Is Munchkin still worth playing?

Few games have had as profound an impact on the board game hobby as Munchkin. The game has sold thousands of copies, has countless spin offs, and single handedly makes Steve Jackson Games one of the most successful publishers in the business. I have a personal soft spot for the game because it was my entry point into the hobby. At the time I was playing role playing games with a group of friends, and one night we cracked out Munchkin instead. I was hooked and got the game for my birthday shortly after. It was the first modern board game in my collection, and while I feel like I’ve outgrown it and can recognize its flaws now, I am grateful to it as an entry point into this hobby I love so much.

But let me back up a step and explain the game. Munchkin is at it’s heart a “take that” style card game that spoofs roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. The fun of screwing over your friends and the amusing card names and art are the key to its success. At it’s heart it’s a very simple game. Players flip over a card from the “Door” deck, representing a door in a dungeon that their hero is kicking down and exploring. This card is either a monster, which they have to fight, or a card that they take into their hand to use in the future. The “fighting” of the game is very simple. Players have a level, and they add that to whatever stats they have on their equipment. If that number is higher than the monster’s level, they win, level up towards the goal of level 10, and collect a certain number of cards from the loot deck. If not, they must try to escape, or suffer the consequences of losing, which varies from monster to monster. Players can ask others to join them in the fight, which allows them to add their combined levels and stats together, but no one is going to join without asking for their share of the loot, and who wants to share? 

The silly loot of Munchkin

The take that aspect of the game really kicks in during these fights. Many of the cards allow players to increase the difficulty of the fight for other players. So when two people have teamed up vs a really difficult monster, and just barely have the numbers to defeat it, another player can play a card and add five levels to the monster, putting the fight out of reach. But perhaps the players who are fighting have a few of their own tricks up their sleeves and can level the playing field again by using a potion or special ability. This back and forth one-upsmanship is the heart of Munchkin, and where a lot of the fun and hilarity comes into play. There’s nothing quite like putting a battle far out of reach for another player, and watching them suffer the defeat consequences of a particularly brutal monster.

Some monsters are more scary than others.

Speaking of these consequences, they are always thematically appropriate. Losing to a bigfoot result in you getting stepped on and losing your headgear. Losing to an insurance salesman causes you to lose a lot of money, just like in real life. Even when you are losing, you are laughing at the consequences. Munchkin lampoons its subject matter and this is a lot of the fun. The equipment you get is silly, the enemies you are fighting are ridiculous. Everything in the game is essentially a knowing wink to fans of the genre that is being lampooned, and it feels like a big joke that everyone is in on. If Dungeons and Dragons is not something you’re familiar with there are countless other themes. Star Munchkin makes fun of science fiction, Munchkin Zombies makes fun of zombie tropes, Super Munchkin parodies super heroes etc…

And here is the game’s first major flaw. If you are NOT in on the joke, if none of the silly art or card names or defeat effects are tickling your funny bone, then the whole experience feels a lot like watching a movie you don’t find funny. Playing the original Munchkin with a bunch of people who have never played a fantasy roleplaying game feels a lot like math and randomness, and the humor is lost. Munchkin is a game that relies on jokes, and if they don’t hit, or feel played out, the game itself does not make up the difference.

Some of the various ways to make your fellow player’s lives miserable.

The second major flaw is in how the game ends. Players are trying to get to level 10, and the first one to get there wins the game. What results is minimal conflict or interaction until players are close to winning, and then a sort of whack-a-mole for anyone that is close to the finish line. I have had many games where all the players are hovering around level 9, and everyone is mutually policing each other to make sure they can’t hit level 10. However, at some point players are out of “take that” card that put a fight out of  reach, and someone cruieses to victory. It can feel very anticlimactic, as it doesn’t really have to do with skill or strategy, but mostly luck at fighting a monster when no one else at the table can stop you.

So is it a game still worth playing today? I must admit, although I have nostalgia for it as my gateway game, and many happy memories, this is not a game that hits the table with any regularity anymore. For one thing, my regular group would laugh me out of the room if I suggested it at game night. However, I have seeded my personal copy with all of the Christmas expansions. I can think of worse things than sitting around during the holidays with my brothers, drinking eggnog, and ruining each other’s chances with just the right card. Munchkin is a game that is humor and theme heavy, and light on gameplay. But as long as you know what you’re in for, it can be fun experience.

A who’s who of board gaming: Two Brunos are better than one

I’ve covered several of my favorite designers in previous Who’s whos, but today I want to talk about one of my favorite designing duos. While the hobby is filled with prolific one man shows, some designers seem to prefer pairing up to create a board game. That’s not to say either of these designers is not capable of designing a game on their own, and in fact some of their most well-known games are solo designs. But something magical happens when they design together, a certain best of both worlds combination arises. The two designers I’d like to cover are the two Brunos of board gaming: Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti.

Bruno Faidutti

Bruno Faidutti is most well known for his game Citadels, which was a revelation when it came out in 2000 and pioneered the role selection style game. Each round players choose from a selection of role cards that represent medieval trades such as Merchant, Thief, Assassin, Warlord, Wizard etc… These roles then interact with each other in fun and chaotic ways. The Assassin kills another character, the Thief steals all of another character’s money, and the Warlord destroys another player’s building. The result is a cacophony of

The 2016 edition of Citadels, a hobby game classic.

interacting effects that makes for a great time. It has a lot of the double guessing, and trying to outthink your opponents like a game of poker. A player who is ahead for example is very worried about getting killed by the Assassin or having all of his/her money taken away by the Thief, but since these actions are carried out upon another character, vs the player themselves it becomes critical to choose a character the other players would not expect. The doublethink then comes back around as the other players try to outguess each other’s outguessing  such that when the roles are finally revealed and executed in numerical order it can feel like a complex poker flop.

Bruno Cathala’s most recent solo hit is the wonderful Five Tribes. This game takes the classic

Bruno Cathala, modeling the cover of his game Abyss

mechanism from Mancala, picking up a group of objects and then distributing them out one at a time, and adds a whole other dimension of gameplay. Players pick up groups of different colored “meeples” (wooden people tokens) from a tile, and drop one off on each tile, with the caveat that the last meeple must match the color of a meeple at the destination tile. The color of this final pair then determines what action the player carries out, with one action assigned to each of the five meeple colors. Red meeples assassinate other meeples on the tile, white meeples help you buy special powered

Five Tribes’s mancala madness in play

Djinn cards, green meeples help you buy goods from the market etc… There’s something oddly compelling about that age old mancala gameplay, and when it’s combined with a more complex combination of rewards and actions for HOW you carry out the action, the result is fantastic.

So while each designer is successful when flying solo, when they come together it is like a peanut butter cup of board game design. Bruno Faidutti’s more chaotic fun combines with Bruno Cathala’s complex gameplay from simple systems. In a way they balance each other out to make a better whole. The best example of this is Mission Red Planet. This game combines the fun chaos of Citadels with the more balanced and clean approach of a game like Five Tribes. So both Brunos’ strong side comes through in the resulting design. In the game players are trying to colonize Mars and each turn they attempt to board one of several rocket ships headed to different locations on the planet. This is driven through a familiar mechanism from Citadels; role selection, except in this case each

A rocket head for mars in Mission Red Planet 2nd edition.

player has their own deck of the same 9 roles to choose from. Here the roles are not so medieval, but are fun things like the saboteur who jumps in a rocket AND blows up another one waiting to launch, or the femme fatale who converts a colonist planet side their player’s side. The separate decks solve one of my chief complaints about Citadels, which is that in that game you often spent a lot of time watching other players make their decision from the single deck of roles. It is never a good time to watch other players think, and this can slow down a game, or cause folks to lose interest, so the separate decks and simultaneous selection of Mission Red Planet is much improved. There’s also a lot more going on based on this role selection than there was in Citadels., with the points of the game coming down to an area majority contest on the different part of Mars. Players who have the most colonists in a given sector get the resource reward for that sector, but each sector gives one of three different resources worth one to three points respectively. Claiming a sector with the crappy ice resource that’s only worth one point is much less appealing than the holding on to a majority in a section that has resources that are worth three points each. And so naturally the areas that are more lucrative become a bit of a bloodbath as players vie to hold onto control. The game really is a blast, and is a stellar accomplishment made possible by two designing minds coming together.

In fact, both Brunos seem to prefer designing in pairs. When they are not designing together they are working with other fantastic designers. Bruno Faiduitti has designed the wonderful push your luck game Incan Gold with Ticket to Ride’s designer Alan Moon, among some other well known designs with Serge Leget. Bruno Cathala has also designed with Serge Leget including the well known Cooperative game with a possible traitor Shadows over Camelot. He most commonly designs with Ludovic Maublanc with the Greek myth inspired Cyclades and the poker and dice mash up Dice Town. Across the hobby it is not uncommon to see two names on the box of a designer board game, and many games are certainly better for it. What are some of your favorite designer duos?