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Co-Creator and CEO of Exploding Kittens, Elan Lee, Knows How to Play the Game

“The worst thing you can do is linger on a failure without properly identifying it, or properly identifying how to keep moving forward.”

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If there’s one thing you need to know about co-creator and CEO of Exploding Kittens Elan Lee, it’s that the man loves him a good palindrome.

“My favorite character in the game is a character named Tacocat. Tacocat is my favorite character in the entire game, so much so that I made an entire game about Tacocat, called Tacocat Spelled Backwards,” laughs Lee. “We just launched it. It’s amazing, because Tacocat is a palindrome! If you spell ‘tacocat’ backward you still get ‘tacocat,’ which endlessly delights me. I can’t even believe what a wonderful, amazing thing that is.”

This play on words delighted him so much that he and his team created the game where everything – every character, every game piece, every phrase – everything in the game is a palindrome.

“There’s a card you can play on another player called ‘a nut for a jar of tuna.’ Amazingly, if you spell ‘a nut for a jar of tuna’ backward you still get ‘a nut for a jar of tuna,’” he describes excitedly. There are about thirty or so of these golden phrases in the game which is, inferring from the tone of his description, his pride and joy. “It’s quirky and weird and definitely geeky and I think I’m kind of a weird mix of all of those things.”

On this week’s episode of the L.A. Weekly Weekly Podcast, host and publisher Brian Calle nerds out with Lee on all things gaming, invention, and the pursuit of the fickle-heart that is entrepreneurial success.

Back in 2014, Lee partnered up with one of our own personal favorite comic writers, The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman, to create Exploding Kittens.

“Matt is basically a joy machine. He is so so so talented at making people smile and he dives very deep into his own personality and experiences to extract that. It’s pretty hard to be around that guy and not have a great time,” Lee praises his partner.

Exploding Kittens is a game that would go down in history as the most-backed (by number of backers) Kickstarter campaign in history at the time of release. It was published on the crowdfunding website on January 27, 2015, and exceeded its $10,000 funding goal within a head-spinning eight minutes. Twenty-three days later, on February 19, the humble game campaign made history with a grand total of  $8,782,571 in pledges by an incredible 219,382 backers. By the fall, the game was fully released.

Described as a “strategic card game about cats and destruction,” Exploding Kittens was born out of a love of gaming, comics, and joyful togetherness. The focus of the game is not to be entertaining, but rather, to make the people you are playing with entertaining.

“Games typically fit into categories, right? You play with your adult friends, or there’s kids games that you don’t really participate in. But the Holy Grail is games that can be trans-generational like that. Games that you can play with your kids or with your friends and that was absolutely the goal,” explains Lee excitedly.

They clearly hit the mark, as the game continues to be heralded as one of the most popular card games today. The gameplay is simple, you take out your deck of cards in which there are some (symbolically—because yes, people do ask about that) Exploding Kittens. You then play the game by putting the deck face down and taking turns with your group, drawing cards until someone draws an Exploding Kitten (again, this is not played with an actual combustible kitten). The drawing and carnage continues until there’s only 1 player left, who is deemed better than everyone else and as such, wins the game. The more cards you draw, the greater your chances of drawing an Exploding Kitten. There are a number of cards that can lessen or increase your chance of detonating. It’s fun. It’s silly. It’s aggressive. And there’s basically a 100% guarantee of laughing.

What’s his best advice for dreamers, inventors and entrepreneurs hoping to explode into the same category of success he’s achieved?

“If you were to look at our office, there’s a bunch of Oatmeal art all over the walls; Matt contributes almost all the art to our office except for one piece of art, which is mine,” shares Lee. “My piece of art is this giant neon sign—it literally lights up—and all it says is ‘Fail Fast.’ The reason I made that is because I think it is the most important idea for anyone looking to create something new. The best advice I could probably give is that you will absolutely fail. There is no chance that you can possibly succeed without a whole bunch of failures.”

“Instead of denying that,” he continues, “instead of thinking ‘the first thing I try is going to work,’ if you can accept that you will fail – absolutely fail and there’s no way around that – but that eventually you will succeed, then the trick and the only thing you have to focus on is getting through those failures as fast as you possibly can.”

If you can keep that in mind, explains the successful entrepreneur, you’ll be better able to identify impending failures, you’ll be better able to abandon them before they go too far and you’ll be better able to absorb the knowledge you need about why your venture failed and how to build the next version even better.

“But do it fast,” Lee wisens. “The worst thing you can do is linger on a failure without properly identifying it, or properly identifying how to keep moving forward.”

Having had his fair share of failure, Lee is now known as one of the most successful American game designers, developers and creators, with entertainment that has people of all ages and backgrounds hooked. Cash in on his creativity and gift yourself some much-needed levity and laughs with his newest creation: a re-release of the 2016 hit that has been acquired by his team and re-made with an Exploding Kittens twist. With the release coming up on November 9, it’ll be the perfect (and most welcomed) addition to all these family holidays coming up.

Listen to the full interview on the L.A. Weekly weekly podcast, available on SpotifyCumulus Los Angeles or wherever you get your podcasts.

Highlights