I’m obviously a dog person, so the thought of blowing up some baby cats has some appeal. Combined with my affinity for Oatmeal’s artwork and humour, and my intense love for small box games, Exploding Kittens seemed right up my alley. However, this is a negative review, and I wanted to warn you ahead of time because a lot of people enjoy this board game – which is fine – but I think you will lose that enjoyment once you analyse the game at a certain level. Which is what this review will be doing. As the saying goes, never learn how sausages are made, because you’ll never want to eat a sausage again.
Exploding Kittens is a 2-5 player game, designed and self-published by Matthew Inman, Elan Lee, and Shane Small. Players take on the roles of professional bomb defusal experts, whose idea of defusal is giving the bomb to someone else. In this de-sexed, declawed version of hot potato only one player will make it out with their life, and a face full of scratches. Will it be you?
How to Play
Start by giving each player a defuse card, and four more cards to fill out their hands. Shuffle a bomb card for all but one player into the deck. Select a first player, and you’re good to go.
On your turn you’re allowed to play as many cards as you want, and in any order. Once you’re done you must make peace with the Lord of Cats and Explosions and draw a card from the deck. If this card is an exploding kitten, then you discard your defuse card, and place the cat bomb back into the deck anywhere you want. But what if you don’t have a defuse? Then I’m sorry you had to hear this from me, but you’re dead, and must sit out the rest of the game.
Play continues around the table until there is only one person left. In which they get to retire to a life of psychiatric care, and post-traumatic stress, as they constantly relive the moments their best friends met their furry demise.
The cards powers, and actions available:
- Skip: You don’t need to pick up a card at the end of your turn.
- Attack: Your turn ends, and the next player must pick up two cards.
- Nope: Interrupts a player’s card power, or other activity. Doesn’t work on defuses or bombs.
- See the Future: Look at the top three cards of the deck, keeping the same order.
- Favour: Receive a card from another player, their choice.
- Two of the Same: Randomly select and keep a card from another player’s hand.
- Three of the Same: Ask a player for a card, if they have it, they give it to you.
- Five Different Cards: Grab a card from the discard pile.
The biggest draw to this game is Matthew Inman’s art, and it lives up to expectations. The absurdity of the art, theme and title, always guarantees a few hearty chuckles whenever a new player joins the game.
Otherwise, the lightness of the game is also a big positive. Because it’s attached to the Oatmeal, the demographic playing this game extends beyond the realm of board gamers. Therefore, this lightness is needed as normal people don’t know the exhilaration of reading and applying an encyclopedia of rules.
In terms of gameplay, it manages to capture a feeling of tension, as you see the deck shrinking each turn. This creates a fantastic visual, whereby you can easily tell your chances of picking up a bomb. There are also smaller moments of tension created by the interplay of cards between players, as well.
Finally, it doesn’t happen often enough, but there are moments that allow for deviousness, or cunning. For example, when it came down to the last three players, I drew a bomb and used my defuse to place it three spaces in the future, relying on people to skip their turns, otherwise I’d blow up. How it played out? The first person skipped their turn, the second played an attack card, I happily drew two cards, and then the first person used Shuffle and all my planning was for nothing. Until that Shuffle card though, there was a fantastic feeling of gotcha!
The biggest problem with this game is a lack of player agency. Every special card or ability has a predefined purpose. Skip, See the Future, Shuffle and Attack cards are only used when you think you will draw a bomb. Using them at any other time is incredibly detrimental, as you lose the use of that card, while also allowing other players to add cards to their arsenal. With few exceptions these cards also have an order in which they’re played to optimise their efficiency. Use Shuffle cards early on to maximise your chance of not drawing a bomb, and Attack cards should be saved for last because of their ability to both attack and defend.
Every other card is in some way aimed at getting you a Defuse card with little subtlety or decision making involved. There are two exceptions here: Nope and Defuse cards. Defuses are easily routed by Shuffle cards. However, to get the most out of Nope cards, of which there are only five, you need to play them on Attack cards, or when someone uses the discard three or five card actions.
Knowing that every card has a single or limited use, restricts what you can do in the game, to the point where the optimal play is predetermined for the clear majority of your turns. This makes the game strategically uninteresting, as the winner will always be whoever draws the most useful cards, rather than any form of skill. Another consequence of this, is that it restricts play in the first half of the game to players picking up cards from the deck until a bomb is drawn, again eliciting little excitement.
The other big problem with this game is luck, which is an interesting topic when it comes to board games. When is it good? When is it bad? When is there too much? Exploding Kittens answers two of these questions as there is so much luck in this game that I’ve had to resort to bullet points:
- Cards you pick up
- Cards your neighbour picks up
- Where the bonus defuse is in the deck
- Where the bombs are in the deck
- Using pairs to steal a random card
The description on the back of the box, proclaims “Exploding Kittens is a kitty-powered version of Russian Roulette.” Not only is that apt, but it saves me from having to think of a clever metaphor. See, in Russian Roulette, a single bullet is loaded into a revolver, the barrel is spun, the gun is pointed at one’s head, before the trigger is pulled. There’s no game there, it’s just chance. Hence why I wouldn’t recommend Russian Roulette, and the reason why I won’t be recommending Exploding Kittens. It’s OK, even encouraged, to have luck in a game for spontaneity and variability, however, players still need to have control over the outcome, otherwise you’re better off flipping quarters.
Once you understand that you have both a lack of control, and a reliance on luck, all tension of picking up a bomb and losing evaporates. Without this tension, it’s incredibly difficult to have any emotionally attachment to the outcome of the game. In turn removing any and all fun you would have.
Lastly, and I understand this is more of an issue with my taste, but being able to Nope someone handing in five cards for a Defuse is dumb. Either way, removing five cards from your hand is devastating, doing it for nothing, doubly so. Meaning that this manoeuvre puts a lot on the line. Making it a speed challenge, is just asking for arguments between players. Which, for a light game like this, seems out of place.
I can’t finish this review without talking about the huge, grey, trunked cat in the room: this game made 8.7 million dollars on Kickstarter. Regardless of my assessment, Exploding Kittens is a success both financially and in introducing a lot more people to board games. My friends, who haven’t played or analysed as many board games as I have, or more likely just aren’t as snobby as I am, really enjoy this game for its simplicity. For me though, this game is a chore. Due to its limited, and non-impactful play I’ve had a difficult time engaging with Exploding Kittens. While there’s potential here, I think the game hasn’t learnt from, or doesn’t understand modern game design. Therefore, I cannot recommend it.
Not going to lie, writing this review after being made to play this board game more times than I wanted was super cathartic. I feel like I’ve just come out of a day spa. Some other small box games I’d recommend instead are: Cockroach Poker, Red 7, Love Letter, and Campy Creatures. What other small games would you recommend?