Exploding Kittens… MeWow!

Base Game Review

Player/s: 2-5

Play Time (Box): 15mins

Play Time (Goof): 5-15mins

Producer/s: Self-Published

Designer/s: Matthew Inman, Elan Lee & Shane Small

Growing up, my father always had this obsession with board games I never understood. We’d walk through the shelves of Toyworld and he’d point out Trivial Pursuit Jnr or the newest themed Monopoly and I’d roll my eyes and hurry him along to check out the latest Power Rangers toy.

Mainstream tabletop gaming is an odd concept to me. I don’t understand why many of these are household names. Guess Who, Cluedo, Connect4…they don’t hold a candle to those exclusively sold in gaming stores. They’re not bad. But they’re no Catan, Dominion or Ticket to Ride.

However, every now and then a game from our world enters the public eye. You mention you’re a board gamer at a party and you’re guaranteed to spend the next few minutes discussing Cards Against Humanity. I saw in Kmart the other day they were selling Pandemic. Exploding Kittens fits this trend without a doubt; it made $8.7million dollars on Kickstarter, and I’ve been asked to review this game so much I thought I might explode (not really. It was just a nice play on words. Recommend away).

I’ve known gamers to be dismissive of this type of popularity. They feel it encroaches on their territory, or somehow detracts from the wonder that the world of tabletop gaming can be. I understand some of those concerns. If games start to become more about what sells rather than what’s enjoyable, it could lead to consumer grade novelty trash. But, this hobby of ours can’t exist without people buying products to fund it. This gaming revolution of ours is starting to become more and more of a Gaming Age. When you look at gaming as a whole, both videogames and board games, we’re seeing more indie developers, more crowdfunding products, and more of a focus on breaking new ground and trying new things. There will always be a market for the Monopolys and Call of Dutys in the world. They are a financial backbone of these industries. The mass market picks them up and then occasionally branches out and tries other more niche games. The existence of these games doesn’t detract from our fun. And of course there are going to be people that try to use the popularity of these games to push knockoff versions. But, the ratio of large titles to those which are truly innovative has been in swing for a while now. And with technology, the global culture of the internet and the unprecedented ability of consumers to have their voice heard makes me comfortable in saying we’ll always have games which put new and interesting ideas to test. Where the main objective is to create something fun, not just financially beneficial.

What I love about games like Exploding Kittens is they introduce more and more people to our world. Creating a global community of tabletop gamers. The larger this community is, the more support it receives, the more we can indulge in our hobby. Tabletop gaming is very unique in that it usually requires other people to be in the same vicinity as us. So the larger our community, the more occasions for gaming we’re likely to have.

While mainstream games are usually not as exciting to me as games like Firefly: The Game or Android: Netrunner, being popular doesn’t necessarily make them bad.

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Gameplay (9/10)

When I first played Exploding Kittens I genuinely thought this game was entirely luck based. I didn’t see a whole lot of strategies which wouldn’t end simply because I drew an exploding kitten card. Draw it and your game’s over if you don’t have a defuse card. It felt like Russian roulette: the card game (is that a thing? I feel like it has to be a thing). But I’ve played a dozen or so more times and discovered why you need to play more than once to do a review. The trend I noticed was the more strategic players were winning more often, with only sporadic losses. The law of large numbers started to reveal more to me, and I sat back and analysed what it was I was seeing (after the game. I’m not holding up the table while I write this stuff).

The strategy, is not just in the cards in your hands but also in the cards in your opponents’ hands. It’s about learning what you can, keeping a track of those precious six ‘Defuse’ cards and bettering your odds of stealing them by going after those with less cards in hand. The ‘See the Future’ cards give you a glimpse of who’s about to pick one up or take a hit – or even where the other half of the pair you need is. ‘Favour’ cards are all about getting the second pair to try to steal the ‘Defuse’ to stay alive. The mistake I made was thinking the game offers multiple strategies. It doesn’t. You need one type of card to stay alive in the game, and everything else is about trying to get them while occasionally forcing opponents to draw more from the deck while you draw less. Where your choices come in is about how you play the table, not the cards. It’s about mitigating luck, and I’m really into that.

The rules are simple enough to learn, I haven’t had to spend more than a round teaching anyone this game. This is what allows it to have such intensity towards the last few moves. You’ve got choices to make, but they all feel very much like you’re just trying to make the least-worst decision. Someone’s gotta go up in flames, the deck is thinning. No matter what strategies people implement there is a certainty someone’s plan is not going to be good enough. And I think it’s something a lot of other games don’t manage to capture.

The elimination factor in this game is very much balanced by the fact each round takes only a few minutes. If you get knocked out early you wont have to wait long to jump back in. It also means you can play multiple times very quickly in succession.

Pros: ++Luck mitigation, +Simple rules, +Intense choices, +Quick

Cons: -Limited strategies

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Theme (8/10)

Every single game comes down to this really intense nailbiter. You’re over halfway through the deck, and people start to get hits that they can’t come back from. You’re down to a third of the deck and suddenly every card is a risk. When you pick up a card you genuinely feel the rush of not knowing if you’re out of the game. It’s exciting!

I took a few moments while writing this to really look over the various pictures and the narrative that the game seems to be telling. From what I can gather, within the world of Exploding Kittens there are a number of different types of cats. Most are interesting but mundane. However there is a type called the “exploding kitten”. This kitten is likely to cause destruction and devastation wherever it is but can be subdued through belly rubs, kitten therapy and yoga. It took me a while to see it. I thought that the theme was simply to help sell the games (humanity’s Egyptian-like worship of cats has no doubt been a huge factor in why the game has done so well), but once I realised what the storyline was, it just made me love the game more. Would the game have made more sense if it was about bomb defusal? Probably. But it wouldn’t have been as unique.

Pros: ++Clawbiting, +Interesting theme, +Theme sets tone

Cons: None

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Production (6/10)

The box the game comes in is surprisingly sturdy, with inserts that allow for more cards if you wanted to pick up an expansion. I love it when games do this. I’m the sort of guy who needs everything possible for a game when he enjoys it, so it’s nice when the base game thinks ahead.

A friend of mine demanded that I give this game an amazing score based purely on the fact the box meows at you when you open it (spoiler alert). I had a good chuckle but wasn’t even sure I was going to mention it. Then my sister Molly made the same demand. I caught my sister Sophie playing with the box when I stepped away from the table to get a drink and it made me realise how much gimmicks like this can really be a drawing aspect of a game. I like them, they give me a slight chuckle or make me say stuff like “cool” as I go through the box looking at components. It shows the developers really cared about the game, their passion and love for it translated into little extras they thought were fun. The bottom of the box is a litter tray with various cat droppings from the multitude of bizarre and crazy cat designs in the game. It makes a lot of sense to me. I mean the box is there, it’s normally just basic cardboard – why not make it more interesting?

Cool

“Cool”

The card stock is of a decent quality but not overly sturdy. I’m not the sort to normally sleeve my games unless they’re likely to be used in a competitive setting but I’ve noticed after a dozen games or so the edges have started to fray a little. It’s frustrating because since the game is so quick to play and really enjoyable, people are going to play this over and over. I treat my games with an OCD level of care; it’s the most common form of mockery I receive at the game table (I’m still traumatised by the mate who put a single card upside down in the middle of my copy of Cards Against Humanity to mess with me). Point being if I take so much care of my games, most people’s copies will be damaged a lot faster.

The back of the cards are quite basic and yet it works. The colour psychology of having it red gives people that sense of urgency which ties in nicely to the game overall. I’m not sure if this was deliberate, but it’s an excellent choice. And the sizzling flames on the card really add to the feeling of things about to go boom.

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The artwork is amazing, which is absolutely to be expected when the game has the talent of Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal. The signature humour shines through here and I find myself laughing and picturing the different scenarios these cats would be in if I lived in their world.

I’m not a fan of foldout rulebooks. I’m sure it saves some money somewhere along the line but having to flip over an abnormally large piece of paper over and over quickly looking for a rule we had to double check in the middle of a game is a nuisance. And it doesn’t have the same durability as a book form rulebook has. Even if it was a small book, I’d have preferred it. This just feels clumsy.

Pros: +Sturdy box, +Gimmicks, +Card backs, +Amazing artwork

Cons: –Frail cards, -Foldout rules

 

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Conclusion

I really want to emphasise – this game is fun. It’s not the strategically heavy games that I normally appreciate, but I’ve been playing a couple games a night once or twice a week and I don’t see the trend ending anytime soon. For such a simple game, it accomplishes a lot.

I give Exploding Kittens:

8/10

I wonder what puppies are like in their world…

tgrek8

 

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