Skip to main content

Consumed With Hate: Munchkin

🧚 We Represent the Lollipop Guild...

The Crime: Munchkin
The Guilty Party: Steve Jackson
Overview: A low-effort D&D send-up that walks the line between party game and RPG-lite strategy game without really succeeding at either.

Why I Hate It...

Finding balance in board game design is hard. You don't want there to be a clear winning strategy, or everyone just races for that. You want there to be some kind of catch-up mechanic, in case you make a bad--or just unlucky--decision early on so you're not completely screwed for the rest of the game. This is especially true in the kinds of Euro-style board games that I favor, where there's competition but not a lot of direct interaction. E.g., you and I are attempting these similar goals and drawing from the same scarce resource pool, but we're not actually touching each other's boards at all. Striking that balance from a design standpoint, and doing it well, requires a great deal of finesse, playtesting, and thoughtfulness.

Or you could just not worry about balance at all and have players pile on whoever's in the lead. That works too.

Enter Steve Jackson's Munchkin. 90% of why I hate this game comes down to one single quibble: I haaaaaaaaate balance-by-dogpile as a game mechanic. It sucks all the joy out of it for me. I am, therefore, immediately wary of any game that has a minimum player count of 3 (since balance is managed by dogpile and 1 person does not a dogpile make). Now, Munchkin is not the only perpetrator of this particular sin--it's actually rather common in 4X grand strategy games. But there's a little bit of a difference there. 4X games at least have a combat mechanic. They also generally don't allow for back-sliding. If you get an early lead of 9 points in Twilight Imperium, yeah, everybody else is going try to block you, but there are a lot of objectives you can pursue, and as other people's scores creep up, they will be less focused on you and more focused on finishing their own objectives.

Or consider even a game like Moonrakers, where you can lose victory points but the way that happens is an individual dice roll that's distinct from all other objectives. This makes it impossible to deliberately sabotage someone into losing points (and you can only sabotage someone into failing an objective at all if they've voluntarily accepted your help, in which case you fail together). In Munchkin, you can not only lose levels, you can be sabotaged by other players without any provocation or agency on your part. And you can be at 9 points and in theory slide all the way back down to nothing.

This has a dual effect. First off, the game is incredibly mean. As soon as one person starts doing well, the other players will begin to sabotage them. The second effect is that it can make the game drag. Once someone gets close to victory, the emphasis shifts away from accomplishing your own goals and more towards undermining theirs. But in order to do that, you have to spend cards from your hand--resources that could otherwise be used towards your own victory. This slows the game down considerably. You can spend an inordinate amount of time hovering near victory without ever getting there (to be fair, this is also a problem in T.I.). Or you can think the game's about to end and all of a sudden that player gets reset. A six-player game can go on for well over an hour, which is entirely too much time for a game that's as slight and vapid as this one tries to be.

And yes, I said "tries to be" for a reason. Munchkin feels very un-rigorous in its design because its supposed to just be a dumb party game. You can practically hear the design meetings. "Should we stratify the deck somehow so a Level 1 player isn't going up against Level 20 enemies?" "Nah, who cares? It's just a dumb party game." And yet, for as lazily designed as it feels, the gameplay is more complex than that. The gameplay loop is moderately sophisticated and the rules for how you can augment yourself are pretty key to actually winning battles consistently and without help. In other words, the game plays like a medium-light complexity strategy game, but it absolutely feels like it was thrown together over a weekend.

To wit: the game is too freaking random. There are two decks that are the source of your all your race, class, augments, armor, items, and enemies. What you end up with is purely at the mercy of the card draw. You can go whole games without ever getting a race or class card. Or you can draw several in your opening hand and just not have anything to do with them, since you're only permitted one of each in play at a time. You inevitably start the game by facing enemies you can't possibly beat. Since you can't beat them, you can't gain levels. Since you can't gain levels, you can't beat enemies, so you're just cycling through the deck for that Level 1 potted plant to come up so at least you can do something, dammit. Get an unlucky draw and you're just frustrated. Get a lucky draw, then the other players come after you and you're just frustrated. Get up to near victory and the game slows to a crawl while everyone wastes cards attacking each other... and you're just frustrated.

It's a frustrating game, is what I'm getting at.

It's also not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The game is spoofing Dungeons & Dragons with its races and classes and several of its items. But if you're not an RPG-er--which I'm not--then a good deal of the humor is going to miss you. Not because you won't understand it, but because it's a specific reference to something that I'm not familiar with. Because the game commits the Friedberg and Seltzer sin of thinking a reference is the same as a joke. What jokes are there (and are actually jokes) are awfully juvenile.

Now don't get me wrong, I love a dumb, juvenile, party game. At the time of this writing, I've played I Feel Attacked twice in the last week. But Munchkin is a party game that's more game than party, but despite that, it tries too hard to be a party and not hard enough to be a game, and it kind of fails at both.

Next week, Star Trek V: The One They Let Kirk Direct...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.