Feb 122013

Munchkin is a fast-paced game designed for 3-6 players ages 10 and up. The game simulates adventuring, or to be specific, dungeoneering, and is written with a humorous flair and cartoon-style artwork.

Munchkin is a card game designed by Steve Jackson and published in North America by Steve Jackson Games. It was first published in 2001 and remains in print today, and has spawned many expansions and sequels and sequel expansions.


The first Dungeons & Dragons players were hobbyists and wargamers. Often collegians, always adult, nerdish intellegentsia. We played to fulfill roles or be challenged tactically, arguing about physics and how gaming concepts would work “realistically”.

In time, kids found the game too, but they played it differently. The younger players could care less about realism, they wanted to be godlings and half-dragons swinging +10 swords of devastation, arguing about who was the most badass.

These kids were called “Munchkins” by their elders, probably meant as a derogative but really just describing a simple, basic play style:

Kick in the door. Kill the monster. Take the loot.

So it is with the game of the same name. Munchkin is not a strategy game; you don’t need spatial awareness or tactics. This is the kind of game that my friends and I used to call a “beer and pretzels” game, meaning it has no prerequisites and requires no great investment of time or intellect.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. It is fun. Very fun.

Game Play

Kick in the door. Kill the monster. take the loot.

That phrase defines the spirit of the game but also serves as the main mechanic. There are two decks, the “Treasure” deck and the “Door” deck. During a player’s turn, she will:

  • Kick in the door by drawing the top card from the Door deck. If the card is a monster kill it, earn a level, and steal it’s loot by drawing Treasure cards. If you cannot kill it, run away and (hopefully) escape
  • If the Door card is not a monster, the player can still “look for trouble” by playing a monster from the player’s hand
  • If she has no monster she wishes to play, she can “search the room” by drawing a Door card and adding it her hand for next time

Treasure cards usually improve the character. Many have a gold piece value and can be sold to help the character “level up”.

Which is the whole point: the first character to reach 10th level wins.

Ah But It Is Not That Simple

Some Door cards improve your character by adding a character class like Wizard or a Character race like Elf. Classes and races have unique special powers that increase your combat strength or otherwise aid you. But other Door cards are curses and damage your character. Similarly, Treasure cards can be boon or bane, adding or subtracting from your character level and combat strength.

Curses, birded again
I seem to have a bird problem

Many cards are far, far more devious in that you can play them to aid or oppose the other players. Munchkin is not played in a vacuum, not at all, you are expected to debuff your opponents and buff the monsters they are attempting to kill.

Several of the unique class and race abilities are also aimed at effecting other players. This combination of unique abilities and timely card play make for a potent, chaotic stew that is different every time.

Consider one of the games we played Sunday. At one point, all three of my opponents were 8th level but I was only 4th. Over the course of the next few turns I managed to:

  • Keep my daughter from earning her 10th level by playing Potion of Cowardice, making her flee an opponent she would have easily defeated
  • Prevent my Gamer Girl from winning by adding 10 points of combat strength to an opponent she would have easily beaten
  • Prevent my daughter’s boyfriend from winning by making him afraid of Undead
  • Prevent my daughter from winning (again) by playing a Potion of Cowardice (again. I first played a card that let me go through the discard pile and reclaim any one card)

At the end of this sequence I had managed to drag myself up to 8th level and built my position into significant combat strength, but at the cost of heavily annoying everyone I was playing with. Heavily. Then I got my own chance to win – I drew a high-level Door card monster that would award me two levels if I defeated it. But no, all three of my opponents piled on: a kharmic kickback indeed, and soon the monster was far stronger than I could ever hope to defeat.

Game Play
They look like nice, helpful people. Don’t they?

The game lends itself to those kinds of fluid groupings, factions form and reform differently each turn. For another example check out this episode of the show Tabletop, where Steve Jackson ends up sharing a victory with Felicia Day over Wil Wheaton and Sandeep Parikh. Yes, they actually dragged out Steve Jackson himself for this episode, and still ended up having a two-way tie for first place.

Pluses and Minuses

The game is fast-paced and funny, having an RPG background helps understand the humor but is not necessary; you don’t need to have played 1st Edition AD&D to appreciate a chainsaw named “Orc-B-Gone”.

The basic game mechanics are simple to learn and to explain. You can be up and running almost as fast as you can open the game box.

The cards and powers are so different and chaotic that it can be difficult to determine how to adjudicate unusual combinations. Do you subtract two from your opponent before he doubles his power? Or after? The game provides a way to resolve differences: it suggests shouting. Which is funny but not as helpful as it might be. If everyone agrees to just have fun then these little issues will be resolvable, but you probably do not want to invite your rules-lawyer friend.

You will need some way to track everyone’s level. This seems like a basic and glaring weakness of the game, since the whole point is to earn levels. On the plus side, Steve Jackson Games has created an app to do just that. On the minus, why do I need an iPad to play this? Shouldn’t there be a simple token-based tracker or other mechanic that is included inside the game box?

The game has had dozens of sequels and expansions. A really large number, so many that it is difficult to provide the total number even when looking at a list in Wikipedia. I think there are 52 items listed as “Expansions” in the Wikipedia article, though they probably don’t all count. Most of these add-ons can be played together but there are so many it is really quite bewildering. Everything from additional card decks to replacements to board games based on the card game to my personal favorite, a Munchkin bobblehead that looks cool AND allows it’s owner to reroll one die per game (but only when the doll is placed in such a way that it can “see” the game).


The cards themselves are standard gaming card quality. I don’t know why no one plastic-coats these things, but no one does. The printing is solid, the artwork is appropriate, and the rules are decently well written if a bit long for such a simple game.

My rating: Buy, and be prepared to buy one or two sequels or expansions as well. This one won’t just sit on your gaming shelf either, you will play it.

My Gamer Girl sez: I like it, because it’s really different from anything else we play. Normally I don’t like the kind of game where you have to stop the other players to win, I don’t like it when I have to be mean, but in this game the humor takes the bite out of it.

  2 Responses to “Game Review: Munchkin”

Comments (2)
  1. Nicely written! I found Munchkin to be a little hard to grasp at the start, since I hadn’t seen anyone playing it and didn’t really have a frame of reference outside of the rules. But once I got it it’s easy to play.

    Also, I picked up a couple of cheap Munchkin dice at Gen Con last year. They are d10’s and serve as leveling dice.

  2. Cool, I have played this game many times and it’s very fun.

What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: