Exploding Kittens burst onto the scene in 2015 when it set records as the most backed game on Kickstarter to date. Six years later, the kittens’ explosion is still expanding with ten games to the portfolio and 45 countries on its roster. ToyNews talks to Exploding Kittens’ director of international sales, Joeri Hoste
Red. Stick. Put. On. Lips,” are the clues given by Joeri Hoste, Exploding Kittens’ director of international sales at around the midway point in our Zoom call. It’s an easy one to guess, and one that exemplifies perfectly the simplicity of the company’s hit tabletop family game, Poetry for Neanderthals.
There’s also something innately enjoyable within any game that has the power to reduce one to monosyllabic speech; because let’s face it – talking like a Neanderthal is inherently funny. No matter who you are.
So is, by the way, flicking through a deck of cards depicting kittens playing ‘butt tubas’, or throwing a soft burrito at a friend or family member – all of which you will find somewhere within the Exploding Kittens repertoire. It’s a whacky humour like this that has managed to keep the company close to the style – and audience – of The Oatmeal, the webcomic platform from whence it came – even as it grows internationally at a rapid rate.
Because Exploding Kittens is growing, and at a rate of knots. Having burst onto the scene in 2015 when it launched its self-titled game to Kickstarter, Exploding Kittens has gone from one of crowdfunding’s biggest success stories (219,000 backers making it the biggest campaign ever for a game) to a global entity with over ten games selling across 45 countries in more than 20 languages.
To date, Exploding Kittens has sold over 15 million games in the last five years. And its story is really only just beginning.
“We definitely got some timing right,” says Hoste, speaking in multiple syllables from his current base in Amsterdam. “The company hit a crest of a wave of growth in the tabletop gaming space that has led to
this explosion within the scene.
“But actually, what helped us with the Kickstarter campaign back in 2015, is just the nature of that platform – and something still very intrinsic to our philosophy and our mission – which is to have a very strong engagement with our audience and to really create experiences and connections with people that play our games.”
“We are trying a few new things as we focus on the UK market this year. One of them is that, for the first time, we are applying an entertainment license to the Exploding Kittens franchise. We will have an Exploding Minions game launching in June.”
Try playing Throw Throw Burrito with a group of people and come away from it without making any connections. Even if it’s just between the soft throwing toy and someone’s head.
“It’s a kind of bringing people together, connecting them, helping them to generate memories and so on – rather than sitting on a couch and watching TV,” says Hoste. “That is something people respond to very well.”
Very well, indeed, in fact. And nowhere more so – with the exception of the US (on sheer population alone) – than here in the UK. Ours has become the single biggest international market for the Exploding Kittens business, where, since the company rocketed to popularity from 2017 onwards, it has seen the majority of its sales generated through mass market retail accounts. It makes sense, then, that the UK will be the focus of some of Exploding Kittens’ biggest plans for the gaming space.
“Our plan for the UK is to really broaden the portfolio of games,” continues Hoste. “Even when we started, we’d set out to, each year, have a couple of games to add to the schedule that we were bringing to market. In the last 18 months, we have been ramping that up. So, on a regular basis we can expect to see five new titles.”
Its latest being the recently launched A Little Wordy – somewhat a departure from the style of game that die hard Exploding Kittens fans have grown accustomed to from the company – joining a portfolio of ten other titles, and with three more planned for this year, a target of five releases a year doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
Consider that co-founder Elan Lee and Matt Inman (of The Oatmeal fame) are both considered prolific creatives themselves, while the Exploding Kittens business keeps its doors wide open to licensing ideas from the inventor community, and it would seem – at least for the time being – that ideas flow freely throughout this tabletop gaming unit.
“[Increased family time this year] has been beneficial for the gaming industry as a whole, and it will be interesting to see, as we start to come out of lockdown, how that develops.”
But then, there is a current demand to be met. It’s a – perhaps uncomfortable – truth, that the pandemic has been good for the gaming industry. People at home have spent a year looking for new experiences and different forms of entertainment, with demands and tastes only increasing in variety as that audience continues to expand and diversify.
“Perhaps now, game night which in the past was something more for university students, is something that the family gathers around for,” says Hoste. “And that has been very positive for us, because it is a great match for the kind of games that we do. It’s also been beneficial for the gaming industry as a whole, and it will be interesting to see, as we start to come out of lockdown, how that develops.
“We are very hopeful that those great experiences we have provided for people will be something that they will continue to seek out on a regular basis.”
The question for Exploding Kittens is, however, as those audiences for gaming continue to diversify, will the common thread that unites the company’s current portfolio need to change, too? It’s been established that whacky humour is a major part of what Exploding Kittens delivers, so how will the firm’s future portfolio account for varying tastes?
“We want to create an engaging experience,” says Hoste. “One of our founders, Elan Lee, would go so far as
to say ‘it has to make the people you are playing with entertaining.’ The humour is a major part of how we maintain the balance between where we have come from as a company, and where we are now. Balancing
between the audience who arrived at the game through The Oatmeal, and the wider, international audience we have picked up as we have grown.
“The audience will change considerably as we add new games to the portfolio; so games like A Little Wordy and Tacocat Spelled Backwards are quite different audiences to Exploding Kittens and Throw Throw Burrito. So I think the connection and experience is probably more important than the humour.”
Take a look at the library of games under the Exploding Kittens banner and you’ll see that in many cases, the connection is made and the experience of the game is felt even before the box has been taken off the shelf. Both A Game of Cat and Mouth and Tacocat Spelled Backwards see the packaging become part of the game and play itself, while the company insists that it is “taking leaps to strip out plastics and use more paper” in its own push for greater sustainability designed into its products.
“The difference between a fad that comes and goes, and something that endures is all about gameplay and having that experience,” says Hoste. “It is something, from a marketing point of view, that we want to be instantly understood. So, if I explain Throw Throw Burrito to you as a card game meets dodgeball – you’re going to have an understanding of what the game is going to entail. We want to make sure that people instantly understand what the game is about, before they even play it.”
If a rapidly rising number of UK customers isn’t measure of success enough for the Exploding Kittens stable, then take into consideration also that this summer will witness the company’s first endeavour in the
licensing space, partnering with Universal Brand Development and Illumination to bring the Minions to the Exploding Kittens title.
“We are trying a few new things as we focus on the UK market this year,” explains Hoste. “And one of them is that this year, for the first time, we are applying an entertainment license to the Exploding Kittens franchise. We will have an Exploding Minions game launching this year, in June, as a fun way to reposition the game with a broader appeal.
“It will be exciting to see what that does, and if it is successful we will continue to pursue those kinds of changes within our portfolio.”
At the same time, the outward licensing and franchise building around the game portfolio continues to gain traction. Further products are currently in development across both the Exploding Kittens and the Throw Throw Burrito franchises for later this year, while Hoste admits that “he hasn’t even scratched the surface” of what is taking place on the digital side for the company’s games library.
The latest, of course, is that Exploding Kittens has made the leap to the Nintendo Switch with a digital version of the game in a move that “has the potential to grow the audience size for Exploding Kittens exponentially.” It’s little surprise then, that plans are already in place to bring more of its titles to the gaming platform in the coming months and years, tapping into a strong trend for bringing popular physical game titles to the digital audiences.
Back in the physical gaming world, and it’s been somewhat of a whirlwind 18 months since Hoste joined the Exploding Kittens line-up. He’s navigated a pandemic, seen the launch of a new game – A Little Wordy – coincide with the reopening of non-essential shops across the UK, and witnessed the company continue to only grow larger on an international scale. And all signs point towards it being just the start of a new wave of growth for the firm.
Already, Hoste is teasing upcoming news of increased international growth, while re-orders have already started coming in for A Little Wordy. And Hoste is well-positioned to assist with the company’s plans across the board.
A gaming industry veteran by experience, he has spent a 20 year career so far enveloped in the gaming scene, 15 of which based in The Netherlands where Exploding Kittens has seen sales figures rival those of Germany – the home of Essen and tabletop gaming itself.
With that wealth of experience behind him, it’s with interest we ask his favourite title among the Exploding Kittens line-up to date.
“My favourite to play would be between Throw Throw Burrito and Poetry for Neanderthals, because they are a bit more active and interactive,” he answers. “I like Throw Throw Burrito if I am in an active mood because they go flying everywhere; it is a fun experience. It is like doing exercise while gaming, and an example that there really is a game for a multitude of tastes at Exploding Kittens.”