Exploding Kittens – An elegant, more strategic Russian Roulette

When we were children, one of the funniest things was doing the exact opposite of what our parents told us. “Don’t play with the food” would be answered by us playing with the food, watching our parents and waiting for their reaction, tongue in cheek all the way. Even as parents, we can’t help but smile when children disobey the rules in an innocent manner. The smile – and, subsequently, the fun – comes from dispensing with norms and rules when the situation isn’t dangerous. It is this feeling that Exploding Kittens is aiming at.

Exploding Kittens was developed by Matthew Inman, Elan Lee, and Shane Small. One day, they were bored and wanted to play a safe version of Russian Roulette but the only thing they had at hand was a deck of poker cards. They took some of the cards, wrote “Bomb” on them, mixed them back into the pack and then tried to avoid them while taking it in turns to draw cards. The basic idea for the game was born, but they needed money to really make it work. So they went on “Kickstarter,” pitched their idea there and asked the users for a modest $10,000. People got excited and went over the top with their charity – at the end of the funding period, the creators found themselves with almost 9 million dollars to spend, breaking the record for the most supported game on Kickstarter. The support showed the creators that people would love their product. Meanwhile, many donors also gave advice to the creators, telling them what else they expected from a game like the one up for development. These ideas were taken into the game, reversing the established norm of game creating: it’s not that the developers created a game, finished it and then people bought it – they custom-made the game based on the desires of its target group.

Exploding Kittens is a card game for two to five players. The fact that the age recommendation is deliberately random and unclear (“30 and above?”) lets you know that the game doesn’t care much for established norms. At its core, the game is a card version of Russian Roulette which has been modified in such a way that it is no longer dictated by pure luck. Here’s how it works: you have a deck of cards which you put face-down in the middle of the table. In turns, each player draws cards from the deck until someone draws an “Exploding Kitten” card. If he does, he’s out of the game. Unless he has a defuse card, that is, in which case the player stays in the game and is allowed to put the exploding kitten back into the deck – anywhere he wants to, which could also be on the top. Which, of course, would be a pretty unfair move, something outside the norm of acceptable social behaviour. But isn’t that what creates the fun? Within the safe framework of the game, you can be a dick to other people with impunity. The creators of the game anticipated that people would want to do just that so they added action cards to give the game more depth. “Skip” lets you skip a turn, while “Attack” lets you skip a turn and makes the next player in line take two turns. Both cards are in the game in anticipation of players playing without mercy, since you would only play these cards when you think (or know) the next card to be an exploding kitten. “Future Sight” allows you to look at the top three cards of the deck, and “Shuffle” lets you shuffle the deck. Last but not least, there’s the “Nope” card which basically erases the last card played so that a player trying to avoid what he thinks is an exploding kitten would still have to face the music. All of the cards give the player a sense of being in control, which, ultimately, gives them the choice between acting friendlily or dickishly towards one another. It’s almost never luck that makes you lose the game, though. It’s other players working towards your defeat.

The concept already makes the game funny enough, but the creators went the extra mile to give the game an unconventional vibe. The card’s art design is as hilarious as it is simplistic and random. One of the pictures shows the “Shy Bladder Cat” which is obese and in tears as it tries to pee into a cat toilet, with a speech bubble saying, “STOP STARING. I CAN’T GO IF YOU’RE STARING!” The fact that this card serves no purpose and that it is absolutely gratuitous gives the player a feeling of “what-the-hell-am-I-looking-at-and-why-is-this-in-the-game!?” and encourages unconventional (i.e. arse-like) play.

Another strong suit of the game is its simplicity. Exploding Kittens, at its core, is just drawing cards and playing some action cards –already easy enough. However, the game promises to make you understand the rules within two minutes, and it delivers. The box comes with a poster that explains the game to the player, using many illustrations and little text. In the corner of the instructions it even says, “but no one likes reading instructions, so why don’t you go on our website to watch our tutorial video?” If you do so, you are shown how the game works. After all, the creators are right – no one likes games that take half an hour to be understood.

All of the factors mentioned above combine to make a wonderful and hilarious game that encourages play outside of conventional norms. It perfectly balances luck with control over the way you play, which results in exciting games in which you watch the trap you set up unfold before your eyes – tongue in cheek, like a child.

Ole Kasch & Alexander Jahn

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