Pokémon Trading Card Game is a game that has been around for almost three decades now. If you’re not familiar with it, that probably means you live under a rock, or on a remote island. Welcome to the internet. Pokémon is a cutesy, cartoony intellectual property that I have mostly ignored since seeing its explosion in popularity so many years ago. I thought it was a game for children, yet I have on many occasions seen grown men and women at our local game store playing it religiously. What is it about this game that has kept it relevant for so many years?
Being an on-again-off-again Magic the Gathering card slinger, I understand the lure that games like these have on us nerds. Having began my spell-wielding in Magic the Gathering way back in 1993, when the game came on the scene and took over the tabletop gaming universe, I was enamored with the interesting mechanics, (mostly) awesome art, and of course, the collectability. In comparison, Pokémon is a cleverly constructed money machine that leverages many of these same concepts; amazing (albeit kiddie) artwork, flashy gimmicks such as foil cards (which was added to Magic the Gathering many years after its release), and even a video game series and cartoon to further fuel the frenzy.
So what inspired me to try this game that I have for decades written off as a game for babies? Boredom really. During a night of sweaty Call of Duty action, I thought to myself, “man, Pokémon has been around forever. What’s so special about this game?” That’s the benefit of having an ADD brain, it always suggests random, and sometimes interesting topics.
A game that has been popular for such a long time has to be decent, right? I tried Yu-Gi-Oh! for the first time a few years ago, and it kept my interest for a month or two, so Pokémon should be as good as that, at the very least. So, instead of finding a Pokémon opponent, or buying a ton of rather expensive packs of cards (almost $5 a pack for 10 cards, yikes!), I purchased one pack of cards and used the included code to unlock packs of cards on Pokemon TCG Online. I wanted to get my online collection started, and this seemed like a decent way of doing that. Who am I kidding, this wasn't necessary. I’m a sucker for gimmicks, and I wanted to see how it works.
So, instead of throwing down with seasoned Pokémon Trainers, I thought I’d stick to dueling (or pit fighting) the computer AI players. Some of them seemed nice, yet some were cocky b*stards who liked to run their mouth a little bit too much. I won some, and I lost some.
Whenever I get my online collection to a level where I can build my own deck, I will probably still shy away from battling randos online. I doubt I'll ever get my collection to a condition where I can build decks to compete with these folks, but who knows? I do have a buddy who I plan to battle with online whenever he gets the free time, he is about as familiar with Pokémon as I am so it should provide a better gaming experience for both of us. So, after giving it a good shot, do I like the game? Are the mechanics interesting? Does it share in the pay-to-win format that plagues Trading Card games?
After playing Pokémon for about a week, a few hours each evening, I must say that this game is actually quite fun. I’m rather surprised given my judgmental position on the game all of these years. The coin-flipping mechanic, which I thought would be horrible, is actually very entertaining. Being a Warhammer fan, I enjoy a bit of luck in the games I play. Magic the Gathering’s luck element is mostly limited to the luck of the draw but having a coin flip mechanic adds that excitement that chance brings. It’s especially fun when you go on a “heads spree", flipping heads an obscene amount of times in a row, stacking crazy damage, or keeping an opponent’s Pokémon comatose.
A preconceived criticism I had in my mind before playing is Pokémon’s heavy reliance on, well, Pokémon. I thought it would be similar to playing only creature decks in Magic the Gathering, with very little in the way of interesting abilities to combo together. However, this turned out to not entirely be the case. While the game is “creature heavy”, there are still plenty of Pokemon abilities that combo with Trainer cards, making for interesting deck-building options. Having not delved into deck building, however, I am unsure how far this goes. But my initial thoughts are that the game does have some interesting options in this area.
The prize system is also kinda neat. Instead of life points, you win a prize when your Pokémon brutally knocks out another Pokémon. Sometimes your prize is something totally useless for the moment, like an energy card when you are stacked up with energy, but sometimes you draw your beat stick, spelling even more doom for your opponent. It's a nice little reward when your Pokemon finally shuts off the lights of their foe.
Colonel Mordaunt's cockfight in Lucknow, 1784–1786, by Johann Zoffany, modified to showcase Pokemon looking creatures instead of chickens.
Overall, the Pokémon “cockfighting” thing is reflected well in this game. It captures the video games and cartoon pretty well (both of which I also have very little experience with, but know enough about to recognize this to be true). Whenever your favorite Pokémon has had enough, it can stir some pressure in you. Do I retreat him, or do I throw him to the wolves? Can she last just one more round, maybe the opponent won't flip heads this time? That press your luck element comes up quite often, at least at the level I am playing currently. The drama can be intense at times, yet other times it can feel like it's all over but the crying. Many times I have been on the ropes, and I had to send out the next victim from my bench full of bench warmers. But there is a small rush of excitement when your Pokemon finally bites the dust, and you send your biggest baddy to get revenge. These elements of the game really shine, and make me interested in exploring the game further.
But not all is perfect with Pokémon. The game does feature a lot of annoying, yet necessary things that can be found in other games of its kind. Most of the criticisms I could levy against Pokémon are also true about Magic the Gathering. Depending on what format you are playing, Pokémon can be a pay-to-win game. Assuming you have a decent level of skill, buying up the baddest Pokémon to take on a deck that features cards like the crap version of Psyduck is going to net you wins. Even using the decks that come free with the Pokémon TCG Online game, I found myself utterly annihilating the computer in bad matchup games where they would play a basic, nothing special Pokémon, and I would start out with a combo that gives me an evolved Pokémon right out of the gate. If I were to dedicate myself to playing this game, I would do as I have done with Magic the Gathering in the past, play a format like Pauper (only commons, sometimes with very limited quantities of uncommons and rares). Formats that limit power gaming make for better experiences as far as I am concerned.
Another mechanic that I have mixed feelings about is the weakness and resistance mechanic. It’s interesting that you can bring Pokémon up against enemies that are either resistant to them, or weak against their attacks. This makes choosing the right Pokémon important, but often obvious. There are times that my deck or my opponent’s deck is full of Pokémon who have weaknesses or resistances that favor or hamper the player to the point of making the match a waste of time. Card games like these will always feature bad matchups, so this is nothing unique to Pokémon either, and there may be ways around this strategically. Also, doing a crapload of damage to a Pokémon who is weak against my Pokémon’s attack is fun for all the wrong reasons.
What about these Trainer cards? My goodness. Coming from a game that features casting costs, Trainer cards are wild and shocking to me. Some of them are pretty fair, not really earth-shattering, but useful. Then you have cards like Tierno that draws you 3 cards at no cost. Pokemon players are throwing around Ancestral Recalls like they’re no big deal. Card drawing appears to be so easy to obtain in Pokemon that I actually lost a game by accident because I drew my entire deck (without paying attention). I'm sure I would have avoided this had I been playing in real life, but I digress. I don’t really have a problem with this though, as it does limit the impact the luck of the draw has on the game, which I think is a good thing, but it is rather fascinating for me, coming from Magic the Gathering. Some Trainer cards are far better than others, yet most of them are played without cost or with few limitations. That feels both liberating, and off.
Will I Stick With It?
So will I continue to play Pokemon? Probably for the foreseeable future. Whether there is enough here to keep me coming back remains to be seen. For me, the game will see more play if there are a lot of deck-building options and if the game continues to have a back-and-forth, strategic gameplay. One of the things that eventually killed my interest in Yu-Gi-Oh! (and often turns me off to Magic the Gathering) is the high-dollar decks that forego gameplay and go straight for the kill. Are there enough players in the Pokemon universe that prefer more limited game formats? That would help.
Either way, I must familiarize myself somewhat with the game, as Toy and Tee will be carrying quite a bit of the Pokemon products once our brick-and-mortar store opens in San Antonio. I’m glad that I tried the game and look forward to learning more about it. But one thing is for sure, you don't actually have to catch 'em all.
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- Jay C. Shepherd
- Content Creator
- Jay is a graphic designer, board game enthusiast, and professional wrestling fan who loves all things 80's, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and of course, video games. He is one of the rare few that believes that one can be a Trekkie and Star Wars fan at the same time.