Sometimes when you play a game, you’re not looking for a cerebral experience or a tense strategic challenge. Instead you’re just looking to kick down some doors, fight some nasty monsters, and have a few laughs with your buddies.
Such a game is Munchkin, a popular card game that attempts to shave away complex RPG elements like stats, skills, and social role-playing, while capturing (and parodying) common fantasy RPG tropes such as leveling up, killing monsters, and scoring loads of useful treasure.
How It Plays
In Munchkin, the goal of the game is to reach level 10 before anyone else. This can be accomplished a few different ways, but the turn structure is pretty simple.
First you “kick down the door” by revealing the top card of the Dungeon deck. If it’s a monster, you’ll have to fight it (the core of the game), if it’s a curse it applies to you immediately (usually dropping you a level or breaking some of your weapons and armor), and if it’s something else – such as a new Race or Class – you can either put it into play immediately, or save it in your hand for later.
If you don’t encounter a monster, you then have a choice – you can either loot the room (drawing a card from the Dungeon deck, this time face down, into your hand), or play a monster from your hand to fight (such as that easily-defeated level 2 Large Angry Chicken).
Combat is pretty straightforward. You simply compare your level, plus any modifiers (in the form of weapons, armor and other oddities) to the Monster’s level. If yours is higher, you win and get to draw a number of treasure cards indicated by the monster, as well as gain a level. If the Monster’s is equal to or higher than yours, you must run away, or suffer the consequences (ranging anywhere from losing an item to losing ALL your items and going straight back to level 1).
Fortunately, you’re not entirely alone. If you can’t quite beat a monster, you can enlist the help of an ally – although caution is recommended, as those allies will most certainly demand a share of the treasure. In addition, players can play cards that affect the outcome of the battle – such as an increase to the monster’s level, a “wandering monster” that combines with the original, or something that subtracts levels from the player.
The rulebook encourages plenty of this backstabbing, negotiating for treasure/allies, and even arguing over the rules. If you haven’t gathered, the cards are titled humorously, often with puns and silly names to go along with the cartoon art
Levels can be gained by selling (discarding) 1000 gold pieces worth of items, finding and playing a “Go Up a Level” card, or by defeating a Monster. The game ends when one player manages to defeat a Monster that pushes them up to level 10 (noting that only by defeating a monster can ANY player go up to level 10, with only 1 exception, a special card that applies to Clerics).
Does It Slay the Level 20 Plutonium Dragon?
Munchkin is not a particularly deep game. Let’s be honest; it’s not a deep game at all. It’s entirely a “take-that” game of luck based entirely around the humor of making fun of common Fantasy tropes. This is one case where the theme is the game; without it, there’s really not much going on. Your mechanical success is based almost entirely on luck of the draw.
Fortunately, the humor present is pretty good. The puns are clever. The silliness is silly. Players will constantly be shifting in race, class, and even gender. Ridiculous weapons will be put to use, the strangest monsters will be fought. If you know anything about Fantasy, or Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll probably get a good laugh.
The game can create enjoyable, memorable scenarios. You may not have very much control over whether or not you win, but you will likely remember that time you sent a level 18 Squidzilla wandering in just when Harry though he was going to easily defeat the Level 1 potted plant, and when Harry secured Allison as an ally to defeat this combination you then proceed to make Squidzilla Humongous, distracted the players with Pretty Balloons, and Cursed! Allison to change gender preventing her from using her Broad Sword (usable by females only). You’ll remember this stuff. It’s funny. It’s exciting. It’s a good time.
There’s just one problem. Actually two problems.
The first problem is that the game lasts waaaay too long. The printed game time is 1-2 hours and it is not wrong. 1-2 hours for a game based on lucky card draws. A game in which you have so little control over whether or not you win the game. After a while, the jokes grow stale; the game just isn’t fun anymore.
If this game lasted 30-45 minutes, it’d be brilliant fun. Hilarious jokes, backstabbing, launching ridiculous onslaughts on your friends… sounds like a good time to me, and short enough that it hardly matters how little game there actually is. But after 30-45 minutes the jokes aren’t hilarious anymore, the backstabbing grows tedious, and you are simply ready for the game to end.
Part of the reason for this length is the “attack-the-leader” nature of the game. Obviously, if someone else wins, you cannot win; therefore, it makes sense to gang up on the person closest to level 10. But this doesn’t just slow them down for you to make a last-chance catch up. It tends to set them back several levels, often back to level 1, forcing them to start over. Then the NEXT leader gets ganged up on until they’re sent back… and over, and over, and over again. Nothing pushes the game towards it’s inevitable end. Either a player has to sneakily gain that 10th level, or everyone just has to give up, or everyone has to get unlucky and run out of cards.
Sticking with fewer players – 4 players, because 3 players is really TOO few – can help shorten the game and decrease the amount of “attack-the-leader” that can happen.
The other big problem with this game is that, while there is no player elimination (a player Killed by a monster simply starts back at level 1), through unlucky card draws it is possible for a player to be effectively unable to play. The game certainly doesn’t help out the lower-level players either. While being someone’s ally can get you the treasure you need and it is more desirable to get a lower-level ally than a higher-level one, a player at level 1 with no items simply cannot help anyone defeat a monster, so any allies will almost always be mid-level characters, not the lowest ones.
It seems like it should be rare, but in almost every game one player gets stuck on the bottom. They continually draw CURSES when they kick down the door, or even classes, meaning they can never fight monsters to gain treasure or more levels; meaning they can never increase their fighting ability; meaning they never become an ally; meaning they can’t get any extra treasure; it’s a huge circle of doom. Yes it requires a lot of bad luck, but it happens. It doesn’t help that there is no sense of order in the dungeon deck. You could turn up a Level 1 Potted Plant on your first kick-down-the-door, or you could hit that level 20 Plutonium dragon. Which player is actually going to succeed?
Case in point: watch the Tabletop episode of Munchkin. Pay careful attention to Sandeep Parikh as he constantly draws curse after curse, and monsters he cannot fight, and other useless cards from the dungeon deck. Watch how frustrated he is as he can do NOTHING. He has no power to participate in any other battles; no useful cards to backstab people with. For most of the game he is clearly not having much fun, stuck at level 1, while other players are reaching levels 7, 8, 9, negotiating, arguing, and backstabbing each other. Sounds like a blast. For everyone except Sandeep.
Yes, Munchkin is a great idea. The simplistic nature of the card game mixed with the humor (and the excellent art from John Kovalic) is a delight… for about 30 minutes. Then the humor runs out, and still there is nothing that can be done to bring the game to a quick close. Then the players still stuck at level 1 realize they are just about never getting out of there. Then the lack of depth of the game starts to show; and yet it trudges on, often upwards of 2 hours.
If you have the patience for that; if you and your players don’t mind the complete randomness of the game, or the tendency of 1 player to get stuck at the bottom, if you absolutely love the humor, you’ll certainly get plenty of enjoyment out of this game. But even I, someone who plays RPGs and enjoys the humor, and loves thematic games, even I just don’t enjoy this game because it is too long for what it is, and I’ve seen too many players suffer through the whole experience.