Exploding Kittens (for Android)

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The Internet has become synonymous with amusing cats in the past decade, and it seems only logical that the next step in cat-based entertainment is to equip them with explosives. I'm not sure if that's the train of though that led to Exploding Kittens, the Android  game version of the Kickstarter-funded card game, but it works for me. The game combines all the fun of Russian roulette with your favorite semi-insane domesticated pet. It's a lot of fun if your friends are nearby, but less so if you're playing against far-flung opponents. If you're looking to spice up your party with a digital board game or card game (and yes, I did just write that with a straight face), it's a decent choice, but not nearly as engaging as the sci-fi madness of Editors' Choice winner Spaceteam.

The Exploding Kittens Android app is available in the Google Play store for $1.99, and is available for all your iPhone-wielding friends, as well. That's much cheaper than the $20 price tag for the physical deck of cards. If you're a fan of the game already, or just want to try it out, it's a fair impulse purchase.

Those already familiar with Exploding Kittens will feel right at home. But the core deck in the app has a few extra cards, which improve play a bit. If you can't get enough of those flammable felines, you can grab an expansion pack, too. In-game avatars that are used to identify players are also available for $.99, and I must say they look quite handsome.

The cards are, really, the big draw of the game. They range from the clever Tacocat (he's also a palindrome) to the gross Diarrhea Kitty. The art from viral sensation The Oatmeal is likely a big draw for many. I'm not such a massive nerd as to claim that board games can't/shouldn't be silly, but it gives me pause. Munchkin is another game built around funny cards and silly mechanics, and it's a game that I think overstays its welcome. Once you've seen the cards so many times they cease to be funny and break the silly mechanics of the game, Munchkin becomes tiresomely mechanical. 

Meow, Meow, Explode, Meow
Playing Exploding Kittens is remarkably straightforward. On your turn, you have the choice to play a card from your hand. This is entirely optional. What's not optional is that you must draw a card from the deck. Drawing cards is normally not a big deal, but doing so in Exploding Kittens means taking your life into your hands (paws?).

If you draw anything other than an exploding kitten card, you can breathe a sigh of relief. If you do draw one of the eponymous exploding kittens, you must play a defuse card to placate this furious feline, this C-4 carrying cat, and live another day. If you can't defuse the cat, you are blown to bits. Play continues until only one player remains unexploded.

There's not a whole lot of room for strategy when all you're doing is hoping not to get murdered by a cat. Small World 2 is also a funny game for Android, but its humor is the icing on a cake made from simplicity, strategy, and dead elves.

Much of Exploding Kittens is spent playing non-kitten cards that can help you predict impending cats, draw from the bottom of the deck, or punish your opponents by forcing them to draw again, for example. One neat twist is that if you successfully defuse a cat, you place it back in the deck in the position of your choosing. Yes, that includes right on top of the deck. Yes, this is a great way to ruin a friendship or marriage.

The app version recreates the full Exploding Kittens experience, but spices things up with fun animations. The Android version also increases the pressure in smart ways. A huge gauge indicates the likelihood that an exploding kitten will be drawn from the deck, which makes counting cards easier and helps to bring your blood pressure up to unsafe levels. If you draw an exploding kitten you only have a few seconds before its wick burns down and destroys you. As if life weren't stressful enough without all these deranged fur balls bent on self-destruction.

If your turn takes too long, a paw with a stopwatch appears informing you that only 10 seconds remain. But some players have figured out how to avoid this and still not take any action. I wound up leaving a game after an opponent stalled for far too long. It's annoying, but perhaps I should give my opponent credit for successfully getting into my head. Hearthstone has a very strict time limit for turns, and I appreciate it.

I am especially impressed with how snappy and responsive the game feels. Buttons and cards respond quickly to your touch, and I never felt like I had to fight against the game in my test play. The art style of the original cards is smartly expanded to every aspect of the game, so it feels very cohesive.

When you play, you do so in a simulated table with the players arrayed in a circle and you at the bottom. Flashing arrows indicate the direction of play, which is handy for figuring out who you want to screw over. How to represent a physical board game is a tension I see in other mobile board games. Star Realms, for example, slavishly recreated every aspect of play to the detriment of the overall game. Lost Cities took the core of the game and completely reimagined it for mobile. Exploding Kittens falls somewhere in between, bringing together excellent mobile app design and a familiar game setting.

Don't Go Alone
Most digital board games and card games include a single player mode, because some of us have learned to make do loving objects instead of people. Not so with Exploding Kittens. Your only options for play are to join or host a public or private online game.

That's it. There are no pass-and-play or shared-screen multiplayer modes. If you want to play with just your friends, they all must download the app and enter the special code generated when you host a game. That's both tedious and annoying, since playing the game requires convincing all of your friends to pay for and download it.

My favorite digital party game, Spaceteam, requires that you play with other people in the same room, all using the app on their respective phones. The human interaction is actually critical to Spaceteam, but it's also more fun than just shouting into a microphone. It's not much of a party when your friends are far away and you can't actually share the excitement. Also, Spaceteam makes local multiplayer very, very simple, letting you host games over the same Wi-Fi network or even over Bluetooth. It's a great feature that Exploding Kittens would do well to emulate.

Not having a single-player mode for exploding kittens might make sense (again: "party game," not "lonesome-sad-boy-crying-alone game"), but I'm disappointed by the multiplayer mode in general. I had no trouble finding a game to join online, but it wasn't all that much fun. Turns passed in silence, and I was eliminated fairly quickly. There's no way to chat or even interact with other players outside of the game mechanics, which doesn't really make for a party atmosphere. Still, it does keep players from spewing nasty vitriol at each other, which is what most in-game chat systems seem to be there for. It's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't problem that I don't think the developers have adequately solved.

Once you're blown up, you have the choice to leave the game or stay and watch. That's nice, but I wish the developers had invented some way I could still interact with the game. My colleague Jordan Minor points out that Bomber Man for the Nintendo DS lets eliminated player throw bombs at the survivors, which is great. Perhaps Exploding Kittens could someday let exploded players take the role of a ghost cat and annoy the remaining players by batting the cards out of their hands.

I hung around after one game and was surprised and kind of disappointed by how long it took the final two players to take each other out. In person this might be fun because players can go back and forth one-upping each other, but in the silence of the app it feels dull and protracted. The developers could institute a speed clock, or some other element, to help amp up the tension for the final two players.

Cat Defused
Exploding Kittens is not a deep well of strategy and intellectual gaming. It's an extremely silly (and sometimes gross) game, and the developers did a great job of bringing that part of the game to Android. It's also a generally well-made app. Too many Android apps are rushed ports of iPhone apps, but Exploding Kittens feels tight and responsive.

Bringing a card game to a mobile device presents a host of unique challenges, but when the game is also a loud, raucous explosion of madness, the challenges are compounded. Exploding Kittens is off to a good start, but it needs improved local network multiplayer and some kind of offline multiplayer mode. It could also definitely benefit by deviating from the original game in order to bring a unique mobile experience.

That's probably too much analysis for a poop-joke laden game about cats that detonate. So let me conclude by advising you all to instead download Spaceteam, and then allow myself to be consoled by all the non-homicidal cats from Exploding Kittens' polar opposite game: Neko Atsume.

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