Hit card games: Exploding Kittens

Hit card games: Exploding Kittens

Candido Romano Published on 5/15/2023

The secrets behind the game that raised a record-breaking 8 million dollars in Kickstarter funding.


Exploding Kittens: the Kickstarter campaign

Exploding Kittens: how to play

The real reason behind Exploding Kittens’ success

In today’s world, where digital video games dominate entertainment for children and adults, there’s a parallel universe that’s still physical in which board games and card games are king.

The forecasts speak for themselves: the global market is set to be worth 22 billion dollars by 2025. And by 2026, it’s expected that the market for board games will reach over 3 billion dollars. Some 34% of this growth will come from Europe.

What’s behind this boom? It seems people are increasingly feeling the desire to sit around a table and interact physically, rather than virtually through a screen.

Exploding Kittens: the Kickstarter campaign

This explains the huge success of Exploding Kittens, a card game created in 2015 that combines two ever-popular ingredients: cats and explosions. One of the three masterminds behind the project is Elan Lee, a game designer who has held senior roles at Microsoft Game Studios and was involved in the launch of the original Xbox as well as the Xbox One in 2007.

Images of some cards from the game 'Exploding Kittens'. All rights reserved.
Images of some cards from the game ‘Exploding Kittens’. All rights reserved.

My whole life, I have been building digital products. […] And I finally came to this point where I thought, this is my audience. This is what I’m doing. Anyone see a big problem with this picture? I’ll tell you. Very, very lonely. Very isolating. I actually went to my brother’s house and walked in the door, and my niece and nephew were there, who were […] both six years old at the time and they didn’t even say hello. They were sitting on the living room floor, playing a game that I had built, and they were lonely,” recalled Lee at a recent Google conference.

So Lee decided to create a card game together with his friend Shane Small, who, amongst other things, had previously been the art director for Microsoft Xbox. The initial concept was called “Bomb Squad”, but took a left turn when cartoonist Matthew Inman, creator of webcomic The Oatmeal, joined the project.

And so Exploding Kittens was born: the Kickstarter campaign’s initial goal was 10,000 dollars.

It raised 1 million dollars in just seven hours. In response to this success, the creators began providing amusing updates

Exploding Kittens’ communication style with donors. All rights reserved.

… which saw funds committed jump to 2 million dollars in 24 hours, and some funny anecdotes from the creators:

<2 Months Ago>

Printing Company: How can we help you?

Elan: Hi, I need a quote for printing a bunch of cards for a new game.

Printing Company: No problem. We can quote you in quantities of 1000, 2500, or 5000.

Elan: I think 1000 will be more than enough.

Long story short: the fundraiser smashed even the most optimistic forecasts.

Exploding Kittens’ communication style with donors. All rights reserved.

After just a few weeks, the crowdfunding round closed at 8.8 million dollars with 219,000 backers, becoming the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever in 2015. Although it would eventually lose top spot to other products, Exploding Kittens would serve as a case study that has inspired many others who wanted to try their hands at launching their own board and card games.

But what explains this huge success?

Exploding Kittens: how to play

The box for Exploding Kittens claims that it takes 2 minutes to learn, and 15 minutes to play. And it really is super simple to get the hang of, unlike many other card and board games, which often make a virtue of their complexity.

Images of some cards from the game ‘Exploding Kittens’. All rights reserved.

Exploding Kittens is a strategic version of Russian roulette, plus some very cute exploding cats. This is how you play:

  • Between two and five people can play at any one time.
  • Players draw cards from the deck until someone gets an Exploding Kitten card: that unlucky player “explodes” and is out of the game.
  • The deck also contains so-called Defuse cards, which, as their names suggest, can diffuse Exploding Kitten cards.
  • There are various ways to move, avoid or neutralise exploding kitten cards: from laser pointers to tummy tickles, the player can draw special cards and then use them at the right moment to stay in the game as long as possible.
  • There are also action cards, such as Cat cards, which let the holder steal a card from another player, and Nope cards, which cancel all other cards, apart from Exploding Kitten and Defuse Cards.

Simple rules, funny illustrations, rapid game play and palpable tension: these are just some of the reasons why Exploding Kittens was such a hit.

The real reason behind Exploding Kittens’ success

If you go to crowdfunding, don’t go there for the funding. Go there for the crowd,” counselled Elan Lee in a recent interview.

Imágenes de algunas cartas del juego ‘Exploding Kittens’. Todos los derechos reservados.

Anyone looking to build a business out of a card game should try to create a community around it. Exploding Kittens did this by constantly updating backers and launching marketing initiatives that generated word-of-mouth buzz among users.

The only way a new project is going to be successful is if you have a whole lot of people who love it and tell their friends about it,” continues Lee. That’s the secret ingredient according to the Exploding Kittens creator.

Of course, word of mouth should also be complemented by other marketing actions. For example, one of Exploding Kittens’ most popular characters is Tacocat, a taco-shaped cat which now has its own spin-off game. The creators launched a Tacocat contest in the Exploding Kittens’ community:

We said, hey, you know what a normal crowdfunding campaign would say? If we raise $1,000,000, we’ll upgrade the game for everybody. We’re like, no, we’re going to upgrade the game for everybody if you send us pictures of a real Tacocat,”said Lee.

Exploding Kittens’ communication style with donors. All rights reserved.

People responded with photos of their cats dressed as tacos, causing much amusement in the community and generating more word-of-mouth enthusiasm.

Creating interactions between people: that’s the reason for Exploding Kittens’ success, and something that’s actually built into the rules of the game. It was designed with mechanisms that enable people entertain their friends.

When a player draws a card, they start an interaction with others by skipping a turn, stealing somebody else’s card, or shuffling the deck before taking a new card.

Imágenes de algunas cartas del juego ‘Exploding Kittens’. Todos los derechos reservados.

It’s these gameplay mechanisms that have brought Exploding Kittens its success, and spawned numerous expansion packs, the Imploding Kittens game, and many more brand new games, like the incredibly fun Throw Throw Burrito.

The Exploding Kittens brand has also branched out beyond card games: there is also now a mobile game and animated series available on Netflix. And, who knows, perhaps in future there might also be an Exploding Kittens theme park!

It’s a cross-media universe that has grown out of the “simple” card game that remains at the brand’s core.

Exploding Kittens shows that there’s still an enormous appetite for card games in the digital age. People continue to value physical gameplay, and the success of this brand goes to show just how far a highly creative and well-executed idea can take you.

This product offers a valuable lesson in what you need to design a successful card game: simplicity, appealing graphic design, and gameplay that’s focused on interaction between people.