Carol Mertz – Senior Game Designer at Exploding Kittens – takes us inside the development of Hand-to-Hand Wombat

Carol Mertz, Exploding Kittens
Exploding Kittens’ Senior Game Designer Carol Mertz discusses inventors, creativity and designing for the mass market.

Carol, it’s great to connect. Before we dive into Hand-to-Hand Wombat, how did you come to be working in game design?
My background is largely in web design and development — I’ve always been interested in interactivity and user experience. After getting my undergraduate degree in animation and interactive media in 2008, I formed a web development studio with some friends. From there, we all discovered an interest in making video games, which eventually led me to pursuing games as a full-time career.

I didn’t start exploring tabletop game development until 2015, when I came up with my first card game idea and self-published it via Kickstarter. I really loved that process and have been excited about tabletop development ever since.

So you’re a game designer in all senses of the term, spanning digital and physical design?
Yes, I really consider myself a multi-disciplinary designer. While my full-time job is a Senior Game Designer with Exploding Kittens, I still love working on video games and interactive installations.

How straightforward was it to jump from video game design to tabletop design?
Design principles are definitely transferable, but it really depends on the kind of designer you are. If you’re a videogame designer who relies on complicated engine-driven systems, it may be harder to translate some of that to tabletop. That said, when it comes to simpler systems, there’s a lot that remains relevant.

At New York University, where I earned my Masters in Fine Arts degree in Game Design, they teach game design across the board—tabletop as well as digital. It’s integrated from the very start of their curriculum because it all informs each other, and there’s lots to learn from both sides.

Absolutely, it makes total sense. So how did Exploding Kittens enter the picture?
It’s funny you mentioned the crossover between digital and tabletop, because my friend who helps to run IndieCade, a festival that primarily showcases videogames, is who introduced me to Exploding Kittens. I had graduated with my Master’s degree and was looking for new opportunities, so he introduced me to the company.

I was really excited about getting into party games, because I love bringing people together into the same space and using play to encourage them to acknowledge and navigate each other’s physical presence. I worked for Exploding Kittens on a contract basis for about a year, and in 2020 they brought me on full time.
And now you’re Senior Game Designer there. What does a typical day look like?
I’m responsible for a lot of concepting and vision development, as well as digital and physical prototyping. On top of developing my own internal concepts, I’ll help develop projects that external designers bring into the company, which includes lots of playtesting and iterating. I also do a lot of writing — especially for instructions and how to play scripts.

Outside of the more obvious development work, I also work with the production and project management teams to help assemble bills of materials for my projects, and I occasionally work with the marketing and sales teams to provide development perspectives. There’s a lot we do!

Yes, I suddenly feel lazy! Let’s dive into Exploding Kittens’ latest game, Hand-to-Hand Wombat. Great name… How does it play?
Hand-to-Hand Wombat is a frenetic, physical social deduction game. All of the players are working together to build towers, but their eyes are closed, so they can’t see what other players are doing. One of the players is trying to sabotage towers to score, while the other team is trying to build towers to score. In between rounds, players vote to try and get rid of the person who is sabotaging the towers. The tagline is: ‘A game of teamwork, towers, and troublemakers.’

Carol Mertz, Exploding Kittens

Nice! And this came from an outside inventor, right?
Yes, it did start as an external design. We were working with Cory O’Brien, one of the designers of Inhuman Conditions. He collaborated with our CEO, Elan Lee, a few years ago to work on a concept based on the scene from The Princess Bride with the poison goblets. They were excited about it, but they realised the only reason it works in the movie is because it’s rigged — it was tough to create the feeling they wanted as a board game! So, that went through several iterations and spin-offs, and we realised that rather than bluffing, we wanted approachable social deduction.

From The Princess Bride to wombats was a long, arduous development journey. There were lessons learnt from every prototype we did. We worked on four or five unique game designs to get to where we eventually landed, but every single one came with a great lesson that we then applied to the next iteration.

There’s lots going on in the game: Wombats, playing with your eyes closed, stacking, social deduction… How did you make sure it all ‘made sense’ as a cohesive experience?
Since we design for mass market, one of our core design pillars is to make things as simple as possible. When a player is looking at the instructions, it needs to be easy for them to understand what to do. A key part of the development process was trimming out anything that wasn’t necessary, with the aim to make gameplay as clear as possible.

Did the art help tie everything together too?
Our projects do start to come together when the art is applied, but we’re often close to being finished with development when we get to that stage. We’ll know what the game components feel like physically, but we won’t necessarily know what the game feels like emotionally. Once the art and design team get their hands on it, we’ll sometimes continue to iterate based on the theme to help make it more cohesive – and we’ll often get ideas from the art they’ll create.

Carol Mertz, Exploding Kittens

One short question: Why wombats?
Ha! Well, the short answer is The Oatmeal. It came from his 2021 wombat comic. We hadn’t applied a theme as of last summer; we had discussed cakes and other things that felt linked to stacking, but when The Oatmeal saw it, he said “Wouldn’t it be fun if we had a game called Hand-to-Hand Wombat?”

When we thought about the fact that Wombats stack their square turds to mark their territory, and players stack things in the game and behave territorially, we realised that it all applied really well!

It’s grounded in fact!
Exactly. It was a perfect fit, so we powered forward with that theme.

Carol Mertz, Exploding Kittens
The Kickstarter campaign for this has been really interesting – you gave away a house for $1 right?
Yes! We wanted to find a way to inspire people to get excited about crowdfunding again, so what better way than selling ridiculous items to our supporters! We sold a house, a car and all kinds of little things. It was mostly silly stuff designed to get people talking about the campaign.

Mission accomplished! Before we move on to discuss how Exploding Kittens works with inventors, I’m interested in the first steps you take when coming up with a game. Where do you find your ideas?
Everything we do is mass market party game-focused. As I mentioned before, simplicity is a really important part of our process. Coming up with straightforward but fun concepts is imperative.

The other cornerstone of our design philosophy here at the company is that we don’t make interesting games, we make games that make the people you’re playing with interesting. Our CEO views all our games through this lens.

We’re looking for ways to get players pointing fingers at each other, or laughing together, or screaming and shouting – and if we can do that with a short, simple ruleset, that’s when we feel we’ve gotten close to where we want to be.

You mentioned there about being a mass market company, but you also have a clear presence at lots of more tabletop-focused shows – and you have a tabletop fanbase in a way that other mass market companies don’t. Do you think you’re tackling this space in a different way than other companies in this area?
When we design for mass market, we’re thinking about parents walking around a store looking for something to play with the family. We’re thinking about people who want to pick up a game for a party that night. If it was to boil it down, it’s about finding something familiar that people will be comfortable buying, and adding a twist that will make them excited to check it out. That’s the secret sauce to creating hits for a mass market audience.

Carol Mertz, Exploding Kittens

The way we do that is to think about what works in existing games. Throw Throw Burrito incorporates dodgeball into traditional card game mechanics. Poetry for Neanderthals has Taboo influences and Catchphrase influences, but we added the single-syllable twist. Exploding Kittens is Russian Roulette, with added strategy and cuteness. You also see it in popular music and film — the most successful projects take something people know, but make it feel a little unexpected. There’s a book called Hit Makers by Derek Thompson that goes really deep into this phenomenon — it’s definitely worth checking out.

I’ll give it a go. Now, for any inventors reading who would like to pitch concepts to Exploding Kittens, what sort of things are you looking for? And why are inventors important to you guys?
We welcome external pitches because our development team is fairly small – we’re not able to come up with everything. We’re always going to be surprised by cool new ideas and we want to see those cool new ideas. We love external designers for that reason.

And in terms of what we look for… Bring us stuff that we would never have thought of. The “Oh! Of course, this should exist!” concepts.

I’ve really enjoyed working with external designers closely, making sure that we’re fulfilling the vision of both Exploding Kittens and the designer as much as possible. I will say though, don’t get too attached to your game’s theme—I don’t think we’ve ever kept a theme for a game brought to us by an inventor!

Really useful insights. Carol, this has been great. I have one last question: what do you do to fuel your creativity?
I love reflecting on a problem by writing everything down, going for a long walk and letting ideas simmer. I also like to surround myself with creative things. When I’m done with work, I’ll look at art, watch movies and do things that aren’t related to games, but may have interesting lessons that I could take into game design.

I also find a lot of value in spending time with friends, playing games, and talking to folks about different ideas. I don’t have a particular recipe, but these things have helped me form ideas in the past.

Great stuff. Thanks Carol; hopefully catch up again soon.

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