Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We Represent the Mob-Grinding Guild, the Mob-Grinding Guild, the Mob-Grinding Guild

So recently I’ve been touting the virtues of Rio Grande. But what about other publishers? Where’s the love for, for example, Steve Jackson Games?

Well, funny you should ask, dear reader. Because I just happen to have in my pocket a deck of cards from Steve Jackson Games. That game is Munchkin.

Munchkin is almost more of a genre than a game. I say that because the original Munchkin, or as I like to call it Munchkin Classic, is accompanied on store shelves by several different cosmetically different versions that use the exact same game mechanics.

Munchkin Classic, for example, takes place in a high fantasy setting; humans, hobbits, orcs and elves fighting with elegant if primitive weapons and slaying dragons. Then there’s Star Munchkin, which takes the same mechanics but uses clichés from Gene Roddenberry instead of J.R.R. Tolkien. If that wasn’t enough, there’s Spy Munchkin (which uses Ian Fleming clichés), Cowboy Munchkin (Sergio Leone clichés) and Pirate Munchkin (which has something to do with killing ninjas)

The mechanics for each set are virtually identical to each other, to the point where you can mix and match sets to have a Sci Fi Western game if that’s what you want to do. You might think that this would wreck the setting, but the text on the cards and in the manual is so goofy and funny that you’ll never wonder why an orc would have a cyborg sidekick with a sixshooter.

The game itself is all about loot and level grinding, so it might as well be called Diablo or WoW. Each player starts the game as a level 1 human with no class (don’t blame me for that joke; It’s in the manual) and no weapons. During the course of the game you may acquire a race or class, and you’ll probably get some weapons. These can be played during your turn to give your character attributes, abilities or combat modifiers.

On your turn, you kick open a door by drawing a card from the pile of cards with doors on the back, and turning it face up. If it’s a monster, you must either fight or run. If it’s an item, you can add it to your hand or play it to give yourself a boost. Anything else (curse, etc), follow the instructions on the card. If you did not draw a monster, you may “loot the room” by drawing another door card. If you pick a monster card at this point, you may add it to your hand to be used later.

The fighting mechanic is simple math. The monster card has a level on it. You take your level, add any combat modifiers from the weapons, class and race cards you might have in play, then use any spells, curses or affects in your hand that might give you an advantage. If after all that, your number is higher than the monster’s level, you win.

If you have the higher number, you go up as many levels as the monster card says to go up and draw as many “loot” cards (from the pile of cards with treasure on the back) as the monster card says you get. The game ends when a given player gets to level ten.

Of course, without interaction from other players, this game might as well be a solo D&D campaign, and that’s just sad. So, just to keep it lively, other players are allowed to help the active player or the monster by casting buffs or other affect cards.

An example might be illustrative:

Herman is currently a level 2 human. He currently has boots that give him a +2 combat modifier, armor that gives him +1, and a hammer that gives him +3. He “kicks down a door” to find a level 4 slime monster, against whom his character is weak (-2 modifier) because his character race is a dwarf and the slime gets stuck in his beard. With the modifiers, his number is 6 to the slime monster’s four. However, Bobby has a card that gives the slime monster a buff of +2, and he plays it making the match 6 against 6. A tie equals losing in Munchkin, so Herman must run, play an effect card, or get someone to help him. Fortunately, Zoe has a curse card that will make bring the slime monster down three levels, and she agrees to play it if Herman shares the loot he would draw if he beat the monster (2 cards for the purposes of this example). Herman agrees, and Zoe and he both reap the benefits of a tag team kill. Herman goes up a level, and they both get one loot card apiece.

As you might imagine, the game can get very cutthroat. Players in the lead tend to get ganged up on by pretty much everyone at the table, and there really isn’t any such thing as a friendly game of Munchkin. Fortunately, the humor leavens the tactics quite a bit, so much that being robbed of victory by a well (or poorly, depending upon whose turn it is) wandering monster card doesn’t sting because of the manner in which it kills you.

Not that playing a card that nobody knows you have which happens to completely nullify that monster isn’t darn satisfying.

For some reason there is a fair amount of haterade pointed at Munchkin by people who play other card and board games. I’m not sure why. It might be the fact that victory can be stolen from a player so quickly and often. I can see where this would chafe at more competitive board and tabletop gamers. The game does lean heavily on the luck of the draw, but there are some tactical decisions that can make or break you. (Pro Tip: If you’re trying to gain a level by playing a monster against yourself, don’t pick one that approaches three fourths of your level. Your opponents will buff the living crap out of that thing, especially if you’re in the lead. Ask me how I know.) If you’re looking for a game where your fate doesn’t depend on the people you’re playing with not being jerks then you’re going to have a hard time finding a game to play.

It might also be overexposure. There are dozens of Munchkin variants, and something like eight expansion decks for the original Munchkin (one of which I received free at Pax from someone at Steve Jackson Games, so take this review for what it is: glowing praise bought incredibly cheaply. You other video and board game developers take note). Some people don’t like things that break out of the niche market to achieve wider success. In the music world, these people are called hipsters. In the gaming world, they’re just called nerds.

But if you are not the gaming equivalent of a hipster, and you have a whole $25 to spare, I can honestly recommend Munchkin or any of the variants thereof. It plays quickly, even with just two players, and you’re sure to get at least a chuckle out of a given session.

And if you don’t… well, just remember this: I am much more likely to review a product well if I receive it or some part of it for free. At least I’m honest with you.