I have attended many board game nights and even more role-playing game nights over the years. At many of the former, Steve Jackson games were featured. And at much of the latter, a certain card game from that same company called Munchkin was also played, normally as an ice breaker before diving into the featured RPG of the night.
Munchkin is an interesting card game because it’s both offensive and defensive in nature. The goal is to take your hero, called a Munchkin, from level one all the way up to level 10. The first player to do that wins. And every player can either help or hinder each other on that journey.
Generally, at least with skilled human players, that means that people will help one another in the early game when doing so can help earn a share of the treasure from battles. However, when someone starts to pull ahead in levels, then the rest of the group normally brutally turns against them, buffing monsters, sending curses and generally doing everything they can to prevent their ascension to higher levels. Depending on the skill of the players and how much they work to prevent others from winning, games can go anywhere from about 20 minutes to some I have played that dragged on for hours.
Despite the cutthroat nature of Munchkin, most of the cards, monsters, equipment and spells that players interact with are humorous or even whimsical. Even a relatively bland card like a sharpened mace (which can only be used by a cleric) has a picture of a dagger strapped to a traditional club-like weapon, allowing the cleric to use it to get extra damage. And while there are traditional monsters like orcs and things like that, there are also some pretty funny ones like the infamous Gazebo which you must always fight alone, and which plays up on an old RPG joke about a player who did not know what a gazebo was from their game master’s description of a peaceful garden, so he got ready to fight that horrible monster. Some cards have even taken on almost legendary status over the years, like the kneepads of allure, which forces other players to help the person wearing them in combat without asking for any rewards. Munchkin in general has lots of those humorous and inside joke type of cards that RPGers will appreciate.
Munchkin Digital is an attempt by developer Dire Wolf to bring that amazing card game into a digital format on Steam and also the iOS and Android platforms. Its Steam launch was a little bit rocky, with many reported crashes and bugs. But now, a few weeks and many patches later, the platform seems very stable and playable. I was able to get through over 20 games in a row with no problems.
Like the card game, Munchkin Digital follows a surprisingly simple system in terms of how the gameplay flows. The tricky part is when cards bend or break the core rules, and also knowing when it’s okay to play each type of card. There is a nice little tutorial that breaks everything down pretty well, although jumping into the main game and learning as you go is not too difficult either. Munchkin Digital does a wonderful job of pausing the game and prompting players when they can play cards, even going so far as to, for example, highlight valid interrupt cards which can be played on another player’s turn. You can set a timer for those interrupts too, so that one slow or AFK human player does not hold up the game too much.
Generally, each player starts their turn by organizing their cards and doing things like equipping or swapping out any gear that they picked up on their previous turn, adding any buffs they might be holding and possibly even leveling up, which can be done outright by using a handful of special cards. It might also be strategic to hold onto leveling up cards if you can, because they can be used as non-interruptible game winners later on should you get close enough to level 10 that spending them wins. That was pretty much one of the only ways someone could win the physical card version of Munchkin within my group of highly skilled friends, with the other popular method being trying to convince everyone to spend all of their cards preventing another player close to winning from getting to level 10, and then hoping that the group would be too card-poor to stop them when they made their own final sprint.
Once those special cards have been played, it’s time to kick open a dungeon door, which is the main action that everyone does on their turn. This basically draws a card from the face-down dungeon deck which then has to be dealt with. If the card is a spell or piece of equipment, then that can be equipped, and players can move to the next room. If it’s a monster, then it must be fought, with losing players suffering the listed consequences like loss of levels or forcing them to discard their hand. Winning players get trophies in the form of more cards from the face-down deck. Players also have the option to try and run away, and there are objects and even character classes (nobody starts with any class) which can be equipped to make skedaddling away easier.
Before the fight commences, other players have the option to help or hinder the outcome. When hindering a player, they can buff monsters, bring more creatures from their hand into the fight or do a few other things depending on their cards. When helping, they can do the same things but for the player, or they can enter the fight themselves for whatever promised rewards the hapless person who needs help is offering (unless they have the aforementioned kneepads of allure which makes the assistance free). But if they join the fight, they also share in the penalties if defeated. Really malicious players might wait until a fight is joined and then buff monsters, hoping to harm two or more opponents with one big rock (which is also a weapon from the game.)
Combat is based on the combined attack power of both sides, which is generally a combination of whatever equipment bonuses are being carried. So, if a player has an attack power of 12 and the monster is at 11, the player will win. This way, everyone knows how the fight will go, and can better decide how to spend cards to help or hinder other players.
Once the kicked door card is resolved, a player enters a protected room beyond and can either loot it (gaining another card) or Look for Trouble, which lets them play a monster from their own hand and then fight it, which makes it possible to go up more than one level on a turn. So, a good tactic is to keep low-level monsters in your hand so that you can fight club them in phase two, hoping that other players won’t put a gigantic +10 buff on that level one potted plant you were saving for an easy fight. Each time a player wins a fight, they gain a level, and get closer to the magic Level 10 win condition.
Munchkin Digital has all of the cards and the same system from the core physical version, so it has much of the same charm too. And now that the patches have been released, it plays very smoothly. On Steam, you can add up to five other AI-controlled players when playing alone, or can take on other humans in remote play. You can also mix and match human and AI players. The only caveat is that all human players need to be remote, probably because otherwise you would see your opponent’s cards.
The one negative that I found when playing this delightful title is that the AI is pretty terrible in terms of strategy. That does not mean that the AI is easy to beat. Instead, all of the computer AIs seem to work together as if they were controlled by the same person. They will almost always help each other out in combat and sometimes even pass great cards to each other when they can instead of passing along junk when forced to do so. They almost never act against one another. And whenever I tried to hinder one of them by buffing monsters, like when one AI was already at level six while the rest of us were still at two or three, all of the other AIs would jump in and buff the attacked AI player, even though there is no strategic reason to do that, and it was in fact against all of our best interests. Good human players would instead allow the player who was getting too far ahead to face defeat, especially if they lost based on yet another player spending their good cards to make that happen, and in any case would probably never spend cards to help someone else maintain their lead without any reward.
Only after an AI gets to level nine (and sometimes rarely when they reach eight) will the other AIs start to (very lightly it seems) begin to impede one of their own who is close to winning. Even then, they do very little compared to the fanatical defense they provide each other at lower levels, which makes no sense. I may be spoiled from playing with some very amazing human players over the years, but the developers really need to rework the AI logic so that they realize they are playing against each other from the start, and not just when one of them is about to cross the finish line. Once I realized how the AIs acted, I was able to beat them (almost as a group) more often than not, but it was never close to being as fun or realistic as when playing against clever human opponents.
Playing Munchkin Digital is a lot of fun for players who enjoy the physical card version of Munchkin. That is doubly true if you are able to gather friends online for a virtual game unhindered by the sometimes quirky AI opponents. I for one was thrilled to see Munchkin Digital’s debut and will likely be playing it for many years to come, bravely swatting at that deadly Gazebo with my Sneaky Bastard Sword.