Designed By: Steve Jackson
Time to Play: 1-2 hours
Recommended Age: 10+
The Munchkin series of games is a vast empire in its own right with many, many variations available, from the vanilla to Munchkin: Booty to Munchkin: Legends. As such this review is in a way talking about both the original game and Munchkin: Pathfinder, the version I have in for review, because ultimately each edition plays almost exactly the same. So, let me tell you why I love shouting at my friends, battering monsters and grabbing the treasure, because Munchkin is a blast.
Munchkin is a simple card game for 3-6 players which merrily pokes fun at numerous classic roleplaying games and those that played them. It strips away all that tedious roleplaying nonsense and the complex and often Byzantine rules, instead tasking you with kicking down doors, killing monsters, stealing their stuff and stabbing your friends in the back, all to reach level 10 and win the game. It’s easy to learn, fairly quick to play and hilariously fun.
As has become a tradition of sorts for me, we’ll begin with the components, and in this area Munchkin: Pathfinder is nothing special. As a simple card game there’s not much in the box: two decks are slotted in to half of the compartments available, with the other two reserved for adding further cards since every version of Munchkin is designed to be compatible with all the others, allowing you to create weird and wonderful hybrids. The cards themselves are nothing to write home about, being made of decent cardboard and featuring fairly dull brown borders and backgrounds. However, printed on them is the fantastic artwork of John Kovalic whose unique style is what gives Munchkin: Pathfinder much of its unique charm. Included is a cool purple die for the few times when one is required. Meanwhile the rulebook lays out how to play well enough with is own brand of humour but is a little vague in certain areas. Finally, the box itself is made of pretty sturdy card and features some damn good box art, as you can see.
To set up the game you simply grab the Door deck and the Treasure deck, find either some tokens or a piece of paper with which to keep track of everyone’s level and then deal each player four cards from each deck. Each player can then search their hand for items they wish to equip, and any faction and class cards. Your class and faction can be changed at any given time for new ones and give you unique powers and bonuses. In keeping with the Pathfinder licensing classes include things like being an Alchemist, Necromancer and Summoner, while factions include things like being a Red Mantis Assassin, Eagle Knight and Hellknight. Once you’ve got yourself sorted out it’s time to begin the game proper.
The first action a player takes aside from outfitting their characters with whatever gear they have available is to kick down a door and fight whatever is on the other side! This is done by simply flipping over the top card of the door deck for everyone to see – if it’s a monster you have no choice but to fight it, and if it isn’t then you simply add the card straight to your hand. Killing the many creatures inhabiting the imaginary dungeon your trudging is the primary way of gaining levels and winning the game, although items can be sold as well as in order to advance.
Battling a monster in Munchkin is easy: first you figure out what your combat strength is, done by adding the cumulative bonuses of all your shiny gear to your current level. Once you’ve done that you can play certain cards from your hand which modify your or the monster’s fighting abilities, and then compare your total to the one shown on the enemy’s card. If the number is higher you win the fight, at which point you gain a level, or more depending on the creature you fought, and then claim the appropriate amount of cards from the treasure deck. Simple.
The treasure deck contains a variety of cards designed to help you out, ranging from things like Sneezing Powder to the Bell of Dismissal, which lets you put any monster straight to the bottom of the deck. Some cards even let you immediately jump up a level, although to keep things vaguely fair you can’t use one of them to win the game – you have to slay a monster to achieve victory. The other half of the treasure deck is made up of shiny weapons, armor and gear that you can equip to boost your combat strength, from the relatively weak Cloak of Dis Guy which bestows a +1 bonus to the Blackaxe and Armor of Skulls which offer up a +5 each, although I’m partial to the Armor of Insults myself because it gives me justification for mocking my friends. Not that I need an excuse.
When it comes to outfitting your character there are certain limitations in place, most of them quite obvious. You can wear one suit of armor, one piece of headgear and a single set of footwear. Meanwhile you can equip either a two-handed weapon or two one-handed weapons. Finally your can have as many small items equipped as you wish, but only one Big Item. So in other words you can run around with the Dogslicer and the Hellscourge whip, or with the two-handed T-Bone Stake.
Should no monsters present themselves for a good face-punching when kicking down a door you simply add the flipped card to your hand, unless it happens to be a curse, such as Brainworms, which causes you to lose whatever headgear your character is wearing, or Dead End Passage that forces you to discard your entire hand. It’s within the door deck that you’ll find the different classes and factions that you can play as, along with other cards that let you boost monster strength and much more.
But why exactly would you add to a monsters power? It’s here we come to the most interesting aspect of Munchkin, the mechanics that make it so fun and turn in from a simplistic card game based entirely on luck to a riot with friends. You see whenever another player is locked in battle you can choose to leave them be, hinder them or help out. Of course you might be wondering why you’d help someone else out when killing a monster moves them one step closer to victory, and ordinarily you’d be correct in your assumption, which is why bribery will likely be required. For their aid you can offer another player a cut of the treasure, perhaps saying that they can take half the treasure or first pick. It’s a tough proposition: sure you’re helping another player toward their goal of achieving level 10, but extra treasure could be a big help, therefore hard bargaining is key. Should a player accept your offer they are classed as helping you, and their total combat strength will be added to yours. Only one person is allowed to help you at a time, though.
On the flipside there’s no limits to the amount of players who can hinder you by playing cards to weaken you, strengthen your opponent and even add an extra monster to the fight. A truly devious player may even choose to suddenly increase a monster’s strength by a whopping +10 using a powerful card before then turning around and offering you aid in defeating it, obviously asking for a very high cut of the treasure, if not all of it. This is a tactic sneaky players will use when you come up against an especially powerful beast that offers plenty of treasure for its defeat and hefty repercussions for losing the fight, forcing the person going up against it to decide between accepting aid or having to run away.
Running away occurs when you’re simply not strong enough to beat a monster, at which point you’ve got to grab the included die and see if you can get away from it by rolling a 5 or 6, although certain pieces of equipment and cards can alter the roll required. Should you fail then Bad Stuff happens, as indicated by the text on the card. For low-level beasts this could be as simple as losing an item or level, but other monsters come with far deadlier and varied effects, the worst of which is death. Should you die everything except your level, class and faction is lost, and the cards in your hand are divided up amongst the other players. On your next turn a character who looks just like your old one is born and you carry on like normal, but you’ll have no cards until the following turn, at which point you get to draw four cards each from the Door deck and the Treasure deck, just like you do at the start of the game.
With players able to lend aid or hinder other players on just about every turn Munchkin: Pathfinder transforms from being just a basic card game to a war of uneasy alliances, tentative trust and inevitable betrayals. The many arguments that erupted over who was offering help and why during games were brilliant. We’d banter back and forth, offering up reasons as to why a player should accept our help over someone elses, citing perhaps how I’d do it for less treasure. Groans of despair could be heard as we revealed cards that made monsters more powerful, and laughing accusations would be levied against sneaky players who offered so much before ripping it all away. It’s just a brilliantly fun system, and one that gets everyone talking as it’s impossible not to chat, debate and yell at each other along the way. With all of the backstabbing going it would perhaps be easy to get carried away with it all and genuine arguments erupt, yet the cute art work and barmy sense of humour always gently reminds you that you’re playing purely for fun.
Due to its licensing, though, Munchkin Pathfinder doesn’t quite have the same sense of charming, quirky humour that the vanilla game exhibits at almost every turn. Whereas almost every card in regular Munchkin contains a joke or fun piece of text this version relies more on its cartoony artwork and the artists take on many of Pathfinder’s monsters and treasures, as some of the most powerful cards are more serious representations of well-known Pathfinder material. But there’s still plenty of cool stuff like the awesome Blog Goblin who gets an automatic +3 against anyone with a laptop, smart phone or tablet at the table. Fail to run away from the Blog Goblin and he’ll publish an expose on his site, forcing you to ditch your armor. Of course the downside is that after a few games the humour and artwork loses its edge a little, but I suppose that’s an inevitable fact when dealing with games like this.
After kicking down a door if no monster should present itself for arse-whooping then you have the option of playing a monster directly from your hand and fighting it, giving you a chance to go up against a weakling and earn yourself a level and some treasure, assuming of course that nobody decides to interfere with your plans. Should you have no monster to play or if you simply don’t want to then you can loot the room, done by drawing the top card of the Door deck and adding it straight to your hand.
And that’s pretty much the game right there, but it does have some flaws worth mentioning. As you might have guessed luck does play a significant role in Munchkin, but thankfully a good chunk of it gets mitigated my the ability to have other players pile into a fight. Should you find yourself running into a succession of powerful monsters then generally speaking somebody can be persuaded to help you out, even if the price is rather steep. Where this mitigation of luck fails is in the final phase of the game where the action can begin to drag on. Due to the fact that anybody who pulls a significant lead is quickly betrayed in most instances all players will find themselves balanced out at level 8 or 9 in the closing stages, at which point everyone is naturally working against each other, and thus play can go around the table for a while before victory is claimed. The win is also usually awarded to whomever is lucky enough to kick down a door and find a weak monster that the rest of the players can’y beef up enough, or to whoever gets a beast to fight whenever the opposition has finally run out of cards. In short, in most instances the winner of Munchkin: Pathfinder, in my experience, simply got lucky.
Still, let this fool you not, because luck is simply the nature of the game. Had it been more complex title with room for thoughtful play then the importance of luck and how heavily it weighs on the outcome of the game would have been a far more serious point of contention, but this is a light-hearted fantasy romp and the element of chance keeps things interesting while the humour and fun of it all ensure that hitting a patch of pure bad fortune never irritates you for more than a few seconds, especially since you can usually pass some of it on to other players by suddenly adding +10 to the monster they’re facing and then laughing like a maniacal genius,
That’s not to say the game is completely without strategy, it’s simply not a title that’s liable to tax the mind of anybody. Any semblance of tactics comes from simply knowing when to help others out, when to leave them high and dry and when to stick a knife in their back, which in turn means considering when it’s best to play certain cards, be that a monster to battle against or item.
To put it clearly Munchkin: Pathfinder is a hell of a lot of fun. Sure, it’s not deep or complex, but it’s an incredibly good social game, perfect for an evening of daft entertainment and banter. It’s easy to learn, too, and therefore a great title to pull out when friends are round who don’t normally dabble in card or board games. I’ve had a lot of fun playing immense games with hefty rulebooks, but barely any of them have had me laughing as much as I do when I sit down to play Munchkin with a few beers and some good friends.
+ Just good fun.
+ Brilliant artwork.
+ Great sense of humour.
– Drags on toward the end.
– No room for more thoughtful play.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great.
A brilliant little game that has sold millions upon millions in its various incarnations for very good reason. There are other titles out there to scratch the tactical itch, Munchkin: Pathfinder drives good conversation between friends, and isn’t that what games like this are really for?