Munchkin Madness

Munchkin – noun, ( often initial capital letter)
1. a small person, especially one who is dwarfish or elfin in in appearance.
2. a power gamer who plays the rules of a game themselves as a competitive game, seeking to be the most powerful player in a group.
3. a dungeon exploring card game about a collection of munchkins (see definition #2) attempting to out-do one another in a race for power.
Last week, shortly after a refreshingly competitive game of Boss Monster (a better experience than my previous review) I had the pleasure of playing the most competitive game of Munchkin that I’ve seen in quite some time, and it served as a pleasant reminder as to how fun (and crazy) this game can be.
The core game functions just fine on its’ own, but with dozens of variants and expansions, there’s something for everyone in the Munchkin Portfolio. This past Christmas, I gave various members of my family game night group different versions of the game to suit their interests and personalities, like Munchkin Cthulu, Munchkin Legends, Munchkin Booty, and The Good, The Bad, And The Munchkin. Now everyone has their own flavor of the game, but we can get together and mix them all in for a zany mega-game!
The basic premise of Munchkin is that each player represents one of several heroes exploring a dungeon searching for treasure and experience in a race to be the first hero to reach level 10. During their exploration of the dungeon, players will find powerful (and frequently hilarious) magic items, trigger random curses, and fight a vast array of monsters. Or as the game’s creator, Steve Jackson, describes it: “Go down in the dungeon. Kill everything you meet. Backstab your friends and steal their stuff. Grab the treasure and run.”
Combat is very abstract, each monster encountered has a level and potentially a few minor rules to modify what the players’ combat options are. The player who discovered the monster fights it by comparing their own level and any bonuses received from items they have found in the dungeon, with the monsters (usually) winning ties. Players can request and receive assistance from other players by offering a share of the monster’s treasure, or be screwed over by opponents luring additional monsters into the fight.
The game really calls to players of pen & paper RPG games, as much of the game’s humor consists of inside jokes, such as being able to bribe the Game Master with food to gain a free level-up, or the surprisingly specific overwhelming tide of enemies 3,872 Orcs represents. Other jokes in the game are a little more universal and subtle, such as the magic item Kneepads of Allure – the effect is useful (higher level players cannot refuse your help requests, unusable by Clerics), but when you think about the item’s name, the card’s artwork, and the restrictions on the card… it suddenly clicks what is “really” going on there.
The game is certainly functional with two players going head to head, but that can get boring and one-sided in a hurry. What makes the game fun for me, especially looking back at my most recent game, is the interactions and politics between players. Stabbing someone in the back (at times literally, a la the Thief class card) at a crucial moment can be a great way to take or keep a lead in the game. But offering to help your peers can make just as much of a difference, especially when done wisely.
Here’s a great example: Last week, one of my opponents found themselves facing a really nasty monster that would almost certainly kill their character. All players in the game had seen that I had recently drawn a “Humongous” card, which would let me make the monster much bigger and meaner, and I had a few other cards in my hand too. I offered to help in the fight, and promised that I would keep the player from dying, but instead of the usual 1-2 cards that players offer for help, I wanted all of the monster’s treasure (a substantial four treasure cards).
The other two players not involved in the fight looked things over, and decided that their characters would be enough to help the active player win the combat even if I played the “Humongous”
modifier, and they didn’t want me to get all that treasure. But at the same time, nobody wanted their characters to be killed if I had further tricks up my sleeve. I coughed pointedly and revealed a “Wandering Monster” card from my hand, which would let me add an extra monster to the fight from my hand, which still had a few other cards that nobody else had seen. After great deliberation (and a few prayers), they joined the fight without me, calling my bluff.
Unfortunately, I had no monster to add to the fight, and couldn’t defeat the whole team. Using what options I did have, I shrank the monster instead of buffing it, taking some of the treasure away from the group, disrupting how they had planned to split the rewards. My actual plan had been to make use of my Wizard’s ability, Charm Spell, to make the monster go away (but not count for levels) after having buffed it up for additional treasure, allowing me to trade the four cards in my hand for six new treasure cards. But the politics and shenanigans involved in what actually happened was worth missing the opportunity (I say that mostly because I eventually won the game, albeit with much more difficulty than I expected).
I still have my reservations about the basic game from a competitive standpoint – in the match referenced above, one player never had an opportunity to win at all; but he could play “kingmaker” and help decide who would win, and that turned out to be really fun for a random one-off game. So it’s not an every game-night caliber purchase, but with a good group, Munchkin can be a great change of pace, and a lot of fun. 
– The Tabletop General