Why I changed my mind about Exploding Kittens

I’ve been backing projects on Kickstarter since 2013. When Exploding Kittens launched in 2015—and went on to became the most successful board game Kickstarter of all time—my initial reaction was… how do I put this… a little bit dejected.

Why was I so turned off, you ask?

First off, from the perspective of someone who backs a lot of Kickstarter games, the actual game part of Exploding Kittens sounded questionable. The campaign’s refrain was that it would be a “highly strategic, kitty-powered version of Russian roulette.” As an elevator pitch, I found that less than appealing. When I think of really fun games to play, I think of Russian roulette… said no one ever. Also, I’m not going to say that calling the game “highly strategic” is flat out wrong, but it strikes me as kind of tone deaf or possibly just wishful thinking. On the spectrum of strategic things, it was clear from the start that Exploding Kittens was going to be closer to, say, slapjack or go fish than chess or the planning of the D-Day invasion.

When you back a lot of board games on Kickstarter, you get used to certain things. Most board game Kickstarters release the text of the rulebook, a playthrough video, and a detailed components list. Exploding Kittens did none of that. In fact, it was still being playtested. As in… they were asking for money before the game was even completely designed. That’s counter to what I’ve come to expect.

On top of that, the game seemed relatively expensive. $20 for essentially one deck of cards? $35 if you wanted the NSFW deck, too? Generally speaking, a Kickstarter game consisting entirely of 50-or-so cards is probably around $15. Even considering that they were planning on printing Exploding Kittens in the USA, $35 for the whole game was pretty expensive. Cards Against Humanity is printed in the USA, was $20 during its Kickstarter, and has 10 times as many cards as Exploding Kittens. On the retail side, Fluxx is printed in the USA, sells for under $15, and has about twice as many cards as Exploding Kittens.

Additionally, the Exploding Kittens creators seemed to have a bit of basic ignorance about how to use Kickstarter. Throughout the campaign, they had it categorized in the Playing Cards category, which is typically for decks of traditional playing cards with customized art, instead of the Tabletop Games category, which is for card and board games. (To their credit, at some point after the campaign ended, they did finally move it to the Tabletop Games category.)

I mean, I’m a big fan of The Oatmeal. He’s an SEO genius. Also, he’s a great cartoonist. His comics like “Why working from home is both awesome and horrible” and “What it’s like to own an Apple product” soothe my meme-addled, millennial soul. But was I ever clamoring for a game with a cat joke on every card? Honestly, not really.

You see really great, family-friendly card games like Fidelitas or Yardmaster make several thousand dollars, and then a mediocre-sounding game made up of jokes about hair and potatoes and stuff brings in eight million? (I mean, right now, the Bears vs. Babies follow up to Exploding Kittens has raised almost two million dollars, but a very similar looking game called Stitches that launched about a week earlier hasn’t even funded for $11,000.) It’s just sorta dispiriting. [Edit: Stitches has now funded after being promoted in a Penny Arcade news post.]

Anyways, that’s why I didn’t back Exploding Kittens when it was on Kickstarter.

Months later, when Exploding Kittens shipped, reports were mixed. You didn’t really have to look very hard for reviews heavy-handedly trashing almost every aspect of the game.

So, when I received Exploding Kittens as a Christmas present last year, it was with a bit of trepidation on my part.

The game sat on the shelf for a few weeks until some of my family came over for a game night. We mentioned that we had Exploding Kittens. They said they had it at home, had been playing it a bunch, and loved it! So we got it out and played it. And you know what?

It is legitimately fun.

The goal of the game is to not draw an exploding kitten. Every turn, you play as many action cards as you want (to do things like steal cards from other players) and then draw one card. If you draw an exploding kitten, you are out of the game—unless you can play a defuse card. The defuse cards eventually all end up in the discard pile and the deck always has one less exploding kitten than the number of players, so all but one of the players will inexorably draw an exploding kitten. The player left at the end of the game is the winner.

From the description, you might think the game is all about the exploding kitten cards. It’s not. It’s actually mostly about the defuse cards. When you’re playing, you’ll be trying to figure out who has defuse cards so you can steal them. Everyone starts the game with one defuse card so you have a general idea of who has and hasn’t played theirs yet (there is also a slim chance you can get more defuses randomly from the draw pile).

You’ll also be trying to manipulate the draw deck to make the exploding kittens blow up other people instead of yourself. When you do draw an exploding kitten and save yourself with a defuse, you get to put the exploding kitten back wherever you want in the deck—maybe right on top to get the next person, maybe three cards down, maybe on the very bottom. Other action cards also help you to alter the deck—by allowing you to reshuffle the deck, skip drawing a card, or force other people to draw more than once.

No game can be everything for every situation. I don’t think most people would want to make a whole game night out of just Exploding Kittens (unless maybe it was the only game available?). It doesn’t have the cavernous depths of nuance of certain other quick games like The Resistance, Coup, or Spyfall. I also don’t think it’s something you would just keeping playing and playing like you might Apples to Apples, Dixit, or Balderdash.

But you’d have to have a crusty, mummified heart to think that none of the jokes in this game are funny or that there is no enjoyment to be found here. There’s not much more intriguing than putting an exploding kitten in the deck and looking the next player in the eye to make them think it’s on top. Plus, the primordial pleasure of slapping down a “Nope” card to stop another player never gets old—and it’s even more entertaining when that “Nope” card has a picture of “Nopestradamus” or a bug-eyed “Jackanope” on it.

There are a couple of things I don’t like about Exploding Kittens. As with a lot of other games, the box is way too big for what’s actually inside it (although, it is a sturdy box and the finger cutouts for opening the lid are much appreciated).

Also, the rulebook has a big warning on it that says “Don’t read these rules: reading is the worst way to learn how to play a game” and refers you to an online video. In fact, reading is not the worst way to learn a game—but writing is the most difficult way to teach a game. Writing a good rulebook is really, really hard, but I wish they’d invested a little more time in that, particularly the “Taking Your Turn” section, which contains three numbered points that don’t exactly make sense.

In the end, though, I like Exploding Kittens because I had fun playing it.

After hearing “the most successful Kickstarter ever,” there are a lot of people who automatically think that Exploding Kittens must be the most amazing game ever. On the other hand, there are also a lot of people who are incredulous because they think that any relatively simple game must be terrible. In reality, Exploding Kittens is not the best game ever or the worst. It’s just fun, which is all that really matters.