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Subject: Terrific Pick-Up-And-Play Game For RPGeeks rss

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Dickie Crickets
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(This review covers the original Munchkin and the three current expansions, Unnatural Axe, Clerical Errors, and Need For Steed. There doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to review each set seperately, since they'll all end up in one big pile anyhow.)

In role-playing circles, the term 'munchkin' is a derogatory one, used to describe players who forsake actual role-playing and group cooperation to simply try to be the biggest monster-slaying bad-ass of them all. Their character is little more than a collection of overpowered statistics and weapons, designed to abuse the game system as much as possible. Steve Jackson's 'Munchkin' honors that spirit and mocks it at the same time, as a comical and surprisingly addictive card game. While the game can drag on every now and then, it provides a solid blend of strategy, luck, and social interaction that any fan of fantasy film or role-playing will get a kick out of.

The concept is pretty simple. The cards are divided into two decks, Dungeon cards and Treasures. Every player starts with two of each, and begins play as a Level 1 human with no 'class.' ('Class,' of course, meaning an occupation, like a cleric or thief.) The players (you can have as little as two, but four to six is better) are in an adventuring party, walking through a dungeon. Of course, cooperation is at a minimum, since the winner is the player who hits Level 10 first. Levels are gained by slaying monsters, selling excess loot, or using special cards. To prevent an anticlimactic finish, Level 10 can only be reached in combat, or with the unique Divine Intervention card. By the end of the game, players will have obscene collections of powerful gear and items, in the true Munchkin spirit.

Each player takes their turn in order, following a set order of steps. First, they 'kick down the dungeon door,' which means they turn over the top Dungeon card face up. If it's a monster, they must slay it or successfully make a 'run away!' die roll, or suffer the consequences listed in the Bad Stuff section of the card. Determining the victor in combat is pretty simple: the player adds up his current level and the numeric bonuses of his equipment, and if the number is larger than the level of the monster, he wins, and gains a level plus however many treasures the monster has. Of course, the other players can interfere in the combat by beefing up the monster with special cards or hurling nasty potions at the player, ensuring a healthy amount of bitterness and spite around the gaming table. Alternatively, the player in combat can have one other player help them fight the monster, and they pool their points together. Naturally, anyone offering help will demand an ample bribe or share of the loot... it's the Munchkin way. Players who constantly help each other will eventually gain the enmity of the other players, and be on the receiving end of plenty of nasty cards.

It's this kind of social interaction that makes 'Munchkin' so much fun. Players that jump out to an early lead are basically wearing a bullseye on their back, as the weaker players will conspire to knock them down a peg. You'll see bidding wars as players ask to help others out in combat, each of them hoping to get a piece of the loot. (And, of course, the scorned players might turn around and drop a nasty surprise on the combatants out of spite.) And who doesn't love the art of a good backroom deal? ("Hey man, I'll give you this Gentleman's Club I'm not using if you promise not to screw me over for three turns.") Good stuff.

While 'Munchkin' obviously puts no premium on role-playing, you CAN customize your character a little. You can uncover class or race cards in the Dungeon deck, which is great, since it's more fun to be an orc wizard than some regular human. The third expansion, Need For Steed, adds steeds you can use as items, and you'll grow surprisingly attached to them. Of course, random curses or evil acts by the other players can end up converting your beloved pet into dog food. But such is life. And since every game of Munchkin starts as a clean slate, you're not likely to get the same sort of stuff twice anyhow.

While the gameplay is pretty solid, it's the humor that sets 'Munchkin' apart from other card games. John Kovalic's art is wonderfully silly, and many of the monsters or curses will have you and your buddies laughing out loud. Obviously, the comedic value of the cards will wear away over time, but with so many total cards including the expansions, there are tons of chuckles to be had.

If the game has any major weakness, it's that experienced play groups will eventually end up finishing every game in what I call Endgame Tomfoolery, or E.T. for short. Leading players tend to get most of the punishment, while those trailing are let off the hook. Once a player hits level 9, every one of his/her combats will be pounded by enhancements/potions or simply voided entirely by special cards. On the other hand, anyone who ISN'T level 9 will be let off the hook until they themselves hit the 9 mark. So eventually, everyone will be one combat away from victory, and the game will wind up going to whomever happens to draw a monster after everyone has used up all of their curses/potions/etc. Not only does this reduce the victory conditions to pure luck, but it can make the game go much longer than it probably should. Therefore, it's best to encourage hyper-aggressive play amongst the group, rather than having everyone save their 'punishment' cards until the very end. Most gamers don't like to use nasty cards early on, since it draws attention to themselves and makes them unpopular while they're still weak. But hey, it's just a game, and being cruel is half the fun. So try to get everyone to fly fast and free with the nastiness.

It can also be useful to discourage rampant 'screw protection' - the process where a guy is about to win a combat, someone enhances the monster to prevent it, and the other players all raise their hands in a frenzied mob to offer their help to fight the beefed-up monster and get a piece of the loot. This basically sends the message that screwing over the other players is a waste of time, and that's contrary to the Munchkin ethos. If somebody insists on constantly bailing out other players out of their lust for treasure, don't be shy about hammering them with every nasty card you can find.

Still, despite these criticisms, my friends and I have been playing this game for months and months and months on slow nights. All you need is a handful of ten-sided dice to keep track of everybody's level (or ten tokens per player, or whatever) and the cards themselves, and you're all set. The various sets are a bit pricey, especially when you consider the total expense (something like $60-$80) to have the full line-up of cards. But my friends and I have gotten our money's worth, and I have no problem supporting folks like Steve Jackson and John Kovalic. I highly recommend this game to any gaming groups with Dungeons and Dragons or fantasy role-playing experience who have functioning senses of humor. Just make sure to encourage players to take their turns as quickly as possible, so an hour-long pick-up game doesn't become a marathon.

Pet Peeve Note:
Starting with Need For Steed (or maybe Munchkin Dice?), Munchkin sets now have differently-colored Dungeon cards. This was apparently done to help differentiate them from the Treasure cards. (I'm not entirely sure why, seeing as how the art on the back is different between the two types, but maybe my facts are wrong.) In any case, once you mix in the new cards with your old sets, it will be quite obvious whether or not the next Dungeon card will be from Need For Steed or not. This isn't a gamebreaker by any means, but it is a little annoying. The older sets are apparently being printed now with the new color scheme. Conspiracy theorists are welcome to wonder if this is a way to re-sell old cards to die-hard Munchkins.
 
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Philip Thomas
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Good Review.

Of course, the joke wears out eventually. Stripped of the joke (and there is only one, no matter how many expansions and different versions you buy), the game is dull, random, and prolonged. You can get a little flavour of this by thinking about the passage in the review where we're urged to play agressively from the beginning, because otherwise the game stalls in the final turns. That's right, in order to avoid the game seizing up, the players are required to act sub-optimally.meeple

I am of course jaded and sour. You would be too, if you had played as much Munchkin as I have.
 
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J Boyes
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It is nice to see a dissenting opinion! Nicely done.
 
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Dickie Crickets
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Thanks for the compliment.

I actually disagree about the 'one joke' bit, as much of the humor strays from the expected Dungeons & Dragons parodying. (My friends and I can't even look at the Redneck Tree or Exploding Kneecaps cards without giggling.)

But yes, the soggy endgame bit is irksome, and I'm lucky to have a gaming group who is able to prevent much of it with our psychotic playing styles.
 
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Dickie Crickets
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My pleasure, and thank you.
 
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