulder, Colorado about 4 years ago," Mathew Sisson told Polygon. "I quickly realized that I was kind of over the technology field I worked in, and that I wanted to do more fun things and create experiences and see people engage with what I create.

"So I started building escape rooms."

An escape room is a live-action game where participants are literally locked in a room and have to work together to find a way out. Imagine a point-and-click adventure game played out in a real physical space. Already popular in Asia and Europe, Sisson was one of the first to bring the concept to Colorado.

"My business partner and I didn't know anything about puzzles," Sisson said. "But we thought, let’s see what we can come up with. So we built this room, and it was a huge hit. It’s kind of like a very interactive museum. People are always told don’t touch these things, or don’t mess around with that stuff, but you put people into a room and tell them to touch everything and they go nuts. They’re so excited to be able to just explore a room, let alone figure out exactly what’s going on and try to move through it.

"We were cash flow positive within three weeks, and people in Boulder just loved it."

In time, Sisson and his partner had several different rooms in the area, all doing great business. His secret to success, he said, was to turn away from the impulse to make the escape rooms dark and frightening. Instead, they were designed to be more familiar and, in their own way, welcoming.


It was the same kind of approach he took to his favorite hobby; board games.

"I quickly realized that there was this huge barrier between people who really loved those Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing games and everyone else," he said. "Those types of games to be dark and scary, and 85 percent of people in the room have already played some type of version of that game. So there’s a huge barrier for people that actually want to jump in. So it’s really just like thinking about how you get the general public to start picking up games like this.

"So I’ve started having board game nights, and all these people that remain skeptical about not playing a game that’s not Monopoly or straight up Scrabble, now they’re playing Forbidden Desert and Settlers of Catan and all those ones where you actually have to strategize and think. So, that’s kind of our approach with Spaceteam; to really bring it into this modern life so that people aren’t really thinking about that instance and are really just enjoying what the game has to offer."

In the Spaceteam card game players will have a hand of cards, filled with weird tools. They also have a stack of spaceship malfunctions they're responsible for fixing. As the cards are drawn from the malfunction stack, players will have to work together to apply the correct tools to the malfunctions that pop up.

Each tool is unique however, and players must communicate at the table to pass the right tool to the right player.

"Just like the mobile game," Sisson said, "you’re screaming out, 'I need this! I need this! I need this!' And so, not until you have both of those cards, you put them on the malfunction card, and discarding that. And then the tools go back to you.

"That keeps going round and round, and there are also special malfunctions that basically include physical activities. You have The Asteroid and Wormholes and stuff going on in the mobile game. In the tabletop game a Wormhole means you’re going to be changing seats and Asteroid means that an asteroid just hit the ship and now you have to pass all your tool cards to the left or right, your tool cards. So it’s a lot of chaos along with the coordination of your team as well."

Play proceeds for five minutes, or until the players can fix the ship. Boom or bust, it's a loud, crazy experience that plays super fast.

The Kickstarter campaign, launched just yesterday, has already achieved its goal — and then some — and is currently trending towards more than $350,000 dollars. To make sure the gameplay, which is still in the polishing phase, is as good as it can be Sisson has partnered with Elan Lee, one of the co-creators of the wildly successful Exploding Kittens game.

Play proceeds for five minutes, or until the players can fix the ship. Boom or bust.

"So, Elan had reached out to Henry Smith, the creator of the Spaceteam mobile game, right around the time that he premiered the Exploding Kittens Kickstarter," Sisson told Polygon. "More than six or eight months ago, Elan asked if Smith would make an Exploding Kittens mobile game because he's such a huge fan of Spaceteam."

Turns out, Smith was a bit too busy with his own work, but when Sisson reached out he put them in tough with Lee right away.

"We got an introduction to Elan, and we were like hey, we’re doing this and he was just like okay cool I’m in. What do you need me for? How can I help?

"So he has a signed agreement with us, he’s an advisor. We know his time is extremely valuable because he’s dealing with all types of chaos right now with Exploding Kittens. But, he is helping out with the test deck and he’s been preparing us for Kickstarter and connecting us with all the people that we need to make this right."

The $20 deck is expected to ship this December. Backers also have the option of paying $35 for the base game as well as the Not Suitable For Space Expansion Deck, which is both inappropriate for children and the only way to play with more than 4 people.

You can find more tabletop coverage in our dedicated section here.

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