"When you find yourself in the company of a halfling and an ill-tempered Dragon, remember, you do not have to outrun
the Dragon ... you just have to outrun the halfling."
- Ancient Geek Proverb
This weekend, men and women like you and me will be flocking to Indianapolis to attend this year's Gen Con. They'll spend four days rescuing damsels in distress, crawling through dank dungeons, vanquishing mighty foes, and spending far too much money on twenty-sided dice. It is a celebration of the original geek culture. Not all of us are lucky enough to attend, however. Some aren't willing or able to travel to Indianapolis with the sole intention of pretending to be a gnome. But if you still want to celebrate the fine art of tabletop gaming, there's a game that will take you back to your days of minotaurs and magic missiles. That game is Munchkin.
Originally developed in 2001 by Steve Jackson, the man behind legendary RPG system GURPS, Munchkin is a card game infused with the spirit of pen and paper role-playing games. Full of inside humor and dead-on satire, the game is Jackson's love letter to the industry he helped create, packed with the kind of incessant taunting borne from a deep love of the genre. It plays fast, it's loose with the rules, and it appeals to the gamer locked deep inside us all. One night playing Munchkin will make you recall your college days spent drinking absurd amounts of Mountain Dew and scribbling stats on your character sheet. For better or for worse.
Playing Munchkin is simple. Get two to five of your friends to sit down at a table and give them markers for ten levels (poker chips work well). Players take turns drawing a card from the door pile and reacting to what they find. If it's one of the game's brilliantly designed monsters, players can either try to fight the creature or run away by rolling a die. Combat is won or lost based solely on the levels of the player and the monster. Whoever has the higher level wins. So if you encounter a Level 10 Net Troll, for example, you have to be level 11 or higher to defeat him. Once the foe is dispatched, you draw treasure cards and go up a level.
The treasures you gain can take many forms. Often they are ridiculous weapons or armor that give you bonuses to your level in combat, such as Boots of Butt-Kicking or the Cheese Grater of Peace. Sometimes they're items that are usable only once, such as Yuppie Water, an item usable only by elves, or the Magic Missile, a giant rocket that gives you a bonus in combat. If you're really lucky, you'll draw a card that gives you a free level for whining at the GM or invoking an obscure rule.
If you can't finish that Plutonium Dragon off on your own, you can ask your fellow players to help you out. Negotiation and backstabbing are the keys to getting ahead in Munchkin, and you'll often have to resort to bribery to further your cause. Of course, there's always the chance that your party will take an opportunity to screw you over by using potions or curses against you, or summoning extra monsters for your combat. Alliances shift quickly in Munchkin and rarely last. Players continue to take turns until someone reaches Level 10, at which point the game ends and the winner typically mocks his inferior party members and their heritage.
Obviously, much of the appeal of Munchkin is the humor. Each of the 168 cards in the core game has an irreverent quality to them, often found in the original illustrations by Dork Tower creator John Kovalic. It's not at all uncommon for an entire table of players to burst out in laughter at the battle conditions involved in facing, say, a Level 8 Gazebo ("You must face the Gazebo alone"). But at its core, Munchkin is fun because it reminds us of all the pros and cons inherent in tabletop gaming. Anyone who's ever rolled a rogue will spend the game awash in memories of a simpler time of karma pools and calculating THAC0. And those of us who have never purchased an overpriced set of dice might just find themselves opening a door to an entire new hobby.
So this weekend, while the masses are congregating at Gen Con, gather your own party and play a few hands of Munchkin. With its hand in your gold pouch and its tongue firmly in cheek, Munchkin captures the essence of the dungeon crawling experience without the pesky pens, paper, or role playing.