Every parent should have a few bare-minimum goals: keep your kids off drugs, make sure they get a good education, and don’t let them play Munchkin games. I’ve already failed at the last of these, so I’m paying extra special attention to the other two.
I have yet to play anything from Steve Jackson Games that I thought was any good. The titles that clog the shelves—Munchkin, Chez Whatever, and those crummy dice games—are simply bad design, period.
The worst of these, by far, is the Munchkin series. I’d rather be strapped down for a 24-hour session of Sorry than sit through another session of Munchkin Bites.
The premise is faintly amusing. In RPG (role-playing game) slang, a “munchkin” is a player who just cares about combat and loot. Munchkin turns that approach into a card game, in which you begin as a Level 1 character with a goal of getting to Level 10. Each turn, you “kick in the door” to generate encounters, and then fight any creatures you encounter. Any items you’ve collected add points to your base level, so that a Level 1 character could fight at Level 12. If you encounter a monster, you compare this number against its number, and either you win, lose, or run away.
That’s it. That’s all you do. Over and over again, game without end, Amen.
The Mysterious Success of Munchkin
As far as I can tell, Munchkin has one thing going for it that makes it fly off the shelves: the art of John Kovalic. The cards and Kovalic’s cartoons are genuinely funny, and always worth a laugh for game fans, particularly those who recognize the clichés and pop culture references being skewered.
Readers who like this kind of humor can save themselves the irritation of bad gameplay and just check out Dork Tower. It’s cheaper, better, and doesn’t involve absurd level mechanics.
Look, any criticism I level at Munchkin will be dismissed by fans as “not getting it.” I can hear lonely Munchkin fans saying, “The gameplay itself is supposed to be a satire of gameplay conventions!”
No. Just … no. Satire is satire, and gameplay is gameplay. Gameplay mechanics are not a satirical medium.
Strip away the humor and you have a truly awful game. The gameplay is nothing but grinding monotony: turn over door card, add up attack value, compare it to monster, and either a) win, b) run away, or c) fail to run away and die. Die and everyone splits your stuff and you have to start over again. It’s maddening.
Fans of the series appreciate this madcap approach to gameplay, perhaps seeing it as more of a social lubricant than as an example of fine gamecraft.
For $25, I'd rather just buy a couple of cases of social lubricant and a pack of playing cards.
It Keeps Going, And Going, And Going…
I assumed Munchkin would vanish long ago, or simply find itself relegated to a small niche of dedicated gamers. Instead, it actually seems to be growing like some hideous fungoid mass, spinning off new editions and taking over shelf space that could be used by better games.
When Barnes & Noble and Borders started expanding their game offerings, I was pleased. It’s great to have a major retailer get behind Euro-titles and adult boardgaming. These are an ideal place for adult games to reach a mainstream audience.
But when you look at the displays, you see a whole section of Munchkin games, each selling for $25. That $25 is the key, since many of the good games cost $40 to $50. Combined with appealing art and packaging, as well as fun themes, that price point helps sell Munchkin to people who might have otherwise bought something that would spark a love of good gaming.
Instead, they get home and find … a box of cards, a die, and a rule sheet. The game is unplayable without counters or character sheets, so why doesn’t SJG games provide these? You have to go to their website and print them yourself. Is it that big an expense to add some character sheets and a few chits? This isn’t an inexpensive title from James Ernest. This is a $25 purchase!
Consumers opening a new game only to find a $25 box of cards are not going to be consumers who think fondly of other new and untried games. This makes Munchkin a kind of anti-game, actually driving people away from the genre.
I know Steve Jackson’s name has a certain resonance among old-timey gamers, but Car Wars and GURPS were a long time ago. Lately, Steve Jackson Games seems mostly committed to churning out endless editions of inferior product.
UPDATE: After I posted this, I received some good comments about Revolution by SJG, so there is hope!