Munchkin – the game even non-gamers have heard of
So this is going to be a strange review, even by my reviewing standards. I have said a few times in the past that I won’t play Munchkin anymore, but I love the universe. The humour and the initial ease of teaching make Munchkin a great board game, and for many gamers was their gateway card game to the hobby. This has given Munchkin a place in gaming history, and love it or hate it I challenge anyone that says that place has not been earned.
Today I will be talking about the base Munchkin Card Game. I believe it is fair to say that any of the Munchkin Card Games will share a lot of the pros and cons of the base game, hence it is almost a genre review. I will not be showing variances in the other Munchkin Card Games such as Star Munchkin or Munchkin Legends, because on the whole, it is only theme differences. But there are a lot of these games, and I mean A LOT. How many? Well not including expansions, here is a list of what I would call the ‘Munchkin Card Games’ and their loose themes:
- Munchkin (parody of Fantasy and D&D style gaming)
- The Good, the Bad and the Munchkin (Western films & Wild West parodies)
- Munchkin Adventure Time (based on the animated series)
- Munchkin Apocalypse (End of the World parodies)
- Munchkin Axe Cop (based on the webcomic)
- Munchkin Bites! (Monster movie parodies)
- Munchkin Booty (Pirate parodies)
- Munchkin Conan (based on the literary character Conan)
- Munchkin Cthulhu (parody of the works of H.P. Lovecraft)
- Munchkin Fu (Parody mainly on Martial Arts movies)
- Munchkin Impossible (Spy & Intrigue movie parodies)
- Munchkin Legends (Classic legendary heroes & monsters parody)
- Munchkin Lite (introductory set based on the original fantasy parodies)
- Munchkin Christmas Lite (introductory set with a Christmas theme)
- Munchkin Grimm Tidings (introductory set themed to the characters from the stories of the Brothers Grimm)
- Munchkin Spell Skool (a smaller introductory set themed to the students of a fictional school of magic)
- Moop’s Monster Mashup (a mad wizard combines animals for maximum chaos)
- Munchkin Magical Mess (a sequel of sorts to Moop’s Monster Mashup)
- Munchkin Oz (parodies of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels)
- Munchkin Pathfinder (based on the role-playing game series)
- Munchkin Shakespeare (parodies of the Shakespeare’s characters)
- Munchkin Steampunk (19th-Century Technomages)
- Star Munchkin (parodies of Science Fiction themes)
- Super Munchkin (parodies of Comic Heroes & Villains)
- Munchkin Zombies ( Parody of the Undead fight the living theme)
Printed with USAopoly and share a character mechanic with player powers not in the ‘base’ games:
- Munchkin Rick and Morty (based on the animated series)
- Munchkin The Nightmare Before Christmas (based on the film)
- Munchkin Marvel (the heroes & villains of the Marvel Comic Universe)
- Munchkin X-Men (an introductory set similar to Munchkin Marvel containing only characters featured in the X-Men universe)
So it is a fair assumption if there is a theme or genre you enjoy, there is probably a version of Munchkin that will appeal to you.
You will notice a recurring term though – Parodies. It’s important to note that almost all Munchkin games are designed to be looked at with your tongue firmly in your cheek. There is nothing serious about the game or its worlds – that is provided by the players.
So what is Munchkin?
Munchkin at its core is a very simple card game, that pokes fun at a certain genre which is each games theme. In the original, that theme is Dungeons and Dragons and general Fantasy gaming.
The overall goal of Munchkin is to reach Level 10, which you primarily do by exploring a dungeon and fighting monsters while finding loot. All of the classic RPG mechanics are essentially present but incredibly streamlined. Don’t know what class to play? Just play the Class card you find, and you can change it later. How many items can I use at once? Well, you have two hands, so up to two as long as it’s not a two-handed item.
And really, that’s it. It’s a dungeon crawler card game from before that was a thing. There is a twist though – you can work together to defeat monsters, but you can also work with the monsters to beat your opponents!
So how do you play?
Setup is incredibly simple. First, you take the deck of Door Cards and shuffle them all together. Then, take all of the Treasure Cards and shuffle them all together, placing them into a pile. Then, give each player four cards from each pile. Setup complete!
Now, the picture showing the setup is what you get in the base Munchkin box. Other photos will show the game being played from the Deluxe version but don’t be too fooled by the name. Every Munchkin Deluxe comes with the same cards as the ‘base’ version but includes a board and pawns to help keep track of where each player is at.
Every player starts as a Level 1 Human with No Class. This is an ongoing joke in the series and one that you will probably get tired of hearing 🙂 Gender also comes into play with Munchkin. You start as your gender in terms of character creation, but I have never stopped anyone starting as the gender they choose.
Looking at your initial eight cards, if you have any Race or Class cards, you can play one of each face up in front of you. These can be changed during normal gameplay, but that’s all you need to do – read the card, and if you want the bonus, play that card.
Also, if you have any usable items (like a weapon), you can play this now as well.
And that is Setup and Character Creation complete. There is very little to explain, which means you can get new players in really quickly. You can have them ready to play and the game setup within about 2-3 minutes from opening the box, which is a really great ability to have in a game.
Then, you can start playing. When I am teaching, I will take the first turn and explain the base options with the caveat that there are some extra rules for different situations.
So from now, picture yourself at the table with me as I take you through my teaching ‘script’.
Starting a game of Munchkin
On your turn, you can now Equip, Sell or Trade items. If you had ‘died’ in a previous turn, here you would be resurrected. We don’t have to worry about any of that now, and I will remind you of all these rules as we play.
So selling items is something you need to keep in mind to level up. For every 1,000 coins you sell, you go up one level. There is no change so spend wisely! Also, to get to Level 10 you must do it by defeating a monster. Right now at the start, you probably don’t want to be selling a lot because you want to equip stuff to help you fight. But if you got lucky with the draw then keep in mind you can essentially start the game on Level 2!
So now, you start the turn proper by ‘Kicking in the Door’. This really just means drawing the top Door card.
There are three types of Door cards – Monsters, Curses, and what I will just call ‘Other’.
Other are the easiest to explain – leave them in your hand until you want to play them. These could be other Races and Classes, but there are some other ‘rule breaking’ cards like Super Munchkin that let you do other things.
Curses are always bad things, and they happen to you straight away. Put the card face up on the table and just do what the card says.
Finally, the main event, a Monster. You want to beat Monsters to go up levels, but the Monster you find may be too much for you! As soon as you draw a Monster, Combat begins.
Combat in Munchkin
So the first thing you do is put the monster on the table face up. This ends any chance of equipping, trading or selling items. It also stops other players from Stealing from you, but we will get to that when someone has the ability.
To defeat the monster, you need to have a combat strength that beats the combat strength of the monster. To begin with, the monsters combat strength is the monsters level, so it’s easy to gauge.
Now, you work out your combat strength. You work this out by adding your level to your equipment bonuses and look in your hand to see if you have any one shot benefits.
So you may be a Level 1 Cleric with Spikey Knees giving you a +1 bonus. This gives you a combat strength of 2, but you pulled a Level 6 Pukachu, so you cannot win – yet.
Also in your hand is a Magic Missle, which gives you a +5 in Combat, so you could beat it yourself. But the Magic Missle also lets you increase the Monsters Combat score, so you might want to hold onto it. This will make sense in a little while.
Option 1 – RUN AWAY!
This will probably be happening a fair bit initially. To run away, you just declare you are running away and roll the six-sided die. If you roll a 5 or a 6, you successfully run away. You don’t get any treasure or benefits, but you don’t have anything bad happen either.
If you don’t make your roll – the Bad Stuff that happens on the monster card happens! But that’s not all. If you didn’t run away properly, you will die. When you die, you keep your Race, Class, Curses and your Level. So that’s good? But you lose loose ALL your stuff. You lay out your hand next to all of your played equipment, and each player in level order can take one of your cards.
So running away isn’t always safe, but it may be better than fighting a fight you know you can’t win.
Option 2 – Fight?
So you look at the board, and you think you can maybe do something. You can ask one other player (just 1!) if they want to help you beat the monster. They don’t have to, especially as if you win they will not go up a level. So you will have to Bribe them. This can be with equipment in your hand, some of the treasure that you will get at the end of the game, or any combination of the above.
While this is happening though, any player can play bonus cards on you – or on the monster. So in this example the player agrees to help you for a treasure, but is can only add 2 to your Combat score. This gives you a total of 4, but you decide you want to win so you play your Magic Missle on yourself. This means you know have a combat strength of 9, beating the level 6 Pukachu!
EXCEPT. Another player decides that they don’t want you to win, so they play a ‘Flaming Poison Potion’, adding 3 to the monster, so it’s a tied combat score – you can’t win! So it looks like you might have to Run Away, losing all the cards you have already played.
But now your partner plays their ‘Potion of Halitosis’, giving you another 2 points, making the fight 11 – 9 in your favour. No one else wants to play any cards, so finally you get to declare victory!
Ending Your Turn
So now that the monster is dead, draw the number of treasure cards that are shown on the defeated monster cards.
These tend to stay in your hand, but depending on the deal you made for help your partner may draw first or get first pick. We will get into more complicated deals a bit later.
Treasure also falls into 3 basic categories:
One Shot Bonuses – the cards you use to affect a combat score. These can be kept in your hand until needed, making them a surprise factor.
Equipment – these are items you add to your characters, such as weapon or armor, giving you a visible combat score bonus.
Others – these are again usually rule breaking events, such as immediately draw extra cards, or the ability to break another rule later.
Once you have your treasure, you have one more chance to Equip, Sell or Trade items with another player. Finally, now that you have defeated a monster, you get to Level Up! Remember, beating a monster is the only way to get to Level 10 proper and winning the game.
Now, the next player has their turn, and the entire process starts again!
The good parts of Munchkin
Munchkin is a really straightforward game that is easy to teach with isolated examples. To get players really comfortable with the rules will take a game or two, and even then there will be things that will cause disputes.f
I love the humour of Munchkin as well. Very silly jokes coupled with the deceptively simple art of John Kovalic makes even just digging through the decks for examples a journey of smiles and memories.
With the right group, a game of Munchkin can be a very fun way to spend an afternoon. But that is a major point – you need the right group.
Before I get into the negatives, I just want to point out I have easily played 200+ games of Munchkin over the years. I have even replaced my original set because the cards were not holding up well, and I have 3 different versions of the game ready to go. While I am about to talk about downsides to Munchkin, the part that a lot of people I hear talk about Munchkin seem to forget is the fact that they have had a lot of fun playing it.
And the bad
So Munchkin suffers from something that all card games like this do – strange timing and interactions. One thing that Munchkin players will notice in the script above is that I am missing extra points, such as playing Monsters and other fine points.
To help with this, I will freely admit there are some great player aids out there such as the Complete Munchkin Flowchart on Board Game Geek.
The timing of Munchkin isn’t worse than almost any other game of its type, especially where ‘the card trumps the rules’ is the golden rule. Rule ambiguity is generally a thing to be avoided, and Munchkin has some insane combinations (especially in later games).
Also trying to explain Combat in one hit is just insane. Looking at the simplified (yes, that was simplified) example in the script shows this. The best way to teach Munchkin is to be a floating rulebook, standing behind each player on their turn and offering timing and rule advice. Hopefully, by mid-game, you will only be needed for clarifications.
There is also the issue of new vs veteran players. Even players that only have a few games under their belt will be aware of some combinations and timings that will just rip other players apart. To me, if you are an experienced player with a newbie you might point out ‘mean’ combinations or abilities, but just subjecting new players to essentially gameplay of “No you can’t do that because I have this” isn’t a great first experience, and puts players right off playing again.
And this leads to my biggest complaint mechanically with Munchkin overall. It is a game that actively rewards ‘bully’ type play. There is every benefit for stronger players to let weaker players get beaten over and over again, and especially in a three player game I often see the ‘third player’ struggling to get over Level 2 for the whole game. Now this type of play by itself isn’t always a bad thing when it is opportunistic, but an entire game of it when you are the weakest player just isn’t fun.
The non-mechanical downside that stops me from playing Munchkin
The big issue though is player types. If you look at games in the year 2000 (around when Munchkin was released), ‘mean’ games were almost the norm. There would be hyper-competitive players that would argue anything and everything, and the rulebook states ‘Owner of the Game has the final decision’, but playing with an argumentative player is never a great time for the group as a whole.
The other issue even back then are players that hold a grudge. Because Munchkin is a game that actively has you turning on other players, I have had friendships end because of a last-minute betrayal that cost them the game.
Today, that ‘mean streak’ gamer type is generally in the minority. That type of game is still around and going strong – just look at Magic: The Gathering or almost any head to head asymmetrical game. But it’s not the only game around. I would need to be in the mood to play Magic, but light to medium cooperative games like Escape the Dark Castle, Mysterium or Pandemic can hit the table very regularly. And that’s not only my mood – there are some of my regular gaming friends that just do not play ‘take that’ type games.
Until next time,
I will only play Munchkin with certain people, and these days very rarely. But there was a time I played it a lot. A whole lot.
If you think you would like Munchkin, you should play it. That simple. There are technically better games around these days, but that can be said of any game more than five years old.
If you want to play, check out the Rigged Demo on the Steve Jackson Games site, that is the first step. But other than that, find a theme you like and grab a set. Munchkin (especially the non-Deluxe versions) are very cheap, and you will get a lot of game out of it if you have a group that will enjoy playing it.
The game itself is fine, and I will teach anyone that wants to learn it anytime, it’s just not on my need to play list anymore.
- Low level of entry to play
- Easy setup and teardown
- A theme to suit almost everyone
- Card interactions can be tricky
- Playing with certain types of gamers can ruin the experience