Munchkin is chaotic good
I discovered Steve Jackson’s Munchkin a few years ago. A friend of mine challenged a group of us to a game of Star Munchkin, the science fiction variant. Immediately striking about these series of games is that they are parodies of their respective genres. Star Munchkin chides the penchant that future tales have for laser blasters by providing several in the game that can connect to one another. Their names include laser, dazer, bobaser, and the dreaded bananafanafofaser. The name of the Star Munchkin expansion? Star Munchkin 2: The Clown Wars.
I moved away shortly after that, and no one I knew played or even mentioned Munchkin. A few months ago, I decided it was time to experience the game again. I picked up the original Munchkin set, which parodies fantasy. A few weeks later I picked up one its six (soon to be seven) expansions, Clerical Errors. Then another (Unnatural Axe). Then another (Demented Dungeons). Soon I found myself picking up another deck – Munchkin Bites, the White Wolf/vampire/werewolf/monster film parody set. Then its sole expansion, Pants Macabre.
I admit that I am a bit hooked on the game, but it wouldn’t have happened without a good gaming group. People convene weekly in my apartment to play a game of Munchkin. One game. Because it’s very unlikely you’ll get through two games in an evening. The game takes at least two hours to play. Not only that, but someone will be frustrated by the end of it. Yeah, it’s that kind of game.
For all the places the various sets manage to take players, it is pretty amazing that they’re all just decks of cards. One deck has doors on the back, and the other deck has treasures. On a player’s turn a door card is turned in order to find out what happens next. Will the player find a monster to fight, a curse to experience, a new race or class to become, or any other random happening offered by an ever expanding deck? Upon defeat of a monster, players receive treasure and levels. The first to level 10 wins. Sounds simple, right?
Not quite. While there are set rules described in the instructions, many cards provide different ways to circumvent the rules provided. Not only that, but all players are out for themselves and can impede the progress of others. Combine the two and you have a game full of fighting, backstabbing, arguments, and discontent. The game isn’t necessarily about card management or even the luck of the draw. It’s about stumbling toward success.
It doesn’t help that the cards are written in vague language. This was likely a feature in its original form. Munchkin is a parody of RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and some of its horribly selfish players. It was written to be exploited by the players. Moreover, it may have been a commentary on poor GMing or even what an RPG would be like without a GM balancing the world as players advance. As the game picked up in popularity, the creators found that the rules needed to be tightened – especially since the advent of tournament play. There were recently line-wide changes in the rules, both to speed up the game (only slightly) and to make some rules more explicit. New sets accompanied these rules, of course. Unfortunately, every subsequent release of cards only leads to more confusion.
In other words, game play can be downright horrid. Every game I play involves several instances of, “Wait! Can you do that?” and, “That wasn’t how I interpreted the card!” Game play devolves into argument, with most arguments in most games settled by either the most experienced player or the owner of the game. The rules explicitly state that arguing will happen and that disputes should be settled by the owner. I put it up to a vote in my circle, but I honestly tell everyone that the ruling could impact them later down the line should they encounter the situation from another direction. Otherwise, I’ve taken to perusing the forums on the official Steve Jackson website, where moderators answer questions about disputes and provide official rulings.
If this were a video game, I would liken the re-releases and the constant moderation to patches. I would complain about the release of an incomplete, unpolished product. I would rule the game altogether unplayable and not worth anyone’s time. So what’s the appeal?
The appeal is in the fact that the game is chaotic and it gets players talking. This is not a video game, so the ruling party isn’t in the console. Munchkin is only able to exist because of social interaction. Some might say that’s true for any game, but I’m pretty sure almost every card game can be played without uttering a word. You can easily take “Hit me,” and “Stay,” out of Blackjack, just as you could easily take the word “Uno,” out of Uno. You cannot divorce conversation from Munchkin. The game would fall to pieces.
The game is fun because the unexpected can happen. You could be on your way to victory until you turn over a card that immediately takes you down a level or two, or you could fight a monster and lose because all of the other players have cards that make winning the fight impossible. Your friend may then win because everyone wasted their cards on you. Heck, you may turn over a card that transports you to a dungeon where the rules change such that your victory is no longer imminent due to some odd loophole. You never know what’s going to happen.
I love the game because it’s all about change. It is never the same game twice. The cards fall differently, people play them differently, and there is no way to plan your victory from the beginning. The winner is the player who can ride the rapidly changing waves the best. (Although not always.) The game says that nothing is constant, but we are capable of adjusting. Really, the game is a celebration of proteanism.
Well, that and getting people when they least suspect it.