Thursday, December 30, 2004

Review: Munchkin

Munchkin isn't just a game. Munchkin is a phenomenon. With roughly a half-dozen best-selling expansions, Munchkin has built a huge following. It's one of our best selling games.

I first heard Steve Jackson's name mentioned as the man who invented GURPS, the Generic Universal Role Playing System, a competitor to Dungeons and Dragons. That role playing pedigree, coupled with a wry sense of humor, has germinated and flowered to give us the behemoth that is Munchkin. The other guilty party here is John Kovalic, the cartoonist who pens the fantastic web comic Dork Tower, which has crossed over into many print publications. His whimsical cartoons adorn the cards of most of the Munchkin installments.

One of the keys to Munchkin's success is that it pokes gentle fun at the culture that has sprung up around role playing games. Those of us who remember dragging our theives, clerics and wizards down into deep dungeons to recover the cursed wand of +5 firebreathing will immediately relate. The game is packed with monsters such as the Level 9 Lawyers, the Level 6 Shrieking Geek, and the Level 14 Unspeakably Awful Indescribable Horror. Items to be found include the +2 Boots of Butt-Kicking, the +4 Swiss Army Polearm and the dreaded Potion of Halitosis.

Game play is pretty simple. There are two decks of cards, the door deck (with a picture of a door on the back) and the treasure deck (with a picture of, you guessed it, a pile of treasure on the back). Your starting hand consists of two cards from each deck. On your turn you kick in the door to the next room; or in other words, you draw a card from the door deck. That card could be a new race or class which you can use to beef up your character, but it's more likely to be a monster which you must then fight. You use the cards in play in front of you (which represent your gear and character attributes) combined with your level to attempt to defeat the monster. If you are strong enough, you defeat the monster, gain a level, and collect some treasure cards (the amount is dictated by the monster you defeat). If you aren't strong enough to defeat the monster, you can enlist the aid of your fellow adventurers, for a price of course. If you still can't beat the monster, or if they won't help you beat the monster, then you must turn tail and run away. If you fail to escape, you suffer the penalty listed under the "bad stuff" portion of the monster card. The other players, and you, can play cards from their hand (usually magic potions and spells) to beef up the adventurers or monsters as they see fit and thus affect the battle. There are also curses and other random silliness that can affect the game in almost any way imaginable.

Munchkin is funny, there's no denying that. The illustrations are whimsical and sometimes downright hilarious. Unfortunately, once the humor wears off, there's not much of a game here. The game is terribly random and in some ways it just doesn't work well. For one thing, it suffers from a bit of a runaway leader problem. At the beginning of the game, your character will be so low level that it has to run away from almost everything, but as your character gains levels and gear, you'll become so beefy that you can take on almost any monster in the deck. At that point, there is little that your opponents can do to stop you. Because the deck is shuffled, there is nothing but luck to dictate whether you get a wimpy level 1 monster or a unstoppable level 20 juggernaut. Also, there are certain cards that seem like a lot of fun but in practice, just don't work. For example, there is a wandering monster card that lets you bring a second monster into a fight. Unfortunately, in order to play it, you have to have a second monster card in your hand. The problem is that the way the game works, you are extremely unlikely to ever have a second monster card in your hand, since almost any time you draw a monster from the deck, you are obligated to fight it yourself.

I'll be honest. I don't particularly care for Munchkin. It's far too random for my tastes and once the jokes wear off, there just isn't much there to make me want to play the game. I got a good chuckle reading through the cards but I just don't enjoy it as a game. On the other hand, my thirteen-year-old son just loves the game. And it is one of our best selling titles so obviously there are plenty of people out there who disagree with me.


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