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Star Munchkin

Steve Jackson's satirical card game explodes science fiction's creakiest cliches with tongue firmly in cheek

*Star Munchkin
*Game Design by Steve Jackson
*Illustrated by John Kovalic
*Boxed game with 168 cards, rules and die
*ISBN: 1-55634-663-8
*For 3 to 6 players
*MSRP: $24.95

Review by Ken Newquist

H ack'n'slash reaches the Final Frontier with Star Munchkin, a card game dedicated to slaying monsters, grabbing loot and stabbing friends in the back. Based on Steve Jackson Games original Munchkin card game, Star Munchkin is a stand-alone expansion that catapults its predecessor's hack-filled gameplay into space, trading its fantasy milieu in for a science-fiction one.

Our Pick: A

Star Munchkin begins with three to six players being dealt a hand consisting of two cards from each of the game's two decks: the Station Deck, which contains monsters, traps and a few beneficial cards, and the Treasure Deck, which is far more benevolent and contains a variety of good stuff, including weapons, armor, sidekicks and temporary power boosts.

At the game's start, each character shares its player's sex and race (although both can and inevitably will change during the game) and begins at the obligatory "first level." As the game progresses, each player turns over a card from the Station Deck, which may reveal a monster. Each horror ranges in level from the most feeble first-level Fuzzball to the moderately more impressive sixth-level Space Goats to the truly terrifying 20th-level Great Cthulhu.

If they're lucky, players will have a few weapons or armor from their initial hand. If they do, they can play them from their hand and wear/wield them. Each kind of armor—be it a +5 bananafanafofaser or a +3 electrosuit—grants the character a bonus. That bonus is added to their current level; if that number is higher than the monster's level, they win. If it's not, they can choose to ask for help from another player. But even if they get the help, victory is not assured, because other players can choose to play cards from their hand that buff up the monster.

If they lose, they must try to run away. If they escape, they live to fight another day. But if the monster catches them, they have to deal with "Bad Stuff" which can be as benign as losing a level or as fatal as being killed dead instantly. If the players manage to win, they get to pull cards from the Treasure Deck, and the player who initiated the fight gains a level. The first person who reaches 10th level wins.

Grade-school triumphs revisited

Star Munchkin brings back countless grade-school games of Star Frontiers, Gamma World and mutated Dungeons & Dragons, the goals of which were nothing higher than slaying as many monsters and grabbing as much loot as possible.

Designed by game guru Steve Jackson (GURPS, Car Wars) and illustrated by comic artist John Kovalic (Dork Tower), the game combines that gleeful disregard for plot with tongue-in-cheek satire of science fiction in general. Take sidekicks—they can aid players by holding weapons, providing additional bonuses or sacrificing themselves to help their masters escape from monsters. But then there are the Redshirts, sidekicks who occasionally get over-enthusiastic and decide to sacrifice themselves even after their masters have successfully run away.

The jokes—from groaners to knee-slappers—are the kind of thing that only lifelong science-fiction fans could love. There's the "Creature from the Pink Lagoon" (which for some strange reason likes felines), transporter accidents (which force players to change sexes) and the mandatory bug-eyed monsters (which are jealous of the mutants, because they're prettier).

Kovalic's artwork suits the game's lighthearted subject matter well. A particularly nice touch is that identical cards, like those for the bounty hunter, have different illustrations. It's a minor touch—no one would probably have noticed if they were identical—but it's appreciated.

While the Star Munchkin is funny and manages to bring back memories of recesses of yesterday, what really makes the game worth playing until 4 a.m. is its cutthroat, backstabbing nature. Players constantly form alliances to defeat monsters or other players, all the while scheming to find some way of reaching 10th level. For those who prefer cooperative play, the game's constant in-fighting might be a bad thing, but for those who thrive on good-natured competition between friends, the game's excellent.

Star Munchkin is great by itself, but its even better when combined with its predecessors, Munchkin and Munchkin 2: Unnatural Axe, to create a modern-day homage to the classic D&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. — Ken

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