Munchkin is a game that strips the Tabletop RPG to its foundations, separates out the memes, in jokes, and instantly recognisable features, and parodies them mercilessly. The Steve Jackson game has not only gone wild with no fewer than fourty-two expansions varying from boxes of a few hundred cards to blister packs of about fifteen, three or four re-releases, and about twenty spinoffs with their own catalogue of expansions, and I haven’t even touched upon the assorted merchandise, Munchkin themed game-rereleases, a board game or… several… look it’s getting really difficult to keep track of all this now.
Not a bad back-catalogue for a board game released in 2001, right on the cusp of the reviving board game market. So why have we never reviewed it before?
How to Play
The premise is that the players are a party of adventurers trampling through a dungeon, bashing down doors, killing the monsters, gathering their loot and levelling up.
The game begins with two decks of cards (heights may vary depending on number of expansions; number of decks may vary depending on expansions or spinoffs; there may also be a board, bobbleheads, entirely fictitious miniatures…) one Door deck, one Treasure deck. Players begin as level 1 humans with no class (seriously that joke is in every rulebook) and start with a hand of four cards from each deck.
During the game the door deck will offer you the chance to gain classes, or change race to a classic fantasy species, throw out curses to debilitate you, and monsters to challenge you. Defeating monsters raises your level and earns you treasure, items or abilities that make it easier for you to progress, or make it harder for your “friends” to win. The first to reach level 10 wins the game.
As a D&D fan and lover of all things nerdy – or at least classically nerdy – the decks are jam packed with jokes that I can appreciate on an esoteric level. They’re my jokes, in-jokes for the in-crowd, mixed in with a few that are easier for other people to get, not many. But the sheer variety of sets means there’s something for everyone to laugh at and feel very clever about. I know nothing about westerns, very little about the old wuxia martial arts films, but there’s a set for those who geek out about them. There’s a few puns I get in The Good, The Bad, and the Munchkin, but what the hell are The Eyes of Texas?
Once you get past the comedy and into the game there are some very simple mechanics that are easily built on to create a game that’s interesting and different every time you play, moreso the more you add, detract, change and mix. While there is such a thing as not being “in the mood” for Munchkin you can always pick up and play and expect something interesting. The simplicity of the basics and universal appeal also make it a great game for bringing in new gamers who may never have tried anything of the sort.
It’s an elegant blend of strategy and chaos, building your character up to the heights of power, only to be torn down when you get too big for your own good. Negotiating for help during a fight can be a cutthroat time, as players bargain for treasures, threaten to worsen the situation, and choose their allies carefully. It’s a thrill to toppling someone before they win, but there’s a method to tearing one player down without exhausting your resources so that someone else can snatch victory from someone else’s defeat. Depending on the cunning of your opponents, the second rat is often the one to get the cheese.
I’m a harsh enough critic to admit that Munchkin is flawed, despite its success.
My biggest grievance is an issue with any game dependent on random chance, and that is that bad luck seems to dog certain players, despite the odds being even every turn. Too often I’ve seen one player get stuck around level three or four through no fault of there own, while everyone else toughs it out around levels eight and nine. Lack of creatures you can defeat, lack of creatures altogether, means no levels, no treasure, and a handful of broadly useless cards.
To balance this there is the charity rule, meaning that the lowest level player gets the cards discarded by those who’ve reached their hand limit, although it’s fairly uncommon occurrence it can help to gather the hand-me-downs. Your biggest advantage as a lower level player is that the guys who are winning become the victim of every screw-over and cut down the deck has to offer, where you get a fairly easy ride. Ultimately you may very well find yourself catching up, or even getting to a point where you can win, but in the mean time it’s boring and disappointing round after boring and disappointing round.
More sets means more mechanics, ones that are rarely of use to you once they’re diluted by the other cards. Stripping down the sets to the core, picking and choosing some favourite expansions makes the game a lot more manageable, and if you’re savvy you can put together custom decks designed around your favourite game elements.
Final flaw, and this one’s very nit-picky. Once you’ve browsed the deck once and played the game a couple of times the humour is rather lost, you may find yourself buying the decks to try and find a new joke to laugh at. As I say, nit-picking.
This is a must-have for any games cabinet, at least one copy of any variety. You can happily spend the absolute bare minimum on this game and expect a lot of fun times to be had from it, and if everyone has their own favourite version at home then you’ve got the chance to try out a few things. It may not be a game to every one’s taste but it’s a definite crowd pleaser with no great limitations on maximum numbers of players, making it a great one to bust out at parties, conventions, or just a night when no one wants anything too serious.
Shameless promotion here, my friends at e-Collectica games will be celebrating the store’s 10th birthday on October the 15th with their longest ever Games Day. 10:00 – 19:30 at the Darwin Community Centre in Shrewsbury. If you’re in the midlands and want to join us for nine and a half hours of games come on over. We’ll be featuring a Ticket to Ride tournament, a couple of roleplays and your chance to learn some new games, or just play some favourites. More info at the event page on Facebook.