‘Exploding Kittens’ fuels return of card, board games

Shan Li
Los Angeles Times

After leaving his job as chief creative officer at Xbox, Elan Lee started tinkering with a new game.

It would have explosions, laser beams and nightmarish creatures. But unlike the video games he shepherded through production at Xbox, this one wouldn’t require hordes of developers or years to finish.

All it took to make “Exploding Kittens” was paper, cardboard and an idea.

“Games are back,” said Lee, whose card game has sold 2.5 million copies since its release a year ago. “I’ve been into games my whole life, and it’s so exciting to see that there’s a return.”

While video games hog the limelight, board and card games — known as tabletop games — are enjoying a quiet resurgence. Many are turning to these retro pleasures as a respite from the computers, gaming consoles and mobile devices thought to have rendered board games obsolete.

Games and puzzles were the fastest-growing toy category last year, climbing 11 percent to $1.6 billion, according to the NPD Group. That streak continued into the first four months of 2016, with game sales jumping 24 percent — four times the pace of the overall industry.

They remain small compared with the U.S. video game industry, which raked in $23.5 billion in sales in 2015. But giant toy makers Hasbro and Mattel have seen growth in games and puzzles even as other segments stumbled. And smaller game designers have found creative freedom producing off-line entertainment aimed at adults — and a surprisingly simple business model that often bypasses traditional retailers.

Board and card games are especially appealing to millennials, analysts said, because they crave face-to-face intimacy in an age when social interactions are often defined by disappearing SnapChats and tweets.

“The social nature of games is very attractive to people, especially younger people,” said Jason Moser, a toy analyst at the Motley Fool. “Games are a way to tap into that feeling that perhaps has been lost for a while because of the quick movement to mobile.”

Lee, a video game designer for 17 years, knows firsthand both the lure and the loneliness of digital games. When he left Xbox, he yearned to make something more social.

“I just had an overwhelming feeling the games I had been building for such a long time were very isolating,” Lee said. “They might be playing multi-player games, but they are sitting alone and staring at a screen.”

His card game was initially called “Bomb Squad” before Lee showed an early version to Matthew Inman, a friend and the creator of the popular comics website The Oatmeal. Inman loved the concept but suggested a twist: instead of bombs, the losing cards should show adorable felines stuck in explosive scenarios (chewing a mouthful of TNT or dancing on a nuclear missile launch pad).

Last year, the pair decided to raise $10,000 via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter — enough money to print 500 packs. The game ended up receiving nearly $9 million, attracting the most backers in Kickstarter history.

The costs of creating a board game are relatively low compared with a video game, which can require millions in the development phase.

However, that calculus flips after the game is created. Video games are mostly downloaded nowadays, so there is no added manufacturing cost. Board games — especially those that come with figurines, spinners or other parts — can be costly to produce.

Kickstarter has emerged as a proving ground for tech-free games — and a way to eliminate upfront costs as backers pay in advance for copies. Games, of the off-line variety, have scored nearly $300 million in funding since the site launched in 2009, the company said.

Rooster Teeth, an online entertainment company, created a card game this year inspired by their popular web series “A Million Dollars, But … .”

In short, the game asks players what they’d be willing to endure in exchange for a boatload of cash. (For example: Every time you sneeze, you teleport to somewhere in the world.)

Classic board games, meanwhile, are finding a second life as mobile apps. “Monopoly” and the “Game of Life” consistently rank among the top-selling paid apps.

Upstart game makers are cautious about mobile.

Lee of “Exploding Kittens” said he worried for a long time that an app would foster the kind of isolating experiences he hoped to alleviate (“Cards Against Humanity” has avoided mobile for that reason, Temkin said).

“Exploding Kittens” debuted in January as the top-selling paid app in the Apple store and still hovers in the top 20. It does not feature a single-player mode.