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SAN FRANCISCO — I’ve played Exploding Kittens, and you haven’t.
Given the intense interest in the card game that brought in more than $8 million on Kickstarter earlier this year (it blew away its initial $10,000 campaign goal in less than an hour), but which won’t arrive in people’s mailboxes until July, I’m tempted to say something like “nyah nyah.” But I’m a professional, and that would be unseemly.
Still, when I took part in an organized playtest yesterday of the card game designed by former Xbox Entertainment Studios head Elan Lee and drawn by online comic The Oatmeal’s Matt Inman, I got a little bit of extra satisfaction at being one of the first people to ever get my hands on it.
The makers are organizing playtests in cities around the country over the next week or two, each at a “Kitten Consulate.” The San Francisco test took place at the Un-Scripted Theater Company, a tiny theater located near Union Square. When I walked in, four organizers were sitting at a table, an Exploding Kittens set laid out in front of them. “We’re playtesting the playtest,” Un-Scripted’s Clay Robeson told me.
The atmosphere here was a little grungy, which seemed appropriate, I thought, for a card game that features cats barfing rainbows, “beardcats,” and “thousand-year back hair,” all typical for an Inman project. Two tables had been set up in the front of six rows of 49 red, worn theater chairs. Over the course of the next few hours, 110 registered playtesters would cycle through and get their first chance to play one of the most anticipated card games in years.
In case you were wondering about the goal, it’s very simple: Don’t draw the exploding kitten. If you do, you’d damn well better have a Defuse card in your hand. Otherwise, boom, you’re done. You win if you’re the last player to avoid the exploding kitten.
As people began filing into the theater, we were assigned to one of three games. Each playtest would last 30 minutes, and we’d play as many rounds as possible. I sat down with four others, and we jumped right into it.
To begin with, each player gets one Defuse card, and the deck is set up with one less exploding kitten card than there are players. Each turn, you make as many plays as you want — things like forcing an opponent to give you a card, or taking a look at the next three cards in the draw pile — before you draw. Two separate cards give you the right to avoid taking a card, which can be beneficial given the chance of pulling an exploding kitten.
Almost immediately after we began, Stephanie, two players to my left, drew not one but three straight exploding kitten cards. Clearly, the shuffle had been faulty. Still, said Thomas Henderson, the dealer, as he redealt, “We need to know you as the person who died three times on turn one. That is awesome.”
One thing that’s fun about Exploding Kittens is that you can make as many plays as you want each turn, so long as you draw a card at the end. So on one turn, I played two Tacocats — laying down a pair lets you steal a card from an opponent — a Favor, and two Hairy Potatocats.
Not long into the game, Carol Ziogas, sitting to my right, drew the first (official) exploding kitten. But she still had her Defuse, and she played it. Just seconds later, I drew one too, also defusing it. And then Henderson, forced to play two turns, got two straight exploding kittens — yet somehow saved himself with two Defuses from his hand.
All these exploding kitten cards being drawn increased the likelihood that soon, someone would get one without being able to neutralize it. “Oh, I see how this ends,” joked Ziogas. “Nuclear annihilation.”
Sure enough, on his next turn, Henderson got an exploding kitten and was out of Defuses. Two turns later, a player named Ryan got one, too. “Boom,” Ryan said as he “died.”
With the exploding kittens appearing fast and furious, but able to shuffle the draw pile thanks to an action card, Ziogas reached gingerly for the pile, adding in a third-person voice, “Picks it up with asbestos gloves.”
Then, boom, and boom, Ziogas and I were both killed. And just like that, Stephanie was the winner.
Easy to play
Although the rules had sounded a little complicated when we started, Exploding Kittens is actually quite easy to pick up. By a couple of minutes into our second round, it was clear that everyone in our circle had picked it up. And while there were a couple of times when we had to look up how something worked, we were pretty much humming along at a breakneck pace, trying to maximize our 30 minutes.
This time, we were all being a little more conservative, since we’d each intuited the benefit of holding onto cards rather than playing them too quickly. The more cards you have in your hand, the more options you have as you try to avoid drawing an exploding kitten.
Once again, however, those killer cards appeared in staccato fashion, and just like that it was down to me and Henderson, just six minutes into the second round. Though hopeful I could outlast him, I drew a card, and yes, it was an exploding kitten. And me without a Defuse.
Feeling a little fatalistic, my ears perked up as I realized that Lisa Gerard’s song, “Now we are free,” which accompanies Russell Crowe’s death at the end of the film “Gladiator” was coming through the speakers. How appropriate, I thought.
Worth the hoopla?
After we played, I asked Henderson and Ziogas, a couple, for their thoughts.
“She showed it to me on Day one” of Exploding Kittens’ Kickstarter campaign, Henderson said, “and I was like, ‘We have to get that.’”
The real question in my mind, though, was whether the game was worth the insane amount of hoopla it generated — not to mention the $8 million-plus it earned in its crowdfunding campaign. I enjoyed it, but I had also noticed that neither at my table, nor at two adjacent games, were there the kind of regular bursts of laughter I had anticipated. After all, this game was built around Inman’s art, and if you know The Oatmeal, you know he can be hilarious.
But both Henderson and Ziogas carefully avoided answering directly. “The question is, will it be another Cards Against Humanity, where everyone is talking about it,” Henderson said, kind of echoing my query. “I would play it again. It has enough variance that you could play it again with the same group of people.”
Ziogas concurred, but he also avoided being direct. “I’m really glad to see a card game get that much media attention,” she said, “because card games are something you can take on a camping trip.”
Exploding Kittens was successful, she said, because it’s easy to grasp the rules, and then just focus on playing, not figuring out how it works.
And what about the lack of big-time laughter at the table?
“I think it depends on how comfortable you are with your fellow players,” Ziogas said, noting that at our table, we were mostly strangers to each other.
“Or,” she added, “how much alcohol there is.”
I’m not going to lie and say that the energy in the room during the test was electric, as I had expected it would be. But Ziogas is surely right in thinking that people will be much more animated and boisterous when playing with the people they usually get a tad crazy with during Cards Against Humanity or other favorites.
As for me, I enjoyed it and welcome that July day when the decks start appearing in mailboxes and I once again have the opportunity to spend an evening with my friends, throwing Jackalopes and Potatocats and Beardcats at each other. Oh my.
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