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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 14 of 21 Next

13. Munchkin

Published by Steve Jackson Games

Type: Two-to-many-player competitive dungeon crawling card game

Depth: Low

Designed by: Steve Jackson

Luck factor: High

Description: In this popular beer-and-pretzels commercial card game, players take the role of "munchkins," gamer lingo for a type of role-player who cares only for pimping out his character and using "whatever gives the most pluses."

In Munchkin the monsters are tough, but the biggest dangers are the other players, most of whom would think nothing of using your corpse as a step to the heights of godhood, here defined as Level 10.

Play Summary

There are two decks of cards, the door deck and the treasure deck, each with their own type of cards distinguishable by back. Players begin with two of each. Generally, door cards represent hazards, events and opportunities in the dungeon, and treasure cards are magic items and similar advantages.

In the style of Magic: The Gathering, the great majority of cards bear special rule-modifying text, making it difficult to give a comprehensive overview of the design. This is compounded by the fact that many groups play with mixed sets, throwing in any of the over-two-dozen Munchkin sets sold. The rules somewhat encourage this, although playing a hyper-mixed game is sometimes awkward.

I'm going to describe the turn process here, but keep in mind that nearly all of this can be modified by the right card. Some of those cards, like races and classes, are actually common. But assuming no such interference, this is what an ordinary turn looks like:

  • First, the player kicks open the door. This means drawing a card face-up from the door deck and into play. This is the encounter, which must be resolved. All players thus face one encounter per turn regardless of the other players' actions. If the encounter is a monster, the player goes directly into combat with it, which is described below. If it's a trap or a curse, it immediately affects the player. If it's any other type of card, it then goes to the player's hand. Won combat means gaining levels; if the player then reaches level 10, he wins. It also results in the drawing of treasure deck cards, which go directly to the hand.
  • If no monster was encountered, the player may now look for trouble if he wishes, playing any single monster from his hand to fight. Combat then proceeds with that monster as above in all ways.
  • If no monster has been encountered by this point, the player may loot the room, drawing a second card face-down from the door deck, which goes to the hand in all cases.
  • Most cards can be played at any time on your turn except in combat (and some even then), but now is a particularly good time for cards to be played. If a lot of treasures were drawn, this may end up being a lengthy process.
  • Finally there is charity. If the player has more than seven cards in his hand, he must give excess cards of his choice to the player with the lowest level. Munchkin allows players to have items "on hand" even if they can't be used, which decreases the number of cards given away.

The hundreds of special cards mean there's often an awful lot to remember in Munchkin, but the idea behind combat is simple at least. The player adds up his level and all the combat bonuses and penalties he has, whatever the source. He compares that to the monster's level added to its bonuses and penalties.

If the player has a higher total he wins, gains the listed levels (1 or 2) and draws the listed treasure cards (1 to 4). If he comes in lower or ties, he must try to flee (rolling a die and escaping on a roll of 5 or 6) or else the monster wins, and the player suffers bad stuff listed on the card. That stuff sometimes includes death, but death is entirely temporary in Munchkin; the other players split up your stuff, but you come back in on the next turn. You don't lose anything other than your stuff and your hand. That is how combat works. Except...

Except any time there is a fight, including after the bonuses are summed up, you or another player may choose to mess with it, playing monster modifier cards that can either make the fight easier or harder. The modifiers are usually adjectives or adjectival phrases, like "Giant" or "Incredibly Ancient," which it is traditional to add to the monster's name, as in, "You are fighting the Giant, Incredibly Ancient Dragon."

Another player, if he has a Wandering Monster card, may also add an entire additional monster to the fight. Multiple monsters are all fought together, adding in their levels and bonuses. The player may also, if he chooses, ask for help, requesting aid from another player in the fight. The other player may (and usually will) stipulate that he receive a share of the treasure for doing so, or payment of some other item.

The help comes in the form of adding up all the helper's levels and bonuses and adding them to the original fighter's. Helping in a combat provides no benefit to the helper besides the agreed upon payment; no levels are gained by the helper (unless he's an elf, but that's a special card). Other players may still interfere with the fight after aid has been accepted, but once aid is agreed to, the helper cannot back out.

If a player has a curse card in his hand, he may play it on another player "at any time." If he has a race or class card, he may play it on himself, likewise, at any time. They can even be discarded it at any time. There are many special abilities regarding classes and races, including ways to have more than one of either or each at a time.

Most of the treasure cards come in the form of some wearable piece of equipment. Each player has a limited number of slots which can hold equipment. Like, only one suit or armor, one helmet, two rings, and so on. He also has a limited number of hands for holding weapons, and can only carry one "Big" item.

These limits are in place in order to prevent players from building up huge bonuses by wearing all the items they find, but even with the limits in place it is common for the totaled bonus to dwarf level by a large margin. Races and classes that players may have also add in their own special benefits.

There are many, many exceptions and further special kinds of items scattered throughout the game and its expansions. The plethora of special cards can sometimes make remembering all the effects in operation on your character hard to remember. The tableaux in front of each player indicating all the things worn, carried, and in effect, can contain twenty or more cards laying face-up before each player.

What can we draw from this game?

Munchkin is what we might call a "grudge game". The primary reasons for attacking another player are to stop him when he's about to win, and as revenge from another attack. Making random attacks tends to form grudges and cause retaliation, which may even extend between games, ultimately reducing one's own chances of winning. Munchkin can be played with as few as two players but this changes the dynamics a lot, tending to make it into a game of direct and constant attacks.

Munchkin doesn't have much depth to speak of. Most cards represent either an immediate personal advantage or a screw-over opportunity against an opponent. Players get dealt a hand of these advantages/screwings at the beginning of the game, and they are replenished with every turn. Generally, you play the advantages as soon as you draw them, and save the ammo for whoever is about to win, when your target is clearly identified.

There are a few cards which represent defenses, but they are in short supply compared to the array of possible attacks wielded against you. So you react to the circumstances, attacking when you should attack, defending when you can defend, and generally unable to plan ahead further than the current turn. There are a number of other games of the type, and by definition none of them can support much strategic weight.

One thing we've noticed about Munchkin is that games tend to either last fifteen minutes or three hours, depending on how much screwing ammo is handed out and how determined the players are to win. This has actually made us somewhat reluctant to play, since a game of grudges and vengeance that lasts the entire evening rapidly blackens the soul.

Article Start Previous Page 14 of 21 Next

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