Board Game Analysis – first blog post, advanced game design 2014

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Munchkin Pathfinder

Munchkin Pathfinder is a card game for a minimum of three players in which the goal is to reach a a certain level first. There are two different sorts of card decks. One is action cards and the other is bonus cards. Every round you draw one new action card from the deck. If there is a monster behind that card you must fight it or try to run away. When you defeat a monster you increase your level and can draw bonus cards.

First time playing it

There was a small piece of paper with rules on it not much larger than a standard A4 page. I looked at it for a little while but stopped, the other people in the group had played it before so I figured I’ll just catch up on the rules as we played. There was a little confusion about how the rounds went, expecting to have some difficulties in remembering what to do. But the confusion was not because of that, it was because there was almost nothing to remember.

I met a monster and the other players looked at his level and one of them said something like:

oh, I can help you with that one for one treasure.

I said: yes, ok.

And the monster died. The person who helped me could then draw a bonus card. Then it was the next person’s turn. Similar things happened until it was my turn again. I found a weapon when I drew the action card and put it face up on the table. It made me stronger. A few turns later I realized I had other cards I could put on the table to increase the strength of my character. Some few turns after that I started helping people and/or helping their monsters because they had an alarmingly high level. I asked the others if I could use this or that card in this or that way, and almost every time I could. That’s how incredibly easy it was to get started. Sure it takes a few times of playing to fully understand everything, but compared to other board games that sometimes can take twenty minutes of discussion to agree on some little detail, because the rules are that complex, it was easier than I expected. But I sensed that there were cunning features of it just because of that.

The good things about the game

It is easy to understand the rules. And that is because all rules are simple and straight forward. It does not take a lot of time to finish one round even if all the participants are playing for the first time. The ability to make deals and help other players defeat monsters make it interesting and rewarding in the first few rounds, even though it is a competitive game, because you can get some bonus cards that help you later in the game, most certainly to help the monsters your adversaries encounter instead.

Cheating is allowed in the game such as lying about how many cards you currently hold or taking too many cards each round but if you get caught cheating you must confess to your cheat immediately. This adds an extra dimension to the game in a way that invokes suspicion about the competitors, making the players more alert. It also increases the players’ suspension if they cheat themselves because they don’t want to get caught. The low penalty for getting caught cheating encourages players to play the game in a sneaky fashion.

The bad things about the game

Even though you need to reach a certain level first, and that it is accomplished by defeating enemies, the combat system is quite hollow; check your current level, add eventual attack bonuses to that number and if is is higher than your enemy’s level you win, gain one level and can draw one or more bonus card(s). If you loose the fight you can get a curse, loose certain cards or die. What happens is determined by the individual monster cards. Dying in this game is very often a good thing, because then you get dealt a whole new hand of cards which means that you can actually become more powerful by dying. You even keep your current level and power ups. This feature makes dying a trivial matter. Many efforts to stop the leader in the game during combat by spending valuable cards to help a monster defeat him, can be totally in vain if the leading player dies and only becomes more powerful. Other consequences for loosing a battle such as loosing a weapon or multiple cards are often worse than dying, which can feel counter intuitive.

The core system

As in any card game the core system is dependent on what cards the player has and how he uses them. Some cards can be put in front of the players to enhance their attack strength or give them special abilities, other cards can be used once to gain extra strength or to deal damage in another player’s fight, for example. The goal, to be the first person to reach a certain level, is reached by defeating enemies, each defeated enemy increases the player’s level. Each turn a player draws a card from one of the two decks that can be referred to as the action card deck. These cards contain enemies, curses – events that are affecting the character in a negative way, such as being unable to run away from an enemy – or cards that enhances the character by giving them special benefits such as the ability to take two cards instead of one each round. All players can interfere in someone else’s monster combat, they can either help the other player currently in combat or help the monster, making it more difficult for the opposing player to win the fight and gain a level. When a player wins a fight they also get to draw one or more bonus cards. This opens up for possibilities to make deals among the players. For example;

player A is in combat with a monster who is stronger than him, he asks player B to help him fight the monster because their combined strength would defeat that monster. But why would player B do so, since player A would increase one level point and come closer to winning the game? If player B would get the bonus cards player A would get by winning the fight it could turn out to be such a good deal for player B that it would be worth it to him. He could get a hold of cards that would help him defeat player A later in the game, to slow down player A’s progress towards the goal of the game or to help him progress faster himself. As it turns out this sort of dealing and backstabbing is what you actually do throughout the game while the turns of the game progresses. The lack of, or rather the simplistic approach to game rules make the suggested courses of action a big part of the core system in this game. There really is not much more to the core system and all special information on how every individual card work is available on the cards them selves.

The most interesting core system

I would say that the most interesting core system is that the simplistic set of rules open up for many variations of the game and that encourages players to play it again and challenge each other personally by perhaps creating secret pacts and catch each other cheating. This simplicity is a very deliberate design choice because it creates an increasingly complex game dynamic the more a group of people play it. It makes it a very social game for anybody to play.

Main audience

The main target audience feels very broad. Anybody who is old enough to read and is able to play a game with at least two other people can play this game. The cartoon-ish art style suggests that the game is aimed at kids from the age of 12 to 18 with either gender. The quick rounds suggests the same age because you do not need a lot of patience to play the game trough and could be played at lunch breaks, for instance. But the game is certainly not limited to this target group and can serve as a good ice breaker in social encounters among adults of any age as well.

Summary

The game relies on cards and interaction between human beings. The game is what the players make of it. A simple set of rules open up for a free game experience and make every game feel unique. This also opens up for expansions to the game in the form of new cards with new features. The simplistic set of rules let you mix every compatible version of the game and play it without learning new rules.

If you do not pay close attention and remember what level you are currently on there could be some level of uncertainty about how much of strength you have. On the other hand, this can open up an opportunity to cheat and defeat an enemy that you could not defeat considering your real current level. This is good or bad depending on what sort of player you are yourself. There are many grey areas like this and that is the whole point of the game.

So if ever you are looking for a fast paced card game that you can just pick up and play with some friends and back-stab them while cheating and making deals, oh yeah almost forgot, and kill monsters, you should definitely try any of the Munchkin card games.

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One thought on “Board Game Analysis – first blog post, advanced game design 2014

  1. A well written and easy to read analysis. You do a good job of explaining the core system, giving a basic idea of how the game works and how a typical round goes. There are some minor things however that I disagree with and other things that I felt you left out.

    I agree that the game is very easy to learn. It helps to have an experienced player explain how the game works. I had a good understanding of how the game works after two or three rounds. Even though the game manual is pretty expansive, learning by doing with experienced players is a quicker and more effective way of getting into the game rules.
    Yes, cheating is a legitimate strategy in this game and happens often. In fact, keeping other kinds of information from the players is common. Such as additional text on cards or weaknesses and strengths on monsters. Therefore it’s always a good idea to insist on checking other players cards on the table and reading them thoroughly. Reading is the main word, as the cards are usually heavy with text on their individual properties. A lot of mistakes were made in placing cards at the wrong moments and selling potentially useful cards.
    Speaking of which, I believe that you forgot to mention the option of selling cards for 1000 gold in exchange to raise your character level. It’s an option that’s often used and an alternative way to raise your character level in case your luck with the monsters turns sour.

    It would seem that you’ve been somewhat lucky with the company you’ve been playing with.
    From my own experience with the game: Whenever one of us got into a fight he or she couldn’t win, the other players would throw offers to help that player for a price. For example: “I will help you in exchange for two of the treasures of my choosing” and others would try to counter with better offers: “I will help in exchange for one of the treasures of your choosing”.
    In my perception, this game is extremely competitive with all the players constantly trying to sabotage for each other from beginning to end. In fact, according to one of the experienced players that’s exactly what this game is about. To mess as much as possible for your friends. So helping the other players without ulterior motives is pretty rare.

    I admit that the combat in this game might feel a bit hollow. Being that there’s only one single stat you need to keep track on, but it adds to the simplistic nature of the game. Classes’ and factions’ Strengths and weaknesses against certain monsters as well as items and buffs helps in adding a sense of depth to the combat. When you’re underleveled, it forces you to negotiate with the other players which adds to experience. Sometimes when some players wishes to interfere in your combat phase by adding their own monsters, curses or buffs, others may still want to assist you and what follows is somewhat of a team vs. team battle. It’s a simplified version of the usually complicated combat systems role playing games are known for, which is what the Munchkin-franchise is satirizing.
    Dying in the game isn’t necessarily always a good thing, especially during late game when most players are well above the level five mark. At that point, it does feel like an actual penalty and players tend to avoid death as much as possible. You’re not guaranteed that your new set cards will be superior to your previous deck. So calling it a trivial matter might be a bit of a stretch.

    I don’t quite agree with the perceived target audience. Twelve years old is definitely possible, but I’d rather raise it to at least fourteen as a good minimum. Sure enough, the cartoonish style and sense of humor might hint towards young players but there are some light adult themes in the game. Not to mention the direction in competition the game takes as well as interaction between players.

    In response to your comment “This also opens up for expansions to the game in the form of new cards with new features”. Weren’t you obliged to mention that the version you played (“Pathfinder Edition”), is just one of a pretty expansive franchise of card games. Munchkin Pirate Edition, Post Apocalyptic Edition(s), Sci-Fi Edition, Dungeons & Dragons Edition, the list continues. The Pathfinder Edition is based on the Pathfinder pen and paper fantasy role playing game, whose world is well known for being overpopulated by goblins. Hence the vast amount of different goblin-type monster cards in the game.

    Paying close attention to your current level is required assuming that your group of players have decided not to use notes to keep it in check. But indeed it could add a level of challenge to the game, only relying on your short time memory and trust towards the other players (which is risky, considering the competitive nature of the game).
    From my own experience, the other players always tends check the notes, cards and ask questions. Especially if they’ve decided to interfere in the combat phase with one of their own cards.

    In response what your fellow group members have written about the average game time. According to the game cover a typical round takes about one to two hours. One of your group members even stated that it goes from 20 to 40 minutes. This is not necessarily the case, as from my own experience it takes two to four hours. Especially if everyone in the company you’re playing with is dead set on winning.

    Munchkin Pathfinder is every bit as fun as you claim it to be. But you need a lot of patience and to tolerate foul play as you will face a lot of it in this game. It encourages you to be selfish, insidious and sometimes mean towards the other players. It brings out the treacherous side of you and friends you never knew existed. But in the end, it usually results in a very enjoyable and memorable experience.

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