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Exploding Kittens

Category: Party Game

Designer: Matthew Inman, Elan Lee, Shane Small

Publisher: Self-Published (2015 edition)

Year Published: 2015

Players: 2-5

Playing Time: 15 mins.

To Play or Not To Play: Don’t play.

Kickstarter changed the landscape of board game publication. The beauty of the website is that it allows designers to pitch their ideas directly to players, bypassing traditional publishers. This has been great for enormous story-driven games like Gloomhaven, Middara, and Tainted Grail. These games are humongous, with tons of miniatures, cards, and story elements. Each game would retail for over $100 at least, and each promises dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of gameplay. But all three games have been highly successful on Kickstarter, with each raising over $5,000,000 in their most recent campaigns. But two games overshadow these.

One is Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5, which is similar in scope to the other three I mentioned, but even more detailed. The second? It’s a casual card game designed for players age 7 and older. It raised over one million dollars in its first day, blasting through the designers’ goal of $10,000. The game ended up with over 219,000 backers, which is absolutely absurd. That game is Exploding Kittens.

Confused by the art? Check out The Oatmeal for more!
On the left: the basic deck. On the right: the NSFW deck.

How did this happen? Why is this game so popular? Well, I think the answer is fairly simple. The game was illustrated and co-created by Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal. The Oatmeal is a great webcomic with a unique art style that combines cute and disturbing imagery in an unsettling and captivating way. Thanks to The Oatmeal’s humongous audience, and the Exploding Kittens’ affordable price point (just $20 plus shipping and handling!), thousands of people flocked to Kickstarter to order this game. No other project has attracted as many backers.

Okay, enough about how successful this game was at raising money. How does this game work? Well, it’s basically just Russian Roulette with a deck of nicely illustrated cards. Each player begins the game with a hand of five cards. On your turn, you can play a card if you want. No one’s forcing you, but hey, it could be fun. Why not try it out? After you’ve played a card, you can play more cards. But you saw how much fun playing one was. Maybe a second will be even more fun! Then to end your turn, you draw a card from the deck. If you draw an Exploding Kitten, you explode and lose!

I told you not to draw them!
Don't draw these

Every player starts the game with a Defuse card. If you have one in hand when you draw an Exploding Kitten, you discard the Defuse card and then place the Exploding Kitten anywhere you like back in the deck. You can put it right on top, three cards down, on the bottom, or wherever else floats your boat. You can even hide the deck under the table when you replace the Exploding Kitten so no one else knows exactly where it is now.

Cat owners can attest to how real these cards are.
The only thing that can save you from your untimely demise

Eventually, someone will draw an Exploding Kitten without a Defuse card, and they’ll lose. They’re out of the game, and play continues until only one player is left standing. So what’s in the rest of the deck? I’m glad you asked! It’s full of cards that either help you survive, hurt your opponents, or both! Some let you skip your turn without drawing a card, others let you shuffle the deck. “Nope” cards can be played out of turn to stop another player from playing a card. But the bulk of the deck are just random cats, like Taco Cat, Beard Cat, and Cattermelon. These cats don’t really do anything, but if you play them as a pair, you can steal a card from another player.

My hand from a sample game I staged to get pictures for this review

And that’s really it. You just keep going around, playing cards and drawing until only one player is left. It’s . . . not actually that fun. The best part of the game is the art. But once you’ve admired it, there’s not much else to draw you in.

I was one of the people who backed this game on Kickstarter, and I got a discount on the special NSFW deck as a result. The NSFW deck is identical to the core game, but has much more disturbing art and adult language. Again, the art is the appeal. Otherwise, it’s just two copies of the same game.

From the NSFW deck
Appeal is a strong word

Now, I will admit that this game does have some limited strategy to it. Like many great card games, the question isn’t when to play a card, but rather when NOT to play one. It is in many ways a resource management game. But on the other hand it lasts 15 minutes and even with perfect management you’ll probably still lose from a bad draw. At this point, my favorite thing about the game is the box, which has a magnetic clasp and meows when you open it.

This game's production design is excellent. Sadly the game design just doesn't live up to it
And look at the litter boxes on the bottom!

Awkwardly, for such a simple game, Exploding Kittens has remarkably complex setup instructions. You have to remove the Defuse and Exploding Kittens cards from the deck, shuffle it, deal out everyone’s hands, then deal everyone a defuse card, then take X-1 Exploding Kittens cards (where X is the number of players) and any remaining defuses and shuffle them into the deck. Pandemic’s setup isn’t too much more complicated, and that’s for an hour-long cooperative game. To be fair, the setup process becomes second nature pretty quickly. But still, it’s not as simple as just shuffling the deck and dealing out cards.

At 15 minutes, Exploding Kittens is not a huge investment of time. Most people will want to play a couple more times afterwards since it is so fast, though, which means you’ll likely spend 30-60 minutes on this game. And it’s not worth it. There are so many better games you could play. If you already have this on your shelf, it might be a fun way to introduce younger kids to the hobby. Or maybe you could hide the NSFW deck in your sock drawer for your teenager to find and “borrow” to play a “grown-up game” with their friends. Otherwise, don’t play this game.

Wow, my first negative review on this site! What a concept! If you want to help decide which games I review, leave a comment below and follow @OrNotToPlay on Twitter. Most weeks I post a poll for my followers to vote on which game I should review next, so let your voice be heard!

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1 Comment

Alex Hong
Alex Hong
Mar 02, 2020

The first time I played this game (6 players, 3 years ago) I did not like it at all. Then I read reviews for the game and then I disliked it even more. I played it again this year (3 players) and it was really fun! To be fair, we didn't have any other games on hand so there were no other enticing options. I think the true "game" lies in the scrying portions of the game, where the game becomes a "wine in front of me" scenario. I think this game is similar to Liar's Dice, where it works really well with non-gamers and part of the game is just enjoying their genuine reactions of incredulity. Why did you…

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