This is the first in a series of articles written for parents who have kids that are playing, or want to play, the Pokémon card game (TCG), and who want to play along with them. I am one of those parents, and I am not embarrassed to say that Pokémon is actually a really fun and challenging game. Regulars at SixPrizes are probably rolling their eyes at that, but to an outsider and/or “grown-up” the game does seem a little silly at first.
The mechanics of the game, however, make it decidedly not silly. While the rules of Pokémon TCG are relatively simple (about as simple as poker), the huge variation in the number of cards used in the game, plus the fact that the cards allowed for official play are constantly changing, means that the game is constantly evolving and never gets stale.
And even though the mechanics are simple, it doesn’t mean that playing the game is simple. This site, for example, is chock full of strategy articles because playing the game well, to win, is complex. I am writing these articles because understanding that strategy as a parent who does not live and breathe this stuff (but wants to learn) is pretty tough. It’s like those kids have a different word for everything! I hope through this series to help make you a better player (as I am learning to do) while giving you the tools to communicate with your kids and teach them to be better players too.
If you are still at the stage of “why Pokémon” here are some good reasons to encourage your kids to play:
- It requires them to think and use strategy in a way that fast-twitch video games do not;
- It is a social game that requires them to interact with other people;
- If your kids are young (5-7), it encourages reading and basic math skills;
- If they get into serious competitive play, it teaches them about winning, and losing, and builds independence and self-esteem;
- It doesn’t require batteries, ever;
- Competition at the elite level can earn some serious money.
Not bad for a “simple” card game.
Where to learn the game
If you are really new to Pokémon, you have probably Googled it and been overwhelmed. So here is your first “lingo” tip: always search for “Pokémon TCG” as opposed to just “Pokémon” or else you will get a boatload of references to the video game and TV show. “TCG” is “Trading Card Game.” While on the topic of references, apart from this site (which really stands out, by the way, in terms of TCG “scholarship”), you should know:
- http://www.pokemon.com/us/organized-play/ This is the root of all information related to league and tournament play, including the official rules. Even if you don’t want to get into competing at the outset, this will help hook you up with local leagues where you…I mean, your kids, can play for fun.
- http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/ This is the Wikipedia of Pokémon. Tons of information on all things Pokémon (not just TCG). As you explore strategies and specific cards, you will eventually end up here.
There are many other references, but I find those bookmarks to be the ones I use most often. Note that for references, I did not list any books. That is because there aren’t any. Believe me, I tried to find something because I am very much a book learner. The game changes so much, however, that the traditional book publishing cycle doesn’t lend itself to a how-to that has any long term relevance. Maybe now that e-books are common, that might begin to change.
I was also surprised to find that there is really no good way to play the game online. The de facto standard for a computer-based version of TCG is Redshark (http://pokebeach.com/tcg/redshark), which is often used by players to test out new decks. It may do the job, but in my opinion its downsides are that (a) it has a dismal user interface, and (b) it requires you to set up a private VPN using Hamachi, which makes it virtually unusable on a Mac.
As of this writing, Nintendo is finally providing an authorized web version of the game, but it is still in beta, and only works with certain pre-constructed decks. Keep an eye on http://www.pokemontcg.com/ for developments. It does provide some additional introductory tutorials. Sadly, it uses Flash and so is unusable on Apple i-devices.
And finally, if you have never, ever played the game or seen it being played, then you should visit http://www.pokemon.com/us/trading-cards/how-to-play/demo/playing once. It really helps.
Decks and other bits
The game requires decks of precisely 60 cards, and generally speaking there can be no more than 4 of any specific card in your deck. In a later article, I will discuss the structure of a deck in far greater detail, as well as the concept of the “meta game,” but for the moment I want to simply mention that there are three ways to get a deck:
- Buy cards in “booster packs” and collect them like you would, say, hockey cards. Eventually, you will get enough to put together something you can play with.
- Buy pre-constructed decks, either as “theme decks” that come out with each new release of cards (which happens roughly quarterly), or championship decks that were used in previous competitions.
- Buy individual cards either at your local card shop or online to construct a deck with a specific deck list that you find online (e.g., on this site) or devise yourself.
While Nintendo would love you to take approach 1, it is not a practical way to get a serious and usable deck because the really useful cards are often rare, and most playable decks contain cards from a number of releases, some of which you cannot buy anymore. Young kids like this approach because they get a wide variety of cute cards they can collect, but collecting Pokémon cards and playing TCG are very different activities, so as a parent you need to make sure your kids know that.
The second approach is probably the best way to get into the game in my opinion, although I would steer away from the “theme decks” because I found that they tended to not be really strong or easy to play. For learning the mechanics of the game, and to get a taste for the real strategy behind TCG, championship decks are the way to go. They have well-defined strategies that you can read about, but still require you to play effectively into that strategy. The one (serious) caveat is that past years’ championship decks cannot be used in formal competition, and will also sometimes contain cards that are no longer legal.
Hmmm, let me expand on that last point a bit. To keep the game fresh, Nintendo releases new cards several times a year. These “expansions” introduce new cards, or refresh older cards. But as new cards come into the game, some cards also drop off. This is called “the rotation,” and every year the official Pokémon rules specify what series of cards is the earliest you can play with in the current competition season.
If you don’t plan to formally compete, then this won’t matter to you. But if you want to learn on a championship deck, be aware that even it you were to recreate the deck using cards you obtain elsewhere (thereby making it usable), not all cards may still be playable.
This gets into approach (3) for building a deck: buying cards online to fill a specified deck list (the lingo for this is “net decking”). This is the most direct way to get seriously competitive decks, but is also potentially the most expensive. As a parent, you have a bit more cash to throw at the problem than your kids do, and you may want to go down this path yourself. But I don’t think many kids getting into the game will go this route until they get some experience under their belt (and get some birthday money).
While I have not priced it out, there is a fourth approach that is a hybrid of (2) and (3). For a specific deck list, you can probably fill a number of those cards just from theme decks, leaving you to source out the missing cards online. How successful you are at this will depend on the deck you want to create, and will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
One benefit of getting a theme deck or “trainer set” is that you get a playmat, the surface on which cards are placed during the game. You don’t technically need one of these, but when you first start playing it helps because the basic rules are printed on it. I still use mine. And while we are talking about equipment, the only other thing you will need are some good damage counters, and some “special condition” markers. The best choice for damage are small dice (you can easily get them, in packs of 24 or more) because they can also be used for coin flips which occur frequently in the game. The special conditions (poisoned and burned) can be marked with anything distinctive.
There are plenty of descriptions of the basic gameplay, on this site as well as on others, so I won’t repeat them. The tutorials noted above are also great places to learn the basics. But I wanted to introduce a bit of the strategy behind the gameplay so you can get a feel for how the game works. This introduction will be fleshed out significantly in a later article.
A good competition deck will have a core strategy, coupled with some backup plans to deal with the unknowns introduced by your opponents deck. Your deck is “stacked” (quite legally, by the way) in the sense that it tries to maximize your ability to implement your strategy and to minimize the random chance introduced by drawing cards from a shuffled deck.
pokebeach.comYou draw cards into your hand knowing what your deck is supposed to do, and what its most effective attacks are, and you use some of the special cards in your deck (cards called “trainers” and “supporters”) to help you find and draw the cards that you need at the right time.
While you are playing your deck the way it is intended to be played, you also need to be able to read your opponents deck and alter your strategy based on how and what they are playing. In serious competition, many players use decks built around common powerhouse card combinations, and so there is a bit of predictability that comes with experience. That said, with hundreds of cards to choose from, the combinations are huge and impossible predict with any certainty, and the best players just roll with the punches.
The gameplay becomes a balance between Knocking Out your opponents cards before they knock yours out (obviously) and disrupting their ability to do the same to you. Each game will be about finding the right balance between those two positions, based on the competing decks and players’ abilities.
That is the big picture of the game but, of course, if you are playing with your kids, you will probably want to limit how much of that you use or teach them based on their age and ability.
Variations in Gameplay
My kids are 6 and 7, and the full-on game with all its specific rules are a bit overwhelming for them still. It can also make for very long games. So I have a number of variations that we have used to make it a little less…frustrating. I’ll describe these variations, and assume that you have read the basic rules of the game at least once so they make some sense.
By the way, I don’t recommend playing the game unless your child can read a bit, because most cards have detailed descriptions of the effect of that card, and having to read each one to your child over and over slows the game to a degree that makes it not very fun for either of you.
The first variation that limits how long the game lasts is to reduce the number of “Prize cards.” The regular game uses six Prize cards, one of which you collect each time you Knock Out (KO) one of your opponent’s Pokémon. Once you get very good at the game mechanics, using six prizes is fine, but as you are each feeling your way through the game, using three Prize cards is much better.
Another variation is to play with an open hand, that is, with the cards in your hand face-up behind your bench. This helps you to guide your child through the various decisions s/he has to make, and makes it less overwhelming for them. It also helps you to decide the outcome of the game, if they are still young enough to not notice you doing so.
The effects of an attack can be pretty complicated, and a huge simplification is to ignore weakness and resistance, and special conditions. This can significantly change the dynamics of a championship deck by the way, which is a bit of an unwanted side effect, but it makes it easier for younger kids to calculate the damage themselves.
And similar to the weakness and resistance, we often play with free retreats, meaning the defending Pokémon can be retreated without any energy cost during your turn. This also changes the dynamics of decks significantly, but kids just don’t have fun when they are taking significant damage and can’t do anything about it (but boy, do they love to dish it out).
This article has attempted to orient you in the Pokémon TCG world, and help get you into the game with your kids. There is hopefully enough information here to get you started, so your “next step” is to get playing! The next article will deal with the anatomy of decks in considerable detail, as well as introduce the concept of the “meta game.” Until then, have fun with your kids.