Card game boom? How the kittens exploded.

Simple card game Exploding Kittens became the number-one game in the world on Amazon following a record-breaking US$9-million Kickstarter campaign. Co-creator Elan Lee talks strategy - and a possible future in TV - with Out of the Sandbox blogger Wendy Smolen.
September 30, 2015

Just over a week ago, Exploding Kittens, a simple card game, became the number one game in the world on Amazon. Not too long ago, it also broke records on Kickstarter by raising US$9 million dollars after setting an original goal of US$10,000. I was lucky enough to be attending a conference with Elan Lee, the co-creator of the game, and had a chance to talk about his vision, journey, and smart strategy. Elan will also be a keynote speaker at Sandbox West in L.A. on October 12 and 13. There’s still time to register!

Let’s start with the story. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In other words, if you have a great story and no one knows about it, is it still a good story?

Story development is only 50% of the equation. Delivery mechanism is the other 50%. You need to pair them and develop them simultaneously. I never actually worked in a company that understood that balance, which is why I started a few of my own.

Is 50/50 your secret sauce?

I’ve created several companies. I always surround myself with people who can wear many hats. You rarely know what a job will look like as it unfolds, especially more than a week out. I create small, fluid teams that mix creative and production people. When you have different eyes looking at data, you can start off with the question “what problem do we want to solve?” rather than “what method of execution do we want to use?”

 Was the Exploding Kittens Kickstarter campaign, which is one of the most successful and creative campaigns ever, problem focused?

When we first put Exploding Kittens on Kickstarter, our goal was US$10,000, which is what we needed to print 500 decks. We hit it in 20 minutes. So we started looking at the data and started refining our delivery method around it to get a bigger audience.

We started with The Oatmeal fan base. People wanted to support our product because they loved The Oatmeal humor. But once all those initial people were tapped out, we switched to other strategies to engage new people. We designed a story and delivery mechanism that was appropriate to attract this audience. We made a crowdfunding campaign about people, not money. Our idea was to focus 100% on crowd, and 0% on funding. So after the first week, we never mentioned money. Instead we created a huge, 30-day long (digital) party and invited everyone to come. There were 40 challenges and rewards that the audience responded to by posting pictures and videos. We highlighted the attendees, and made a complete story around the party. It was as fun as the promise of Exploding Kittens.

We ended up being the number one campaign in backers across all categories; number one most funded game; and number five most funded Kickstarter campaign.

Obviously, creativity runs deep in your company DNA. How do you start?

It starts with initial brainstorming. How can you combine two or three things in new ways? It’s really like mental hacking. This is usually a solitary activity.

Then I bring the small team together for collaborative sessions. More iteration happens. This then morphs into additional individual or one-on-one brainstorming. Once we have a direction, I start building a larger team to complete the process. Depending upon the job, it could be anywhere from 20 to over 800 people. In the case of Exploding Kittens, we actually have 840 people working to fulfill and ship.

Exploding Kittens is an outrageous idea. What do you do to keep your creative juices flowing?

First, I fill my brain with raw materials. I don’t watch “some” TV, or play “some” games. I watch ALL TV, play ALL games, see ALL movies. During the day, I build stuff, but at night, I typically spend it playing, watching, and reading.

Let’s go back to the story of Exploding Kittens. It seems like a combo of Russian Roulette, Old Maid and Grand Theft Auto.

Exploding Kittens is strategy-based Russian Roulette with a deck of cards. Hidden in the deck are a few Exploding Kittens. The deck is placed face down in the middle of the table and players take turns drawing cards until someone draws one of the Kittens. That person is out of the game and everyone continues without them until there is only one player left. All the other cards in the deck are used to avoid drawing an Exploding Kitten. There’s a card that lets you peek at a card before drawing, one that lets you skip your turn, and one that lets you force another player to take two turns in a row. Our original target audience was 18-35 year olds. But I’m a huge fan of simplicity. Once I had the game I liked, we simplified it down to its essence. The benefits of this are that strategy bubbles up to the top. And you end up with game play that’s simple enough for kids to beat their parents. The box now says Ages: 7+. They may not get as involved in the strategy as an 18-year-old, but they don’t care. And truthfully, I’ve played it happily with 4 year olds.

What’s next?

We just launched on Amazon. And it’s doing amazingly well. Next year we’re introducing an expansion deck. We’re toying around with a TV show. And we’re testing a prototype of a second game.


Hear (and play) with Elan at Sandbox West in LA on October 12 and 13.

Email me anytime at

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