Tabletop game maker Exploding Kittens has launched a card game, Poetry for Neanderthals, that people can play on Zoom calls while they’re stuck in self-isolation.

It’s a word-guessing party game, where teams earn points by correctly figuring out words and phrases. The catch is that the “Neanderthal Poets” must only use single-syllable words to describe the complex terms or they get bopped with a 2-foot inflatable club.

Simply put: You must speak good or get hit with a stick. You can only use the language of a cave person to generate clues for your team.

“You speak in single-syllable words. And the result is hilarious. There are no more rules than that,” said Elan Lee, a cofounder of Exploding Kittens, in an interview with GamesBeat.

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Why this matters

Above: Elan Lee of Exploding Kittens

Image Credit: Jerry and Lois Photography

Now you may be wondering why we’re covering this, as it’s a physical card game. The reason, at least for me, is that this is a physical card game that is made possible only by the online connectivity of videoconferencing during the pandemic. While we’re tired of video calls on Zoom and other platforms, they’re a lifeline that is preserving our social lives and mental health during a very tough time.

Exploding Kittens also uses its physical card games as a trial for testing ideas of games that could eventually become global digital games, and so the innovation that it shows in its physical games can eventually affect the digital market. Exploding Kittens has also figured out a way that physical card games can compete with digital games during social isolation.

This story is also an example of game developers (some who spent most of their careers in video games) using their ingenuity to design around a big problem: We can’t hand physical cards to each other during online calls. Lee spoke about this challenge with Theresa Duringer of Temple Gates Games at our recent GamesBeat Summit 2020 event.

Lee describes games like this as “air gapped,” or ones you can play with a deck of cards via video chat. The board game Battleship is an example of an “air gapped” game, where one person calls out coordinates and the other player answers whether it’s a hit or not. There’s nothing about the design of this game mechanic that requires the players to be in the same room.

The same goes for Poetry for Neanderthals. The goal is to score the most points by correctly interpreting words and phrases. The chosen Poet starts off the game with a Poetry Card and tries to get their teammates to say the listed word, using only words with one syllable within a 90-second time limit.

For example, a player could describe “campfire” as “place where roast hot white cubes.” When a teammate guesses correctly, that team is awarded points, and the Poetry Card passes off to the opposing team. If any rules are broken along the way, the Poet is hit with the inflatable “No! Stick,” and a point is lost and forfeited to the other team.

Coming up with the game

Above: Friends play Poetry for Neanderthals on Zoom.

Image Credit: Exploding Kittens

Lee said the idea for the game came from a suggestion from friends about a year ago.

“They came up with this game at a conference,” Lee said. “They came up to me and they said, ‘Hey, we got this crazy idea. You have to describe a life experience, but you can only use single syllable words.’ We all sounded like we were cavemen in therapy or cavemen in a job interview. It was so ridiculous.”

The game was like a variation of Taboo, a word-guessing game that first debuted in 1989.

“When the pandemic hit, our instinct for this game was to take a breath. We thought that now is not the time to be releasing new games. And so we took a big step back,” Lee said.

But the families that were testing the game didn’t want to send the trial games back because they were having so much fun. Those families sent in videos, and they were hilarious, Lee said.

“They were hoarding” the prototypes, Lee said. “The videos showed them laughing hysterically. I wouldn’t go all the way to say this is an essential service, but here we are giving them a toolset to hang out, and to laugh, and enjoy themselves — all the things that are so hard to do during quarantine.”

So the company decided to push the game out and get it manufactured.

“This game is a perfect ‘air-gapped’ game because you can very easily play it over Zoom,” Lee said. “Poetry for Neanderthals jumped to the front of our line because we identified it as an appropriate one.”

Manufacturing is still difficult

Above: Poetry for Neanderthals isn’t easy to make during the pandemic.

Image Credit: Exploding Kittens

Lee is a former Microsoft Xbox game development leader, and in 2015 he teamed up with Matt Inman, the creator of The Oatmeal online cartoons; and Shane Small, a former Xbox and Marvel executive, to do a physical card game via a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The game, Exploding Kittens, was a funny tabletop card game about kittens that explode, and it was a huge hit.

To date, the company has sold more than 9 million copies of Exploding Kittens, and in 2016, it launched a paid $2 mobile game. Since March, demand for Exploding Kittens games has, uh, exploded. For the month of May, Exploding Kittens experienced a 186% growth in App Store sales and 100% growth in Google Play sales for its premium app compared to the same time last year.

Lee said that manufacturing the game during the pandemic has been extremely difficult. As demand grew, the company learned that its factories were a single point of failure, because they were inside China.

While factories have started to resume manufacturing, the supply chain was still disrupted because many of the ports where the game was shipped were disrupted. During this time, Exploding Kittens had to figure out how to create the initial run of Poetry for Neanderthals. One of the challenges was that you had to have a long inflatable club to play the game while social distancing (when people can do it in person). So the company had to figure out how to manufacture the inflatable club and fit it in a box that was small enough to easily ship.

Lee said the company searched all over for suppliers and found them, but the manufacturing run is small, and it will probably sell out quickly. Right now, the game will be available exclusively in the U.S. at Target stores.