An avid player of tabletop and video games throughout his life, Conrad has a passion for unique design mechanics and is a nut for gaming history. Conrad writes news and produces video content for Destructoid (including Sup, Holmes?, Office Chat and Saturday Morning Hangover) and is a regular host on Podtoid.
The mere inclusion of Rodney Dangerfield can vastly improve anything. Films, music, toasters, anything. In particular, the force of Rodney Dangerfield could elevate video games to the level in which they are accepted by the mainstream as a true art form, bringing together people of all races, creeds and tax brackets in peace and harmony.
This weeks dose of tabletop comes in the form of what's probably the biggest thing to hit Steve Jackson Games since the Secret Service (true story): Munchkin. Beginning with modest roots as a mockery of Dungeons & Dragons players, particularly the ones who fail to understand the purpose of RPGs as storytelling devices instead of something you "win", this card game designed for 3-6 players has become a behemoth consisting of eight independent games and a slew of expansions.
The objective is simple: Reach the tenth experience level by any means necessary (it's only cheating if you get caught). Players take turns kicking in a dungeon door (by drawing a "door" card) and must face whatever lurks on the other side. Sometimes, it's a hideous curse that they must now endure or an opportunity to give their character a new race or class. Usually, it's a monster that must be fought.
To engage in combat, a player adds together their experience level and the bonuses gained from any equipment they have put in play and compares this value to the experience level of the monster as listed on its card. If they like, they may ask another player to assist them in exchange for some of the treasure gained for defeating it and add this additional player's sum to their own. Then, all the remaining players receive an opportunity to make life difficult for munchkins in combat by intefering in any number of ways (throw an card in that gives the monster an additional ten levels, steal valuable items from players in combat, etc.). If the monster is still defeated, the player(s) get some loot for their trouble, taking cards from the "treasure" deck, and the player whose turn it is gains experience levels. If they can no longer conquer the beast, they must run away (with a die roll) or face Bad Stuff ranging from the completely harmless to instant character death or worse.
Death is never the real end for a Munchkin, though. They'll just roll up a new character with exactly the same stats the last one had, claiming it's his twin or uncle or father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate, and hop back in play minus all their neat stuff (which has been stolen by all the other players).
Rule 1: For every rule, there is an exception.
Players buff out their character in several ways. First is the race and class of the character, each of which comes with its own advantages and disadvanatages (Elves are universally reviled for their ability to gain exp. levels even while assisting in combat). Then come all the accoutrements of dungeon-crawling: armor, weapons, magical items. All of these are acquired as cards throughout gameplay and the absurdity of these overpowered characters can be downright hilarious.
Humor is really the primary focus of the game, envisioned from the start as a parody of dungeon-crawling adventures. The monsters and treasures are often pun-related gags about D&D arcana, pop-culture or everyday life and are brought to life with art by John Kovalic (of Dork Tower fame).
But what if I don't like/know about D&D?
Some of the references in the cards can be pretty obscure, particularly if you've never played a game of D&D in your life (the monster known as the Gazebo comes instantly to mind). By Crom, has Jackson got you covered here.
Following the success of Munchkin, SJ Games expanded the lineup to cover new themes. As of the time of this writing, there are seven spin-off games completely independent, thematically different Munchkin games, many with their own expansions. Sci-fi, super heroes, kung-fu movies, goths and the Cthulhu mythos have all been lampooned. A pirate-themed version is due out later this year. And, since the games are all essentially played the same, all versions of the game are compatible with each other. Finally, you can pit your half-elf half-orc ninja space ranger against the GM's Ex-Girlfriend in an epic battle to the death. And then there are blank cards available to create your own rule-twisting addition...
One such card was born out of a particularly brutal round of Munchkin. The details are a little hazy, but I give the story as an example of how crazed and cruel people can get while playing this game.
There were six of us, most of the way through a game, when a player encountered a monster about seven experience levels above what he could kill (without wasting potentially valuable one-use items). He bargained for a second player to help him in winning the combat and the call went out to see if anyone would be "fucking with it". And they did. A card was played raising the monster's level by five then a second card added an additional ten. Another player, a thief, stole the most powerful piece of equipment from one of the combatants while a second thief performed a "backstab" reducing the players by another two points. Single-use items began flying from both the combatants and the uninvolved players, alternately raising and lowering the level of the monster. A second monster was added to the mix, giving the combatants another enemy they must deal with, which was then boosted with several items and polymorphed out of the game. Eventually, with all possible gambits removed from them, the noble warriors were forced to flee and a pile of twenty-plus cards were strewn about the table, expended in this monumental effort.
The event was henceforth known as "The Grand Dickery" and a new card was forged that forces all players to participate in the current combat in every possible way they can.
"Kill the monsters, steal the treasure, stab your buddy"
Munchkin is a great game that, while simple in terms of the general rules, can become mind-bogglingly complex the further in you get. This is the only failing that I can see, as the sheer quantity of available cards when used in combination can create several breaks in the flow of play while everyone reads a card that just hit the table for the first time. As a result, I highly recommend playing with just one expansion at a time, at least until everyone has gained some familiarity with the various sets and their features. Once you have a grasp on how everything works together, mixing several sets together is crazy fun.
This is easily one of the most entertaining card games released within the last ten years with an elegant design that lends itself perfectly to casual and hardcore tabletop players alike. If you play tabletop and you haven't played Munchkin yet, spend the paltry $25 and get a set for you and your friends that matches your tastes. It will quickly become one of your favorite gaming night diversions.