If you’ve been around board games for a while, or entered a store that sells board games, or consumed oxygen really, then you’ve probably brushed up against Munchkin. If your skin didn’t break out into blisters then it may be a sign that you’ll enjoy this game.
Munchkin is a card game for 3-6 players, designed by Steve Jackson. Players take the roles of munchkin who may, or may not be runaways from a certain copyrighted chocolate factory. It is a light-hearted role-playing game, whereby everyone levels up their character by defeating monsters, selling off items, or by drawing gain level cards. The first player reaching level 10 becomes munchkin royalty, and winner of the game.
How to Play
A turn is broken into several phases. The current player begins their turn by kicking down a door, and drawing a card face up from the event deck. If it’s a monster, they must fight it. If it’s a curse, they must apply it. If it’s neither then the player can draw another card to put in their hand, or fight a monster of their choosing already in their hand.
To defeat a monster, a player must have equal or more strength than the monster. Strength, the only stat in the game, is gained through the usual way: eating pizza and doughnuts while bingeing Bojack Horseman. I wish. Instead, it’s granted through item, race, class, and gender cards. Some event cards also grant temporary increases and decreases to strength.
In battles, everyone around the table can play cards that help or hinder the active hero. In addition, the player under siege may ask for allegiances from the table. Only one player can join their side, but before they do they negotiate their price. If the player, with or without help, wins the fight they get a level, and get to take a number of cards from the treasure deck.
If they lose, bad stuff might happen. This goes on and on until one player hits level nine. After that they need to defeat a monster, to earn their 10th level and win the game.
There are three things I can think of when it comes to Munchkin, which isn’t a lot but to be fair I think that’s three more than what most people can think of. First off, you can play it with anybody. The rules are incredulously easy to teach, and the card art and text are G-rated fun. It becomes funny if you’re at all familiar with dungeons and dragons, or any of the old school role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate. Do not be surprised if you get half-way through a game and your human thief is mounted on a dragon wearing nothing but inflatable armbands for armour and wielding a rubber chicken.
The reason for Munchkin’s success is that they’ve heavily invested in being a game for everyone, and being available everywhere. The former being the reason why we’ve reached a critical mass whereby any mainstream pop culture now has its own version of Munchkin. Then the latter is part of an accomplished marketing plan, by putting Munchkin on every shelf, in every gaming shop in the universe. It has created branding like no other game. As such, it has become the Coca-Cola of board games.
Which leads nicely into my final good thing about Munchkin, and that is that it’s one of the few games that transcends the board gamer – muggle barrier. It’s been around for such a long time that there’s no doubt it’s introduced millions of people into the wonderful world of board gaming. I think all of us who have found ourselves going deeper should have nothing but thanks for Munchkin and what it’s done for our hobby.
Munchkin comes from a land before game design, and board game design hit the mainstream. There are a lot of issues with the gameplay, which would not be acceptable in today’s game market. One example is that there isn’t enough incentive to stop people winning fights at the lower levels, making it very rare for a monster’s ‘bad stuff’ to happen. Then the severity of this bad stuff varies wildly, from laughably tame where investing any cards to prevent the current player from defeating a monster is a waste, to devastatingly punishing. Some of this bad stuff can be like making someone fall in love with you through a series of love letters, and then revealing it to be a prank. You will crush their soul. Not only will they be unable to win but they’ll spend the remainder of the game with a forced smile and having to pretend they’re still having fun.
That sucks, but what’s less forgivable is that Munchkin revolves around randomness that can’t be mitigated – at all. If you have a bad draw, you’re screwed. The only chance to avoid being proverbially shat on all game is to negotiate for help. Though, this only gets you so far as there are no tied victories, it’s in no one’s interest to help you defeat your final monster. Which leads to the most frustrating problem yet.
The game stagnates once someone reaches level nine. Remember those cards that were a waste to use early? Well now everyone has a stockpile of them, and at level nine Russell Crowe, himself, runs into your living room and gives the signal to unleash hell. This leads to the game stalling in a quagmire of ‘take that’ cards, which have little to no interplay between themselves, or counter play against each other. Remembering at this point it’s a table of players against just one. I’ve had a game of Munchkin last for two hours. Two hours! Munchkin does not have the depth to sustain this length of gameplay, and still be interesting.
This won’t be the last time I bring this up, but your enjoyment of this game will be derived from the group you play with. I would strongly advise not playing with the following people: competitive types, revengeful types, couples who gang up, or anyone who doesn’t want to offend anybody. So pretty much everyone. However, there is a small niche who will thrive and enjoy this game. That is those who just want to shoot the shit, and have some activity in their hands. For them, this game is fantastic.
The most damning issue of Munchkin is that the fun art, writing, and gameplay suffer exponentially from diminishing returns. Making this a great board game to demo, or play at a friend’s place, but the second after you’ve bought it and played it, it becomes a worse version of itself. You realise the vapidness of the gameplay, and the fun art, and writing wears off as you’ve seen all the cards before. Each subsequent play, you begin to hate it more, and then hate yourself for buying it. This spiral continues until you empty your bank account at a local bar, getting drunk and studying every card in the deck attempting to squeeze out some humour to ease the pain of your wife leaving you. Except there’s none to be found. Do yourself a favour and buy Cockroach Poker, or Love Letter instead.
I no longer enjoy Munchkin, therefore I can’t recommend it. Munchkin was one of the first modern board games I owned, and I have fond memories of it because of that, I’m also super thankful for it introducing me to this wonderful hobby. However, compared to any other board game in my current collection, it no longer holds up.
In the grand scheme of things, this review is yelling into a black hole. With enough versions available for anyone to find a theme that interests them, plus all the money they’ve made, and continue to make. This game is going to be popular for a long time. This is great. More future board gamers in the making. For me, I traded this cursed game away, hoping never again to mutter the words: get them, they’re level nine.
What’s your relationship with Munchkin? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget, if you enjoyed you can follow for more great reviews!