‘Munchkin’ at 15: A Gen Con Interview

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Steve Jackson Games launched Munchkin at Gen Con 2001—15 years prior to this year’s recently-concluded convention—so naturally, it’s time for a milestone celebration. And just as naturally, the team behind the goofy, cheesy, cutthroat, fun card game has done things their own way, kicking things off back in January, when Munchkin wasn’t even 14-and-a-half yet.

“The Longest Anniversary Ever,” quipped Steve Jackson during an interview with GeekDad at Gen Con 2016. Jackson joined Munchkin writer/developer/czar Andrew Hackard, artist John Kovalic, and Steve Jackson Games CEO Phil Reed to chat a bit about the game. It was a fun talk: The four of them are quick with wisecracks, riffing off each other, finishing sentences, the humorous energy bouncing and growing. If you’ve ever wondered how they keep coming up with new ideas and puns and jokes, ten minutes spent watching them talk about the game in each other’s company explains an awful lot.

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Part of Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin display at Gen Con 2016.

Since the beginning of the year, the company has released classic Munchkin sets in deluxe format Guest Artist editions—pairing the original card text with new art by the likes of Len Peralta (Star Munchkin Guest Artist Edition), Ian McGinty (Munchkin Guest Artist Edition), and Katie Cook (Munchkin Cthulhu and Munchkin Oz Guest Artist Editions), among others. The Guest Artist Editions will continue into 2017 with the recently-announced Super Munchkin Guest Artist Edition by Lar DeSouza.

One asterisk worth noting: The Munchkin Fu Guest Artist Edition features the work of John Kovalic—the primary artist behind most Munchkin art over the years—because the original set was one he didn’t illustrate. (“He finally caught ’em all,” Jackson joked.)

Kovalic, originally a political cartoonist, began working with Steve Jackson Games after including the Bavarian Illuminati symbol in a cartoon which found its way to Jackson. Jackson’s two-part response was, “1) There’s a typo, and 2) Would you like to do Murphy’s Rules for us?”

So, back at that Gen Con in 2001, how long did it take the Steve Jackson crew to realize they had a monster game on their hands? They sold out their convention stock on Friday afternoon and had more copies overnighted to Milwaukee—and those sold out halfway through Saturday. The Munchkin-mentum hasn’t stopped since.

Kovalic continues to marvel at “the number of people who just say ‘thank you,'” when they meet him at conventions. “It’s impacted so many people, and I get to be a part of this team that’s created this silly game that makes people happy.”

On keeping things fresh but preserving what people love about the game through all its iterations, Jackson said, “It’s tough. In playtesting, if something feels too much ‘been there, done that,’ it gets changed. We’ve got one in playtesting right now, where the theme is completely modern, but we’re using elves and dwarves, just for the sheer ridiculousness, and it works.”

Jackson also said, “One of the things that makes Munchkin work is creating jokes where the art and words carry each other.”

Kovalic, who’s now drawn more than 5,500 Munchkin cards, says in some ways, the team’s communication reflects a long, successful marriage: “When the art specs come in, they may be only a line or two at the most,” he said. “I’ll get a note with a card title, and it will just say, ‘You know what to do, John.'”

Without missing a beat, Jackson completed the idea: “And he does.”

Hackard, who writes much of the card text (along with Jackson) is responsible for so many terrifically groan-inducing puns, says the team has a database that now includes close to 7,000 notes, so they can check to see whether they’ve actually done a specific joke yet.

“The amazing thing is how often we haven’t done one we think we have,” Hackard said. “When we did Munchkin Pathfinder, which includes ‘Shoot the Messenger – Go Up A Level,’ we were surprised we hadn’t done that one yet.”

Kovalic also points to Reed’s work in keeping Munchkin dynamic and evolving.

“It was really Phil’s vision that pushed Munchkin from being a game to being an actual IP (intellectual property) that’s crossed over into other fields like comic books,” Kovalic said in a follow-up to the Gen Con interview. “It’s also Phil who came up with the ideas for things like Munchkin Oz and Munchkin Wonderland…and then getting them in places like Target as exclusives. I call Phil Munchkin‘s shepherd, and in a sense his role is as critical as any others in the game’s success. I think he’s pushed it far further than any of us could have imagined it would go.”

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A few cards from Moop’s Monster Mashup.

The new Moop’s Monster Mashup is a Munchkin base set based on a collection of general animal mash-up jokes: Ratepillars, Boomerangutans, and Cattlesnakes, for instance. Just released, it’s already in its second printing.

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Image: Steve Jackson Games

Other Munchkin-related news announced at Gen Con includes Munchkin Wonderland, a new “through the looking glass”-themed version of the Munchkin Treasure Hunt game designed for younger players, a 15-card Munchkin Curses booster pack; and Munchkin Oz 2: Yellow Brick Raid, a 56-card expansion box.

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Cards from the upcoming Munchkin Oz 2: Yellow Brick Raid.

“Back in 2009, we thought we were done with new Munchkin ideas,” Hackard recalled. “and then Phil said, ‘We haven’t done zombies yet.’ And that’s when I realized we will never run out of Munchkin ideas.”

When Hackard, who has recently revised his Munchkin planning board to fit 2018-2020 on it, talked about the challenge of coming up with hundreds of new jokes for newly-themed sets, Jackson grinned and said it wouldn’t be a problem: “Turns out there are a whole bunch of stupid things you can say about anything.”

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