Play This! Lunch Money

In my first few articles for Games Quarterly Magazine, I pushed some of my favorite games. I wrote an article about Lunch Money from Atlas Games for issue #2, but the editors decided that the game’s subject matter might be a bit too edgy for the family-friendly magazine they wanted to produce.

I just remembered the other day that this piece was still collected stray ions on my hard drive. Rather than let it languish further, I thought I’d share it with the world. Written in 2004, it’s a bit dated, but everything I wrote about Lunch Money is still true. It’s a great game.

Play This! Lunch Money

Most of us have left grade school far behind, but we can still remember the cruelty of the playground, the insults fired like spitballs, each prodding its victim closer and closer to the breaking point, until the inevitable happened. A fight broke out. That’s what Lunch Money (designed by Charlie Wiedman and published by Atlas Games) is all about: talking trash, getting in cheap shots, and beating down the other kids before they beat you.

Each player in this card game is dealt five cards out of a 110-card deck. This is plenty for four players. If you have more people ready to join the fight, you can shuffle in another set of cards or a deck of Lunch Money: Sticks & Stones, the new expansion released earlier this year. Games play fast, so you can get lots of rounds into an evening or slip a few in between sessions of more complex games.

When it’s your turn, you play cards from your hand to inflict mayhem on your foes. Your targets play cards to defend. Each player gets 15 tokens, and cards that hurt you take away your tokens. The last player with any tokens left wins the game.

The cards themselves are maybe the best part of the game. They feature pictures printed in various sorts of duotones, which makes them look like tinted photographs from someone’s long-dead childhood. The photographer, Andrew Yates, used his daughter Anna as the model for each of the cards. She seems to have survived the trauma, as she’s due to appear now as a young adult in the upcoming sequel game Beer Money. [This is out now, although I have yet to play it.]

There are four different kinds of cards: Basic Attack Cards (like “Roundhouse”), Defense Cards (like “Dodge”), Weapon Cards (like “Pipe”), and Specialty Cards (like “Big Combo”). You play Basic Attack Cards to hit someone, and they play Defense cards to keep from being hurt. Both are discarded after being played.

Weapon Cards are rare and powerful finds. They return to your hand after being played and so can be used again and again until someone disarms you or stops you in your tracks.

Specialty Cards is a catchall category for stranger things. Some allow you to come up with powerful combinations of cards that deal a terrible amount of damage. The most useful of these cards is “Humiliation,” which blocks any attack or defense. Just like on the playground, it’s more about pride than blood.

The text on the cards is even better than the creepy photos. Here are some examples:

Humiliation: “Jesus hates you and so do I.”
Pimp Slap: “Look at me when I’m hitting you.”
Chain: “What’s black and blue and red all over? You are silly!”

A good chunk of the fun comes from how the rules encourage you to describe what you’re doing in the fight. When you whip out that “Humiliation” card, you’d better have an insult to go with it. Those that don’t are sure to face real-world taunts worse than any in the game. To ram this home, the extended “Example of Play” featured in the rules includes a transcription of this kind of commentary as well as the card play in a game.

This is a game to play when you want to have fun without having to think too hard about it. Even the FAQ on the Atlas website ( confesses that there are certain strategies that can force the game to become tedious. Their best answer to that problem: peer pressure. In a game that features trash talk, it only seems right to apply that to any grognards out to break the game.

Although it doesn’t say it anywhere on the packaging, the theme and graphic design of Lunch Money should tip you off to one fact. While this is a game about kids, it is not for kids. However, if you’re an adult with a dark sense of humor—or an abiding need to explore the harder moments of your childhood in something other than a drooling flashback—this is the game for you. Grab yourself a deck and some friends and start playing dirty.

You can find Lunch Money in better game stores across America or order it direct from Atlas Games. It retails for $19.95. Sticks & Stones will set you back another $9.95. Beer Money is shipping now and costs $19.95 too.