$8.7m For Exploding Kittens

The kitty-powered card-game version of Russian Roulette is also a record-breaking Kickstarter

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Illustration: Amber Pretorius

The Internet loves cats, everyone love explosions, and if you ever visit my Portuguese in-laws in Durban and they take you to the Portuguese Club – and they will – then you’ll meet a bunch of people who love card games. Anyway, this guy I know, Shane Small, he combined all three and the result was the crowd-funding version of Ebola: shit’s gone viral.

What happened was that Shane and his partner, Elan Lee, teamed up with that dude from The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman, then put their cap out on Kickstarter asking for $10 000. Eight minutes later they had their startup money. At time of writing there were 120 000 people who had put up a collective $8.7 million for a card game that didn’t yet exist.

Now I can’t get 37 guys that I actually know to pay R250 each towards our mate War’s stag party, so this impressed me. Which is why I caught up with Shane to find out how he achieved such a massive coup, and then what it would take for him to float me some cash.


You’re originally from Durban. What did you do when you lived there, and did any of this have anything to do with your newfound success?

Durbz! can I get a whoot whoooot? I was in clothing, then marketing and advertising. I think it had everything to do with my success – it's where I got my foundation in creativity and work ethic, which brought me to where I am now.


Actually, newfound success is a bit rude; didn’t the guys at CSI: New York bite your clothing line idea?

Ha! Ya, it was crazy! I founded a clothing brand called edoc Laundry – the first interactive clothing line. Each item of clothing had a code or hidden message, which the consumer could use to unlock original content online. Before you knew it, you were knee deep in a murder mystery and your garment became a puzzle piece to solve it. Anthony E Zuiker, creator of CSI-NY, called us and said he wanted to do an episode based on our clothing. A few months later we were on set shooting the episode 'Hung Out To Dry'. Basically it was an hour long commercial for edoc... it was insane! Edward Furlong played my namesake in the episode, arguably the role of his career.


How did you then get into developing games?

I had always been drawn to creating new concepts and ideas, and finding new ways to tell stories. And one of the first jobs I got when I came to America, 12 years ago, was at a game company where I was able to explore those things in the category of games. So I just kinda fell into it and took it from there.


How would you describe your game to someone who has never heard of it?

Exploding Kittens is a highly strategic kitty-powered version of Russian Roulette. Players take turns drawing cards until someone draws an exploding kitten and loses the game. The deck is made up of cards that let you avoid exploding, by peeking at cards before you draw, forcing your opponent to draw multiple cards, or shuffling the deck. The game gets more and more intense with each card you draw because fewer cards left in the deck means a greater chance of drawing the kitten and exploding in a fiery ball of feline hyperbole.


Why go low-fi with cards? Surely kids today want to play this sort of thing on their iWatch or Google Glass or whatever?

You can still play our card game while wearing Google Glass, you'll just look like a douche. The funny thing is, I had initially developed it as a digital game. Elan and I wanted to play the game immediately. We got out a standard deck of cards, assigned abilities to each card, and started playing. At that point we were calling it 'Bomb Squad'.


Then the guy from The Oatmeal came onboard and offered ‘Exploding Kittens’ as an alternative to ‘Bomb Squad’. How much more money does he deserve than you other guys?

Haha! I think Matthew's audience was definitely the springboard in getting us noticed. Without his kick-ass fan base I don't think we would ever have achieved such a rapid increase in funding. But it's kind of a chicken and egg scenario: without the card game there wouldn't be a Kickstarter... so I think we all win.


How does Kickstarter actually work?

I think the way it works is we take the money and make it rain off the back of a yacht in the Bahamas, right? No? We made a very simple Kickstarter, essentially the backers are buying the game. You back us and you get the game. And we have various versions of the game that you can buy.


Who would win in a fight between your Exploding Kittens and The Bunny Suicides?

Well the Kittens don't want to die... they're just being cats in extreme environments. The bunnies want to die, so even if the cats just sat and licked their bums, the Bunnies would eventually kill themselves. Kittens win by default. Boof!


Surely you can’t be actively promoting the blowing up of kittens?! Have you received any response from the outrage brigade yet?

We struggled with this a lot. We love the name Exploding Kittens, but we don't want to hurt kittens. We also don't want the kittens to be hurt by anyone else. Eventually we decided to explore the concept of the kittens blowing themselves up. In the end, we realized that everyone understands feline shenanigans, and that could be our solution. Our kitties would not blow up out of malicious intent or negligence, but by doing the things that kittens do, like running across keyboards or chewing on things they shouldn't be chewing on.


Your game got $8.7 million. So how rich are you in your personal capacity now?

Well right now we would like to make a real business out of this, so we'll be putting the money back into the company to try and grow the brand. Hopefully I'll be able to answer that question in a few years a lot more enthusiastically.


If I started a Kickstarter for you to give me some of your money, how much could I potentially make in the first eight minutes?

What's the Kickstarter? Don't say Defusing Dogs!