Munchkin

In existence for more than a decade, Munchkin is the role-playing dungeon crawling card game that allegedly eschews role-playing.  It is a game for those who want to participate in some sort of RPG game but, perhaps, don’t want to admit it or don’t have the time to devote to a full RPG, or are scared of the people generally associated with playing RPGs.  Designed by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Kovalic, the game accepts many RPG ideas while subverting them at the same time.  What is more, it is a brilliantly fun way to spend a couple of hours, and it’s now available with full-color illustrations.

The point of the entire thing, as stated quite clearly on the box is to “kill the monsters,” “steal the treasure,” and “stab your buddy.”  Munchkin comes with 168 different cards which are divided into two basic varieties (door cards and treasure cards) and then subdivided again and again and again (curses, classes, monsters, armor, weapons, yada, yada, yada).  One wins by making it to level 10, with players starting at level 1 and gaining a level for every monster killed (and for a couple of other things).

The game requires a minimum of three players and pretty much asks that you get into a fight with your friends.  Essentially, you throw curses cards at your friends which cause them to lose weapons and armor, refuse to help when they beg and plead, throw extra random monsters at them, make the monsters already in existence harder to defeat, and generally steal their stuff.  Naturally, don’t expect any romantic interludes later in the evening if you’re playing to win against a loved one.

Hugely successful—the new, full color, edition is the game’s 22nd printing and there are dozens and dozens of updates and spinoffs—Munchkin works because it places wit and humor upon what is sometimes scene as a staid and humorless genre.  In Munchkin, you don’t just get armor, you get flaming armor which is depicted as being able to toast marshmallows and heat sausages; broad swords are only usable by women; and Halflings can get a stepladder to help them out.  Unable to kill the evil Floating Nose?  Drop the Potion of Halitosis on it.  And, never forget, the Potion of Idiotic Bravery offers +2 to either side in a battle.

Games take something on the order of one to two (or more) hours to complete as you will constantly find yourself losing levels and weapons and armor and classes and races when the people you’re playing against curse you.  The rules (which we’ll get to in a minute) recommend keeping track of your level with coins or some other tangible object rather than just remembering, and while newbies may believe that they can easily remember which level they are, the truth is that with all the ups and downs in the game, you’re going to want some sort of physical representation of your level.

Now, those rules.  While not as long as a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook, the six pages of rules for Munchkin do make the game appear intimidating.  It takes about 15 or 20 minutes to work it all out, and after that, it’s off to the races.  The rules manage to be both terribly specific and horribly obtuse… apparently on purpose.  There is even a section in the rules on what to do when the rules and cards disagrees.  In part, it states that “Any other disputes should be settled by loud arguments.”

Throughout Munchkin there is a sense of whimsy, but it is a whimsy perfectly balanced with the sense of adventure the game offers.  Winning may, partially, be the luck of the draw,  but even a loss due simply to bad luck is still fun.

Munchkin has been so successful because it is a truly great game – it deftly mixes adventure and humor, offering a challenge and amusement.  The drawings are fun, the game is always different, and the feelings of upset you feel towards other players only last until the end of the night.

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