At the inaugural meeting of the OU games circle, the card game Exploding Kittens was on the agenda.
Exploding Kittens is an amazingly simple card game for 2-5 players, described as a “kitty-powered version of Russian Roulette” by its creators. Quite simply, the aim of the game is to draw cards (or force other players to draw cards) but avoiding drawing an exploding kitten. If you draw one, you lose the game and are thus the object of shame and ridicule for your fellow players.
By July of 2015, Exploding Kittens was the most backed Kickstarter project ever with more than 200,000 backers, raising over 8 million USD in funds . Its accessible though fun game mechanics, combined with the quirky drawings by web cartoonist Matthew Inman (a.k.a The Oatmeal) as well as multiple deck versions (a regular and, ahem, dirty ‘NSFW’ version) seems to justify this initial and continuing popularity.
Bending the Rules
Exploding Kittens is designed for a maximum of 5 people, but what if 6 people want to play?
This issue came up during play in our meeting: how could we adjust the mechanics of the game to accommodate an extra player? As it happens, this was as simple as re-inserting “exploded” kittens back into the draw deck but this produced many questions relating to the relationship of the rules to the game, and indeed to the players.
What are rules to a game?
How integral are they to the design of it? Can they – or more so should they – be bent or broken?
Should some rules in a game be sacrificed to make a more social game experience for everyone, or is it more important to ensure that the few have the optimal experience that the designers intended?
How does changing the rules affect the play experience?
If you’re looking for answers to these questions, sorry…
…I don’t have them I’m afraid. If you know of someone who does please let me know – but really I’m pretty sure there is not “right” or “wrong” answers here, only different opinions.
Obviously, there is arguably no doubt that a game by its very nature must have rules – this is not the question here. The more important question is perhaps whose rules matter? How sacrosanct are the written rules to the experience of a game?
In the example given above, of adapting the game to incorporate 6 players instead of the intended 5, wasn’t it more important that we the players agreed on a set of “meta-rules” that we would all adhere to, i.e. we applied rules enforced by social pressure as opposed to the rule book?
In my opinion, we have to have a shared set of game values when we play or
chaos misunderstanding ensues. Surely this is why people get so angry when people cheat at games: the cheats are not conforming to the shared expectations of how a game should be played. But if everyone is cheating the written rules in the same way, is it still cheating? At what point does cheating become collaboration?
But I digress. For a wonderful overview of the nature of cheating in videogames I would heartily recommend Mia Consalvo’s book Cheating: Gaining an Advantage in Video Games.
For our purposes, when playing Exploding Kittens it was enough that we found a way to adapt the game to suit our immediate context, and socially constructed an appropriate ruleset that we would play by. In effect, we created a mod for Exploding Kittens meaning we were all able to have fun and enjoy the game experience.
And isn’t that the most important thing?
 Exploding Kittens. 2015. Created by Elan Lee, Matthew Inman & Shane Small. Published by The Oatmeal. Available from: Explodingkittens.com
 Miller, Ross. 2015. “Exploding Kittens, the most-funded game in Kickstarter history, is now shipping” The Verge, July 30. Available from: here