Saturday, 26 March 2016

Exploding Kittens: A card game for people who are into kittens and explosions... and laser beams... and sometimes goats.

We certainly can't be described as having been active at Games & Tea over the last 18 months.  The sad fact of the matter is that our play/review group has drifted apart, and gaming sessions are few and far between these days.  However, this doesn't mean we don't still thoroughly love a good game.  All it means is that we've accepted the fact that our content won't be as frequent as it used to be (for the time being, at least), but we'll still be posting as and when we get the chance to play and review something different.
So, we've recently introduced the first newcomer of the year to the Games & Tea library, and are filled with joy (and TNT) to bring you our thoughts on the game.  We give you Exploding Kittens; a card game for 2-5 people by Elan Lee, Shane Small and Matthew Inman.
Exploding Kittens began life as a Kickstarter campaign, and we should probably take a moment to say it's kind of a big deal.  With its simple game mechanics, illustrations from popular comics website The Oatmeal, and cats (it's the internet, cats are just what we do), it went on to become the most backed project in Kickstarter history.  With such a legacy, it was fairly safe to say we had high expectations going in!
Exploding Kittens is a card game version of Russian Roulette, with players drawing cards from a single, communal deck.  If they draw an Exploding Kitten they are blown up (not literally, in any of our playtests) and out of the game.  The game continues until only one player remains free from kitten-based destruction, and that player is declared the winner!
However, it's not a game of pure random chance.  Different cards throughout the deck allow players to defuse their Exploding Kitten, attack other players, steal cards, and a range of other actions all designed to keep the feline menace at bay!
Let's start at the beginning, and look at how the game works...
As mentioned, Exploding Kittens is a game for 2-5 players.  There are four Exploding Kitten cards in the deck, and the game should be played with one fewer kitten than there are players (so 2 EKs in a 3 player game, 3 in a 4 player game etc).  One immediately obvious benefit of this system is that it guarantees a winner by the time the deck is depleted, eliminating the discard pile reshuffle so common to most casual card games.
Each player takes one Defuse card (which we will come onto shortly) and four random cards from the deck as their starting hand, the Exploding Kitten cards are shuffled into the deck, and the game begins!
During each players turn they can play as many cards as they wish from their hand.  They may choose to play everything, or they may decide to keep hold of all their cards for the moment, and in Exploding Kittens there is no limit on hand size.  Once they're done playing cards, they end their turn by drawing one card from the top of the deck.  If they draw an Exploding Kitten, then BOOM!!!
So, in order to keep the game from being completely random and no fun whatsoever, Exploding Kittens includes a number of options to protect players from the titular moggies.  The most straightforward of these being the Defuse card...
The Defuse cards each feature a different method for distracting/pacifying a kitten, from a laser pointer to belly rubs.  The illustrations are just for amusement value though, and they all serve the same purpose.  If a player uses a Defuse card when drawing an Exploding Kitten, they remain in the game and can reinsert the kitten into the deck wherever they like.  To be cruel to the next player in line, it's often a popular move to place the Exploding Kitten back on top of the deck!  This is by no means a foolproof tactic, and can backfire drastically, if that player also has a Defuse card or one of the other varieties of card in the deck.
The first option players have in their arsenal is the Skip card.  It allows players to immediately end their turn without having to draw a card, thus avoiding the risk of explosions.  Attack cards are the next aggressive step up from Skip, not only allowing players to avoid drawing a card, but forcing the next player to take two turns!  Double explosion risk!  Shuffle cards do exactly as you'd expect, and can mess up best laid plans - especally useful in conjunction with See The Future, which givesthe player a look at the top three cards in the deck.  Favours force a player to give a card away, and the Nope card can be played responsively to negate any of the above (even another Nope, turning it into a Yup).
Between all of these assorted action cards, players will usually have an option to avoid kitty destruction early on in the game, but as time rolls on options will become depleted and the pace of the game takes on a more frantic tone!

In addition to the various actions, there are a variety of Cat cards emblazoned with a selection of non-explosive cats, from Rainbow-Barfing Cat, to Tacocat (who is very proud of his palindrome status).  These serve no purpose alone and can only be played as a pair, but once played they allow the player to steal a random card from an opponent.  Not the most devastating action available in the game by ny means, but if played against someone who only has a single card left in their hand, it can be very useful!

And that's all there is to it!  Play cards, draw cards, infuriate your opponents, and pray to the higher powers you don't find yourself on the wrong end of an Exploding Kitten!  So that's the mechanics out of the way, how does it actually fare as a game in practice?
Well for one thing it's incredibly simple to learn - we wouldn't even describe it as having a learning curve, seeing as the learning process is so quick that it never has the chance to form a distinct shape.  The box boasts "2 minutes to learn", and frankly we're convinced that one minute of that is spent figuring out that the instructions are tucked inside the box lid and then unfolding them.
Once the game gets going, it's very fast moving and entertaining.  Not only do you never have long to wait for your turn even in full 5 player games, but it's fun to watch the other players sweat and argue as the deck moves closer and closer to one of the kittens.  It can be infuriating at times when your friends mercilessly turn on you, but the number of Defuse and assorted action cards are so much higher than the number of actual Exploding Kittens, that escaping or avoiding the explosion is actually far more common than being caught in it.
Purely from an aesthetic point of view, we feel we should point out that Exploding Kittens is wonderful to look at.  Not only are the the illustrations an absolute joy, but almost all of the cards are different.  Each Exploding Kitten is getting up to different destructive mischief, each Defuse is a different method of cat pacification, each Attack is a different form of aggression, and so forth.  Only the Cat cards - which must be played as pairs - have identical illustrations, and this is understandable.
And also, pairing aesthetics with practicality, the box is pretty darn nice too! 

Decorated inside with more of Matthew Inman's illustrations, the box is sturdy, precisely the right size for the game, and is divided into two sections so you can even play a round in a place where space is simply unavailable, using the empty side of the box for the discard pile.

But the world can't all be sunshine and rainbows (or even Rainbow Barfing Cat).  The biggest weakness of Exploding Kittens has to be 2 player games.  It seems to be a running problem with card games, that as soon as you drop to two players and the "back and forth" routine begins, the game loses its lustre.  It also leaves the game susceptible to a card hoarding tactic, enabled by the unlimited hand size.  Unlike larger games, where a certain momentum can be reached, two players can simply draw and keep cards indefinitely until the single Exploding Kitten in the deck is revealed, at which point both players can simply play everything they have in one go to see who ultimately wins.  It's not a very exciting way of playing, but if one player does it then the other has to in order to compete.  In a game all about explosions, it really is the nuclear option.

The Good Points
  • Quick to play, and even quicker to learn.
  • Beautifully illustrated - quite possibly the nicest looking game in our library.
  • An excellent way to enrage your closest friends.
  • Cats.  Who doesn't like cats?!
The Bad Points
  • Less enoyable and prone to being broken with only 2 players.  In fact we'd even go so far as to say it flat-out doesn't work as a 2 player game.
  • A little pricey for a card game.
  • Apparently some people find the notion of exploding kittens "distasteful".  Here's hoping those people never find out about Kittens in a Blender.
Recommended Number of Players: 3-5
As we highlighted above, Exploding Kittens can become something of a joyless back-and-forth slog with just two players.  Any more than two is great, and five is just epic.

Average Game Time: 10 minutes
It doesn't take particularly long to get through a round of Exploding Kittens, seeing as the draw deck never needs to be replenished.  Games can range from 2-20 minutes, so we figured 10 was a good average.

Replay Value: High
Exploding Kittens is short, light-hearted, and leaves the losing players wanting to exact revenge on the winner.  As a result, it tends to get replayed quite a lot!

The Future: Nuclear?
At the moment there are no expansions for Exploding Kittens, nor any mention of them on the official website.  However, in theory it should be easy enough to incorporate a few more cards and different types, and the box definitely has room to accomodate them.  Given the incredible Kickstarter success of the game and a strong commercial follow up, we certainly wouldn't be surprised to see more on the horizon in the near future.

Price: £18
There are currently two versions of Exploding Kittens: the version featured in this review, and a NSFW Edition, which is somewhat more adult and apparantly features Boob Wizards.  Either version will set you back roughly £18, and are quite readily available from gaming stores.  We'd like to point out that yes, you can get them for £16 on Amazon, but we didn't for two reasons:
1) We like to support our local hobby stores, and would encourage all gamers to do the same.
2) The copies on Amazon don't meow.  Check your local gaming store and you can probably get a copy in a meowing box.

OVERALL SCORE: 8.5/10 (3-5 players), 2/10 (2 players)
 Tea consumed during this review: None.  Lemsip all the way, on account of a lovely cold and sinusitis.  Congestion Rating: 4000/10