The Pokémon Trading Card Game is huge. It might be the biggest physical card game around right now, selling around 2 billion cards a year on average. Not to mention the major tournaments held on an annual basis that the Pokémon Company stream on their Youtube channel.
It’s also nigh unrecognisable from how it looked back when it first popped up in the early 2000s. Back then, most kids I knew just collected the cards, but very few of them actually played the game. I was one of the losers with an actual interest in playing the game properly, an opportunity that never really presented itself to me outside of a game on the Gameboy Color.
A game I recently realised had been available on the 3DS for a few years now. So found myself unable to resist my curiosity and have needed up going back and revisiting the version of the Pokémon Trading Card Game.
Released during the high point of the initial Pokémon gold rush, the game was made to help push the physical card game which, at the time, was being made by Wizards of the Coast before Pokémon hoovered it back up. Initial reaction makes me realise that the game is very bare bones in many respects.
The story, what there is of it, is a distillation of the base Pokémon formula. Taking place in a world in which it’s never made clear whether Pokémon actually exist or not. The player character is tasked with travelling the small island on which the game takes place, collecting medals from leader types before challenge four elite individuals, all the while being dogged by a cocksure rival character. Except with card games.
No real effort is made to differentiate the story from that of Pokémon Red/Blue/Green. The bare minimum of the main story beats are taken from those games and used as a framework to justify why you need to play a series of card games. To call it a zero effort story might come across as reductive, but it feels like developers had zero interest in making an original story for the game and instead just wanted to focus on the trading card battles, which is the main bulk of the player’s time spent with the game anyway.
You start the game by picking a deck based around a particular element and Pokémon evolutionary line. You gain more cards through winning battles, link cable trading with friends and using a “card pop” feature which gives random cards. There are also in game trades which reward unique cards that can’t be gained any other way.
At a certain point, critiquing this game becomes a critique of the Pokémon card game itself. At least, as it existed at the time.
The card games are set up to be reminiscent of Pokémon battles from the mainline series. The goal being to do cumulative damage to your opponents cards and knock them out. The winner being decided when one player has no available Pokémon left to battle, or when one player has received six of of their “prize cards” for knocking out six of their opponents cards. Aside from the Pokémon cards themselves the players have access to energy; required for Pokémon to execute attacks and Trainer cards, which effect play in all manner of ways.
This game included cards from the first three sets of their real world counterparts; the base set, Jungle and Fossil. In addition to this, a number of real promo cards were added into the game, as well as some unique cards made for the game itself. In theory, the game is sound. But in this early execution, it has a lot of flaws based around poor design choices that try to emulate the mainline games. Choices that end up being to the detriment of the card game experience.
The first of my issues with the game comes from the designers need to emulate mechanics from the mainline series. The cards, like Pokémon themselves, have an element associated with them. This means each card has a weakness to another element, which means they will take double damage. The way the game is built, you’re encouraged to focus a single deck on just one or two elements, as to not risk having the wrong element energy needed to execute attacks. But if you’re playing against an opponent who is strong against you, then it feels like you’re at a disadvantage before you’ve even started.
It’s a disadvantage that is pretty difficult to work around, as there was little to no strategy involved in this early iteration of the game. The vast majority of battles I played devolved into a race to see who could evolve and load a strong card with energy first. Whoever managed that would generally steamroll the opponent easily. There are basically no cards that can turn a game on its head and get you out of these tight spots.
When playing through the game, I only encounter a single opponent that felt like he had any kind of strategic element behind his deck: The Alakazam card had an ability which allows the player to reallocate damage between all of their Pokémon. His deck was packed with single stage, high HP cards which allows him to keep Pokémon in play longer and mitigate his losses.
It was the only battle that felt like it had real strategy to it, there aren’t really any other cards in the game with abilities like that. The most successful strategy is to simply overwhelm the opponent with power, which is pretty dull in a trading card game. And while Alakazam felt like the single card that had an element of tactics to it, it’s also a card that represents my final, and biggest issue with the game as it existed at the time.
The game is heavily reliant on luck as a factor of winning. Of course there is always an element of luck in playing a trading card game, but Pokémon was especially egregious in this case, thanks to the number of cards that determine their effects through a coin flip. A lot of Pokémon cards require coin flips to see if status effects are activated, then those status effects require coin flips to see if the effect prevents you from attacking, even if you get to attack through this, many cards require a number of coin flips to see if they do any damage at all.
It’s frustrating and creates situations in which you’d be about to win a match, but the opponent uses a stalling card that requires you to flip a coin to see if you can attack it or not. I flipped tails eight times in a row before eventually being able to finish the match, during which time my opponent formulated no counterstrategy despite having essentially eight free turns in which to do so.
The coin flip is an incredible frustration when so many cards need to rely on random chance to do any damage at all. It feels counter to the point of trading card games where preparation and strategy are usually key. While heavy use of trainer cards can help you get the cards you want very quickly, the game is still leaning on elements of randomness for the most part and end up dragging things out far more than necessary.
The Pokémon Trading Card Game is a nice little throwback to playing this game a lot as a kid. But thanks to the limited number of cards available in game, and the limited ways you can approach battles, it ends up being a very short experience. When the most effective strategy is to just run a rushdown style deck, you can finish the game in an afternoon.
I still do look back on this game fondly, but it does ultimately feel like a cash in and piece of promotional material for their physical card game rather than a game in its own right. The physical card game has come a long way since these days, as I mentioned at the top of the post. If you’re interested in playing the Pokémon Trading Card Game, I highly recommend the modern alternatives. Because this game just ends up being little more than a nostalgic novelty in the end.