Making a Munchkin Game—for Actual Munchkins
The Munchkin card game, published by Steve Jackson Games, is rated for players ages 10 and up. There are a lot of reasons for that age range, including factors such as safety testing, reading level, and a general sense that we wanted a game that families could play together.
(While we strive for family-friendliness, we also encourage appropriate curating by parents before introducing Munchkin—or any game—to their kids. Some of the Munchkin games, in particular the earlier ones, have a few cards that skirt the PG-13 line we’re usually aiming for. With only one or two exceptions, we feel that these cards pass what we call the “Looney Tunes” test; the jokes are intended to be accepted as silly, semi-nonsensical references by kids but reveal a second, deeper meaning to adults—I am reminded of a WB cartoon showing a fake nature documentary that referred to a beaver damning a river, a joke I didn’t get until I was well into my 20s. Steve Jackson Games and Team Munchkin fully support the right—and, we believe, obligation—of parents to take out any cards they think aren’t appropriate for their families, where those parents draw their lines more tightly than we do.)
Over the years, we’ve heard from many parents who have played the various Munchkin games with younger children and had very enjoyable times. One request that has cropped up frequently, however, is a version of Munchkin that those kids could play on their own, without parental help.
In 2014, I began to design that game. I swiped the name Munchkin Treasure Hunt from a Munchkin expansion that never gelled and got to work.
The First Attempt
Initially, I thought of this new kid-friendly Munchkin as a “race to Level 10” game. Since reaching Level 10 is the goal of Munchkin itself, that made a lot of sense. I designed a large track-based board similar to Monopoly, but with pits and secret passages, spaces to move you forward or backward along the track, treasure that you could use to beef up your hero or trade in for levels, and (of course) a deck of monsters to fight.
It felt like Munchkin, which was good. However, in reaching that goal, I’d made a game where you could avoid the monsters entirely and still win by getting lucky rolls and doing a few secret-passage–assisted loops past the Go Up a Level space while your opponents were running all the way around the board. A Munchkin game where you don’t fight monsters? That simply would not do.
Somewhat regretfully, I set my notes for this game aside and started over.
The Second, More Successful Attempt
One of the accurate criticisms of my first draft was that there was no real element of choice. Players rolled the dice and moved that many spaces and then something happened, or didn’t, and then your turn was over. What was needed was more of a sense that the players controlled what happened on their turns, and that meant a move away from the Monopoly-style board to another popular game.
The dungeon in Munchkin Treasure Hunt has a wheel-shaped board, very similar to Trivial Pursuit. Six monster spaces are connected by the rim of the wheel, and four of the six spaces are connected by spokes to the dungeon entrance, where the players start the game. The two spaces that aren’t are nastier monsters that players shouldn’t want to fight right off the bat, anyway.
Every key space (monster or entrance) is six squares from its neighbors, making it at least possible to hop from monster to monster around the board. Most of the spaces do something cool—let you roll again and keep moving, draw a treasure card, or bounce you directly to a monster—because moving around a featureless board for turn after turn trying to get somewhere is bor-r-r-ring. (Looking at you, Clue.) The board is designed so it is almost impossible to have a turn where your only choices are regular spaces with no effect.
The other challenge with boards like this one is that it is possible to roll in such a way that you keep overshooting your target, which takes us back to the “never fighting monsters” problem. Our fix for this was a bit of a rule kludge, but it works: now when you enter a monster space or the entrance, you stop and lose the rest of your movement.
Mechanically, the game is intentionally simple. When you fight a monster, you draw one modifier card (or maybe two, or one card plus a die roll) that tells you how much to add to the monster’s base power. Modifier cards are never negative, so you never have to subtract to figure out the total—this helps make it more kid-friendly. Once you have the monster’s power figured out, you roll a die, play some treasures if you want, and compare numbers. The game reinforces basic arithmetic skills while also letting you say things like “OK, now you’re fighting a Snotty Goblin. Gross.”
There is also an “asking for help” mechanic, allowing a player to bring in someone no more than six spaces away to join his side in the fight. He has to give his helper first pick of all the treasure—this is instead of the more complex negotiations from the full Munchkin game. (If we’re being totally honest, this is also a way for parents to help make sure one kid isn’t falling too far behind another one, or to help rescue a child who had an unfortunate monster card and rolled really poorly in a fight.)
Instead of leveling up when you defeat (not “kill”) a monster, you get treasures. The game ends when the treasure deck has been depleted. Every treasure has a Gold value on it, and the player with the most Gold in their hand wins the game!
Playtesting this game was a hoot. Watching experienced, hard-core gamers wrap their heads around a game this simple was a new kind of fun for me. We even got to visit an actual elementary school to let real kids try out the game! In the end, we got a great game for kids and families, with only one or two minor rough spots I’d like to sand down.
I did not expect to be getting that chance only a year later…
Wondering About Wonderland
“Do you think you can write a Wonderland game?”
That question, from Philip Reed, came not long after Munchkin Oz started appearing in Target stores. We got an inquiry from Amazon, seeing if we would be interested in partnering with them on a new game. Since I had just emerged from a deep dive into the Baum canon, exploring the writing of Carroll seemed like a natural move.
Phil and I talked about it some and decided pretty quickly that a Treasure Hunt–style game made more sense than a full Munchkin set. I took a couple of weeks to reread Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, as well as some related works such as The Hunting of the Snark, taking copious notes as I read. (I got the weirdest looks at Starbucks, let me tell you.) I followed the Treasure Hunt formula very closely, with all those wonderful Carroll portmanteau adjectives to use as monster modifiers and loads of zany items to fill out the Treasure deck…
…and Steve kicked it back to me to redo. Quite correctly, he felt that children might be confused by words such as slithy, brillig, and outgrabe, especially out of context. He also lamented that the game as written only allowed for six monsters, with so many whimsical creatures we could have included. A second draft was asked for. (Yes, again. It’s a theme!)
With Steve’s guidance, I reworked my first draft into a game with similar mechanics but a different feel. Instead of monster modifiers, now the Monster deck has allies for the six big monsters on the board. The Treasures are basically the same, but I changed the permanent Treasures to be “friends” of the heroes, who stay in play to help them out.
I’m really proud of the result; it feels very much like you are wandering through Wonderland, meeting its odd inhabitants and having bizarre adventures. Carroll has always been a favorite writer of mine, and I hope Munchkin Wonderland is a suitable homage to his work. If not, I’m sure something will galumph over to let me know.