Saturday, March 25, 2017

Thoughts on Epic Munchkin

Have you ever played something as pointless yet so catchy as Munchkin? This game, well-known parody of role-playing games, starts as an empty box with little more than 200 cards as this article points out, but before you know it, you find yourself in local store looking for expansions.
I will assume you have taken such step or that you are familiar with the game itself. If that is not the case, there is a whole section focused on reviews of the basic game here. Anyway, let me briefly introduce the good ol' classic Munchkin.

What is Munchkin - If you are familiar with the game, feel free to skip this part.

-Created by Steve Jackson, originally illustrated by John Kovalic
-A game with a ton of jokes and geeky references
-Designed for 2-6 players
-Gameplay time listed on the official website is 1-2 hours

You start as a Human at level 1. Players take turns at kicking down the doors to enter the imaginary dungeon. Now the main point of Munchkin is to reach level 10. To do so, you must kill Monsters, grab the treasure and make your character more powerful as you collect and use new Races, Class and equipment cards, using everything you can from the Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment to the Vorpal Blade. The catch is nobody knows, what "Vorpal" is. Okay, I was just testing you. The true catch obviously is that other players may make it more difficult for you to defeat the Monsters by playing buff cards that increase their strength. They may also offer their help in exchange for certain number of treasures or other useful items. There is a pesky kind of cards called Curses, which do bad things to you. Every time you manage to defeat a Monster, you go up a level. There are some other ways to level up, such as selling items of a combined worth of 1000 gold or more, or playing a "Go up a level" card, but to reach the final level, you must defeat a Monster (or pray for Divine Intervention).

That shows the first problem people tend to have with Munchkin. You gain equipment and also a majority of better cards by defeating Monsters. Yes, you can trade with other players, but you must first have at least something useful to have chance of getting what you need from an opponent. Typically in a game, there always seems to be a player who struggles to draw a Monster. He then falls behind, with no real option to come back in the game and the most he can do is he finds himself in a kingmaker position when deciding who to prevent from winning with his remaining cards. There is a catch-up mechanic called charity, which forces any player who exceeds his hand-size limit to give any excess cards to the player with the lowest level. That rarely happens and if it does, the player receives mostly useless cards.

The second flaw people complain about is the "runaway leader". One or two players get ahead, reaching like level 8 or 9 and then it comes up to who draws a Monster first and whether other players can stop that player from winning with what they have in their hands. If they can, then it mostly ends up with the other player winning on the very next turn. Or other people inevitably gang up on you if you take the lead, completely exhausting their resources, wrecking you, and meanwhile allowing someone else to win without much effort. Anyway it is also what makes Munchkin so intense in the final few turns, especially if there is more claimants for the win. Do not take me wrong. Many people, including myself, quite enjoy the classic Munchkin and it has it good points, such as the negotiating it involves, the tension at the end of the game, and so on. But for this review, I need to highlight the bad parts of Munchkin in order to clearly clarify my opinions. Also bear in mind that those problems sometimes arise, but sometimes they don't. You might have had a different and an entirely positive experience with the game and that is completely fine (lucky you tho :D ).

What is Epic Munchkin

Epic Munchkin is a set of rules that lets you play up to level 20 and brings some new mechanics and abilities. After any player reaches level 10, the game continues, and the player is considered "Epic Munchkin". If he somehow gets back to levels 1-9, he loses the epic status. Epic Munchkins turn over two cards instead of one when kicking down the doors and resolve them in a given order. First, any Curses are resolved. Then you may pick up and apply any Race or Class card. The third come the Monsters, which you fight as usual, but if there are two Monsters, fight them both. And any Monster Enchancer card immediately applies to the Monster drawn with it. The Epic Munchkins also get another ability in addition to their standard Races or Class card abilities, called Epic Ability. This usually further improves their current abilities or brings entirely new ones. The object of the game changes to reaching level 20. To reach levels 19 and 20, you must defeat a Monster.

What does it try to achieve anyway?

The goal of this set of rules is to make the game last longer. It also brings the Epic phase of the game during which players become even more powerful and get some new abilities. Those are available on this website for free. They come described in a list that probably is just ok, but it takes time to memorize them and it is pretty inconvenient to look at some kind of a table every now and then during a game like this. But hey, you do not have to pay for this and it is a minor downside anyway.

My thoughts

Having played this a handful of times, I am pretty sure I won't try to do so again in the closest future.
There are several reasons. Once a player reaches the level 8-10 area in a regular game, he pretty much can beat any Monster in the game on his own, unless other players intervene. And they do not do so unless they absolutely have to. So what happens is that an already very powerful Munchkin gets a new stronger ability and more time to gather more equipment, buffs and generally get out of control. Any player in that phase of the game then just draws two door cards, moreless automatically defeats any Monsters drawn and puts a new *insert an item* in front of himself. They fixed the issue of players ganging up on the leader by making the leader(s) powerful enough to withstand nearly anything others can throw at him. The game then becomes a mindless race through the deck between those players fortunate enough to have at least level 10 or so. For the others, it prolongs their suffering and also takes the fun out of the game by simply making it last way too long. It doesn't address any other issue, most importantly doesn't introduce any way to keep all players really involved in the game to the end. And that means something from a gamer like me, who believes that if you fall behind in a game, you deserve it, as you probably played badly. Well, this obviously applies to serious Eurogames with little to no luck factor involved, so it would make sense for me to have a catch-up mechanic in Munchkin. Something like "Watch and learn" rule: "Whenever an Epic Munchkin goes up a level, all non-Epic Munchkins choose to either draw a treasure card or go up a level." This would obviously require some playtesting, but something like this allows those behind to feel like they still have a chance to catch up and maybe even quietly climb up to the victory. And it isn't really all that gamebreaking, as it isn't too rewarding. After all, all the player did was watching.
Last but not least, this little tweak would bring one more decision to make, in form of taking an immediate reward (level up) or try to fish for an item that might prove useful in the greater scheme of things (the treasure). I also like the fact that it doesn't directly harm or slow the leading players.

About those new abilities... some are quite powerful (Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, Thieves, Clerics), while some have little to no impact (Centaurs and Gnomes). I generally like how they are designed, if not balanced (Who cares about Munchkin being balanced anyway? This guy does!). They also stick with the original theme of individual Races. I absolutely wouldn't mind playing with those by default, as it encourages players to use Races and Class cards and makes them slightly more powerful. Or make it obtainable by say "tapping" your respective Class or Race card at the beginning of your turn, then you get the Epic ability for the duration of the round, leave it tapped as you end your turn and untap it at the end of your next turn. This makes it so you cannot just rely on having the ability at all times.


I won't lie to you. When I first saw the Epic rules, I was excited to try them and didn't even think about it being a bad idea. I would tell you not to do the same, to do yourself a favor and play the classic Munchkin or an entirely different game. But by now you have probably stopped reading and played a couple of games using this variant anyway. It is a good one-time modification. If you use one of my suggestions or come up with your own, you might enjoy this multiple times. It is quite sad that such a small "expansion" or set of rules is designed in a way that requires a house rule or two, otherwise it just makes the game almost unplayable for most, even though a small percentage of hardcore fans might still enjoy it. But to be fair, it only deepens the problems Munchkin already had before, and doesn't bring too many new things.
In my opinion, this isn't for regular play, unless you are fanatically devoted to Munchkin. Yes, it isn't a serious game, so it doesn't necessarily need to be balanced, but come on, this game lasts about hour in it's most basic form and I am being optimistic now. Imagine a 6-player game of Munchkin using your average number of expansions (5 in my case) and now add the Epic rules to the mix. The time it takes before you get to your turn and the time the game lasts just make it a frustrating experience no matter who is winning, because guess what? Most players do not even care at certain point under such conditions.

+ Pretty low price :D
+ New abilities
+ Cool idea of drawing 2 cards at the same time
- Doesn't try to fix problems, makes them more significant
- Makes the game more frustrating, more dull, doesn't let you build the tension
- Time this takes is just too long
Overall: 3 out of 10, worth a shot but not really much more than that

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