Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Play Munchkin

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!

App O’ The Mornin’: Clue

Clue is one of the few classic American games that has actually benefited from being poked, prodded, squeezed, and occasionally reinvented.

Various Monopoly incarnations are essentially the same core gameplay with new proporties and actions cards. Clue, however, has provided some nice variations on the basic theme. Clue Mysteries, Clue Suspects, Clue: The Great Museum Caper, Clue DVD Game and even the much maligned Clue: Secrets and Spies all have their strong points. Heck, even some of the themed clues, such as Harry Potter and even Seinfeld (seriously) are not a total wash.

Never one to leave well enough alone, Electronic Arts has decided to reinvent Clue yet again for the the App market. They seem to have designed their Clue app to be as unappealing as possible to fans of the game. There is no traditional board layout, the classic visuals have been updated to make the characters and locations look more contemporary, and the entire pace and structure of the original game has been dropped.

In its place EA offers something very different, but with its own charms.

Rather than turning the classic whodunit game straight into an app, EA has instead hung a kind of interactive mystery on the bones of the original. Instead of moving around a board or competing against other detectives, you move from room to room asking questions from a menu of dialog options and searching for clues. 

As an ace reporter on a deadline, you can perform only a certain number of actions before your time runs out, and you need to call your editor with the suspect, location, and weapon used to kill Mr. Boddy. You’re able to use a map of the game to place suspects and weapons where they were located when the crime occured, and then cross potential suspects off your list before you make your final accusation. 
The touch controls are a bit fussy, with a little too much screen flipping and awkward input locations. There’s also a timing element, which limits the number of moves you can make before you have to solve the mystery. This timing element seems to mimic the “clock” cards that are being added to some clue variants in order to make the game more suspenseful. Actually, they only make the game feel rushed and somewhat random.
Needless to say, the contemporary setting is nowhere near as appealing as the old English country house mystery captured so effectively by the original. Hasbro has so little clue about what people like in this game that they even created an updated edition, called Clue: Discover the Secret, that dispensed with the classic setting in favor of a cast of washed-up child stars, videogame designers, and football players. Note to Hasbro: People like cozy English mysteries. They don’t like dated pop-culture pandering.

Those reservations aside, this is a still a fun little interactive mystery. There are ten cases in all, and each has random elements and a scoring system to encourage repeat play. This isn’t Clue, but it has its own appeal.