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 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.
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.
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.