GTM #227 - Designing Munchkin Warhammer 40k!
by Andrew Hackard, Steve Jackson Games


For years now, I’ve kept a private list of licenses I would love to get and turn into Munchkin games, broken down into sub-lists ranging from “Licenses Only Andrew Would Ever Care About” to “Licenses We Could Probably Get But The Audience Is Limited” to “Licenses A Lot Of People Would Care About That We Could Never, Ever, Ever Afford.”  

One of those lists is “Licenses That Would Be Absolutely Wonderful But They’re Never Going To Happen So You May As Well Put Them Out Of Your Head, Andrew.” Near the top of that list is Warhammer 40,000, because how awesome would that crossover be?  

I guess I should say it was on my list, since last summer I got to cross it off. And I was right . . . it is awesome!  

Putting the Pieces Together  

The most obvious challenge in writing Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 was tone. Warhammer 40,000’s tag line, right there on the base game, is “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Munchkin is many things, but I’ve never heard it described as “grimdark.”  

I was further handicapped by being a bit of a Warhammer 40,000 novice; I knew a little bit about the setting and had seen the game played many times, but I was definitely not an aficionado. Luckily, I had a lot of help from coworkers and friends who are dedicated “lead-pushers,” including Ben Williams, Keith Blackard, and an artist of some distinction named John Kovalic. (John has been a Warhammer fan since there was a Warhammer – all those “Warhamster” jokes in Dork Tower are not a coincidence – and his vocal glee when I told him about this license probably fried a phone line or two.) I should also acknowledge the help of several kind people over at Games Workshop, notably Michael Knight, who helped guide my thinking as I plunged into Warhammer 40,000 lore and who made sure that I had a very complete 8th Edition library so I didn’t run out of ideas.  

That was not a problem.  

What I learned as I started my research was that my initial impression of Warhammer 40,000 as a humorless, grimdark setting was about as far from the truth as you could get. In my own reading of the setting books and in my conversations with my friends, I realized very quickly that this setting didn’t take itself nearly as seriously as I had assumed. This made writing a Munchkin game much easier, because we don’t take things seriously at all.  

The flavor text in the various Warhammer 40,000 books was a great source of ideas that I was completely unprepared for, going in. There’s one short paragraph where a grizzled sergeant talks about killing a Catachan Devil and turning its hide into a pair of boots, for instance. That single paragraph gave me two cards in the base game, including some badly needed Footgear. And it’s far from the only example of using the narrative parts of the books as inspiration for Munchkin cards; in some cases, my design philosophy approaches outright theft. 

Every Good Game Starts With a Naked Skeleton 

Um, eww. 

Over the last 18 years, we’ve written over two dozen Munchkin games. Every game is different, but they all start with the same basic rules and general structure; we need roughly X monsters, roughly Y Treasures, and so on. My first attempt at writing Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 was a very typical Munchkin setup, with Classes and Races. However, this would have led to some weird combinations not in the spirit of the Warhammer 40,000 setting (Ork Marines? Necron Psykers?) and the Games Workshop team advised me to change course. 

After some thought, I realized that Armies were the perfect character types for this game, and only having one “axis” of character development let me get more of them into the game: six in the core game and two in each expansion. Weirdly, having less design freedom made the game stronger; I am far happier with the Armies I wrote than I think I would have been with the Class/Race combinations I was originally envisioning. 

Much of the rest of the structure came together quickly once this decision was made. I briefly wavered between Curses and Traps as the main “gotcha” cards in this set, but decided Curses fit the setting better. While there are definitely undead monsters in Warhammer 40,000 (and in the Munchkin game, too!), the monsters were a place to add some unique flavor. Given how much of the Warhammer 40,000 game is driven by the struggle between the Imperium and the forces of Chaos, putting a lot of those Chaos monsters into the game and letting them pile on each other was an easy choice. Here, again, my brain trust came in handy; Ben, in particular, had a list of “must include” monsters that helped guide my designs. 

Choosing the Treasures to include was easier still – the Warhammer 40,000 books are full of fun, interesting, setting-specific weapons and armor and weapons and vehicles and oh yes weapons. Translating them to Munchkin was mostly a matter of making sure that I didn’t grossly over- or underpower them in relation to everything else. 

Fourth Wall? What Fourth Wall? 

One of the decisions I made in designer this game was to go back to Munchkin’s original roots and have a little fun with Warhammer 40,000 as a game. The original Munchkin, after all, is very much a parody not just of Dungeons & Dragons but of D&D players and the shenanigans we get ourselves into. Sure, we have a few laughs at their expense – considering the number of Munchkin games and expansions we’ve published by now, more than a few – but we’re laughing at ourselves in the process. The mockery is coming from inside the house. 

I was fortunate that the team at Games Workshop embraced this philosophy as well, and it enabled me to write some fun cards that dedicated Warhammer 40,000 players will appreciate even as they’re wincing a bit. There are not many games, for example, where “Unpainted” would be a valid monster modifier, but it sure fits in this one!  

Picture, Thousand Words, You Know The Drill 

Once I had the mix of cards I wanted, it was time to loop my friend and frequent collabora-victim John Kovalic back into the project. John, as I mentioned earlier, is a huge Warhammer fanboy, and I used that fact shamelessly as I was writing the art specs for this project. “John, you know what this looks like, right?” appeared in my notes more times than is strictly kosher when giving directions to an artist . . . but he did, every time. 

John added his own touches to many of the illustrations, in ways I could have not foreseen much less requested, and this set is full of Easter eggs for sharp-eyed fans of either Munchkin or Warhammer 40,000. Knowing that John would be drawing this set also allowed me to throw in a few running jokes from the Munchkin line – and that definitely includes John’s favorite bird to draw, the duck. I wasn’t sure whether that one would fly (pun definitely intended), but Games Workshop knows John’s work, too, and they were just as delighted by the result as I was.


Summing Up

Working with the team at Games Workshop, and with John, Ben, and everyone else at Steve Jackson Games on Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 has been an absolute delight and a real privilege. I can’t wait to hear people’s reactions as it gets out into the world!

Andrew Hackard is the Munchkin Line Editor at Steve Jackson Games. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Munchkin, the Munchkin characters, and the pyramid logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of Steve Jackson Games Incorporated, or used under license. Warhammer 40,000 © Copyright Games Workshop Limited 2018.

GW, Games Workshop, Warhammer 40,000 and their associated logos are either ® or TM, and/or © Games Workshop Limited, variably registered around the world, and used under licence. Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 is copyright © 2019 by Steve Jackson Games Incorporated. All rights reserved.