When I was growing up, Pokemon TCG (AKA Pokemon cards) was all the rage. My friends and I collected them, traded them, admired the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, and sorted them into binders with all the care of a surgeon attempting a heart transplant in the dark.
One thing I can honestly say we never did was play with the damn things. Not properly, anyway. Why? Not a single one of us really understood how. Don’t get me wrong, I had a rulebook that came with a big Pokemon TGC starter pack that I skimmed through every now and again, but for some reason my brain never retained the information.
Maybe it’s because none of us had the attention span or patience to learn what looked like a genuinely complicated game, or maybe we were all just too busy playing the core Pokemon titles on Game Boy and watching the cartoon – whatever the case, the delights of the Pokemon Trading Card Game eluded us. It seems we weren’t the only ones.
But that made me think; what about that group of us who collected the cards, probably still love Pokemon, and shamefully still don’t know what exactly Energy cards are supposed to do? I think we owe to ourselves to at least learn the basics, right? As such, I’ve pottered around the internet in an attempt to teach myself the basics, so I think I can safely pass on what I’ve learned. Conversely, you could just ask someone who actually knows how to play. That’d be quicker.
What’s The Point?
Let’s start off with the big question; what exactly is the point of Pokemon TCG? Much like in the core RPG series, you’ll take on the role of a Pokemon trainer, except instead of a party of adorable interactive animals, you’ll have a thick slab of various illustrated cards.
Each player gets a deck of 60 cards, which is made up of Pokemon cards, Trainer cards, and Energy cards (which I’ll explain properly in a bit). Just like in the games, you can battle with six Pokemon at a time, evolve your monsters, and pay attention to elemental weakness and resistance for maximum effect.
You can win a round of TCG in three ways; claim all six of your prize cards, get your opponent to the stage where they can no longer draw anymore cards from their deck, or eliminate all of your opponent’s Pokemon from play.
Pokemon and Energy Cards
Let’s take a look at the cards, since… you know, they’re kind of the whole point of the game. Each Pokemon card has some key information; hit points, type, evolution stage, attacks and abilities, weakness and resistance, and retreat cost.
Hit points are fairly self explanatory. You can find ’em on the top right of your card, and they denote the amount of damage your monsters can take before it’s knocked out of play. To keep track of how much damage has been done to a card, there a physical counters that you’ll place on the cards in units of 10. So, if you do 10 damage on a card with 50 hit points, you place one counter on that card to signify it has 40 hit points left.
A Pokemon’s type is key info for the bonuses it can receive, the Energy cards it requires, and damage modifications caused by weakness and resistance. Again, it’s actually a lot more like the video games than you might think. There’s no limit to how many Pokemon of a same type you can have in a deck, but balance is key – especially if you don’t have enough energy cards to power a deck full of fire Pokemon, you FOOL.
A Pokemon’s evolution stage shows how and when you can play a card. A Basic Pokemon can be played right from the hand, whereas stage 1 Pokemon can only be played after the corresponding Basic Pokemon has been in play for one turn. Similarly, any Stage 2 monsters in your hand can only be played after the corresponding Stage 1 card has been in play for one turn.
Got it? Me either to be honest. Let’s take an example. You play a Squirtle in your first turn. Assuming it isn’t wiped out before your second turn, you can then place a Wartortle card on top of that. The turn after that, you can put a Blastoise card on Wartortle – though any damage done to a Pokemon remains on the evolved form.
Moving on, attacks and abilities require corresponding Energy cards before you can use them. Abilities will carry out certain effects, while attacks will do damage to your opponent’s active Pokemon. There are colourless energy costs (which can be fulfilled by any Energy cards), and specific colour-coded ones which can only be fulfilled by Energy cards of a certain type.
At the bottom of each card you’ll find details on a monster’s weakness and resistance, and you’ll want to pay attention to these details to be the very best there ever was.
As with the games, every Pokemon has a weakness to a certain type, while some are also resistant to certain types. A Pokemon attacked by a move of a type it’s weak to will receive extra damage. Conversely, if it’s resistant to that type, it’ll take less damage. Easy peasy.
Using the Charmander above for example, if it was hit by a water-type attack that would usually do 10 damage, said Charmander’s weakness to water means that attack would actually do twice as much, so it’d take 20 damage.
Finally, every monster has a retreat cost. Once every turn, you can retreat a Pokemon in play by paying the corresponding retreat cost in Energy cards. Once you’ve wrapped your handsome head around that, we can move on to Trainer cards.
Trainer cards come in four types; Items, Tools, Stadiums and Supporters. Items cards are the most common, and you can bust out as many of them you want in a turn (provided they’re in your hand).
Tools are like held items, and be attached to Pokemon cards for certain buffs and effects – though you can only attach one Tool per Pokemon. Stadiums instigate certain effects that impact the entire battle arena, but there can only be one of these in play at any time. Playing a Stadium card while another is in play will discard the previous Stadium card.
Supporter cards typically represent trainers or various characters from the Pokemon franchise, and grant you powerful buffs or certain actions, such as the ability to discard your hand and draw a new one. Those are the cards explained then – how do we actually go about playing?
How Do I Start?
Once you’ve found a willing partner, the two of you will need to shuffle your decks of 60 cards, making sure there’s a decent mix of all three card types. You can play with less than 60 cards, but it’s important to make sure you and your opponent are playing with decks of the same size.
Once your deck is good and shuffled, take the top seven cards from your deck and place them face down. This is your hand. You’ll also need to draw another six cards to make up your prize cards. Each time you knock out an opponents Pokemon, you take one of your own prize cards and add it to your hand. Again, the aim is to claim all your prize cards (knock out six Pokemon) to win.
While you can look at your hand, you can’t look at your prize cards right away, and need to leave them in a pile to the side.
You’ll need to search your hand for a BASIC Pokemon, which is typically a monster in the first stage of its evolution – though there are exceptions. It’s easy to find out if a Pokemon card is a basic card, as it’ll be denoted as such in the top left corner.
If you don’t have a Basic Pokemon in your hand, you’ll need to stick your hand back into your deck and reshuffle, however each time you do this your opponent gets the option to draw another card for themselves. Basically, make sure you’ve got a balanced deck to avoid this.
Assuming you have a Basic Pokemon in your hand, place it down onto the playing area face down in front of you. This is your active Pokemon, and the one you’ll use to attack first. Any other basic Pokemon cards you have in your hand can be placed face down beneath your active Pokemon.
This is your bench, and is roughly the equivalent of your party in the video games. You can have five Pokemon on the bench at one time, in addition to your one active Pokemon. Stick the rest of your deck to one side. Below that is where you’ll stick any discarded cards.
When you’re ready to start, turn all your active and benched cards up so that both players can see them, but still no peeking at your deck or prize cards.
Taking Your Turn And Attacking
Flip a coin to decide who goes first. Let’s assume it’s you. Well done, you. At the beginning of your turn, draw a card. After that, there are few things you can do depending on where you’re at with the game.
Remembering what we’ve already talked about, you can place any additional Basic Pokemon from your hand to the bench (if you’re not already at the limit of five), attach an Energy card from your hand to a Pokemon card, evolve a Pokemon, play a Trainer card, retreat your active Pokemon, or make use of the abilities of any of your Pokemon cards.
Once you’re happy with everything you’ve done, you can attack and end your turn. Paying attention to the above rules regarding Energy cards, Trainer cards, and type resistance/weakness is crucial to wiping out your opponent’s Pokemon before they can take out yours, and that… is pretty much it.
There are various special conditions, exceptions to certain rules, special cards, and other such things to learn as you play, but knowing the basic rules and being aware of what the cards do and how to set the whole thing up are probably the two key things to know.
The rest is just like anything else; you’ll pick it up as you go. Just remember to have fun – and maybe consult an actual rule book somewhere along the way.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.