Quinns: Have you heard of Munchkin? It might be the most popular standalone card game in our hobby. You all play Dungeons & Dragons-type heroes racing to reach level 10, alternately working together and wrenching one another backwards. It’s a grinning figurehead for table gaming. And I hate it.
I hate that in parodying D&D so focusedly it erects walls around gaming as a whole, its 20 year-old injokes acting like barbed wire. I hate that it goes on for 30 minutes longer than anyone wants. I hate how the game is entirely based around attacking the lead player, rendering the entire first 60 minutes almost pointless. But most of all, I hate how it gets everywhere.
I’ll be at the pub, explaining SU&SD to some friend or stranger or travelling pervert, and they’ll say “Oh! Yeah, I’ve played Munchkin. It was OK!” And with that, all the icecubes will disappear from my drink, a new wrinkle will appear on my body and all the babies within two miles of us will start crying.
So here it is. My counter-offer. If you want a light, mad card game with a Dungeons & Dragons theme, buy Gauntlet of Fools instead, a game from no less than the creator of Dominion. Also, a game of battling trolls with a hangover, and getting skewered by spear traps while hopping on one leg.
It couldn’t be simpler. First you deal out a number of heroes, and them deal each a weapon.
Players then take turns bidding for them. “I’ll take the barbarian with the Holy Sword!” you scream, far too excited. But already you’ve screwed up, because the barbarian was transparently the best choice, and another player takes him off you, saying “I’ll take the barbarian, and he’ll enter the dungeon… with one arm tied behind his back… and without breakfast.”
The game here is take what you guess is the best character, and hobble them just enough with brags that nobody will take them off you by adding yet another awful boast. After everybody has a hero, it’s time to enter the dungeon. Which also couldn’t be simpler.
You draw a card off the encounter deck. So far, so Munchkin. But now everybody encounters this monster, trap or treasure simultaneously, battling it by rolling a huge handful of dice. Did you kill it? Great! You get its treasure. Did it hurt you? Quick, compare its attack to your defense. Now, we’re moving on! NO, you don’t get a chance to keep hittting it. You messed that up. Next card!
This is the whole game. No waiting for your turn, or deciding how to passive-aggressively ruin someone else’s. Just rolling, swearing, cheering, and deciding when to use your terribly limited number of powers. Do you use them now, against the Mummy, which doesn’t hurt you but doubles the damage of the card that comes after it? Will you be able to beat that? Come on! Next card!
Continue until everyone’s dead. Or, in the zombie hero’s case, a little after that. Winner is the dead man or woman with the most gold lining their pockets.
This design is quite lovely from start to finish. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s nonsense – after a round of incredibly careful bidding, everybody might be wiped out in three steps in by a horrific vampire / scorpion combo – but it’s controlled nonsense, like kayaking down acid rapids.
Whether it’s a fantastic roll of the dice, a well-timed use of a power, or just your own terrible decision to enter the dungeon as a blindfolded priest, there’s a sense that you’re always playing Gauntlet of Fools.
Except, of course, when you die, and have to sit on the sidelines as other players charge forward. But that’s a turn of phrase that’s apt with this game, because you really do play audience to the surviving players. Watching them jostle and compete, perhaps watching their gold creep ever-closer to what’s in your hero’s pockets. Until finally, their dice clattering across the table, they slay the Skelephant as it kills them, granting them exactly one more gold than you.
“SHIT,” you cry, the rest of the table laughing. And then: “Shall we play again?”
Because here’s the big difference. Gauntlet of Fools ends while it’s still fun. It coaxes you into one more game, and lets you slip it back onto your shelf with a smile. You could play it five times before the people playing Munchkin next door finally stagger out of the front door, blinking at the daylight like convicts.
This might not be a great game, but it’s a fine one that doesn’t drive me to make bizarre metaphors involving roving perverts and icecubes. I for one would love to see it get an expansion or two.
Did you know Munchkin has more than 24 expansions? And 12 standalone versions? And a line of clothing?
I’d love to see this game get just one expansion.