Pokemon Trading Card Game, An In-Depth Review

Gameplay: 8/10
Sounds: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10

One of the best paper-to-digital conversions of a TCG seen yet. | Free-to-play is viable and fun.

No way to buy cards directly without first buying physical packs.

iOS (iPad only), Windows, Mac and Tabletop.

Free to play with no in-game purchases currently. Instead, physical card packs provide codes for digital cards. $50 for physical game starter deck - View on Amazon

March 1,2011


The Pokemon Trading Card Game was my first exposure to trading card games nearly 15 years ago. The game has gone through a lot of changes over the years, some good, some bad, yet always remains one of the juggernauts of the CCG/TCG world. Given that in recent years most card games have moved to digital platforms, or at the very least have some level of digital implementation in mobile and tablet apps, many were wondering if the Pokemon TCG would ever surface in the online world. At last it finally has – and it’s a rather interesting product overall, especially since you can’t even spend real money on it in its current form (which will be explained later).

So is the game still good, and how does it play all of these years later? Is it worth downloading for your computer or iPad? Read on to find out… There may even be codes to unlock a free themed deck!


The main screen view of a match in progress. Here, a water and fire deck face off against each other.


While I’m sure Pokemon needs no introduction, the specifics of the Trading Card Game might be less well known. For those unfamiliar with how the Pokemon Trading Card Game works, here is a brief description of the game and how its played. If you’re already aware of this, you can skip ahead to the next section to see what features the game actually has.

Players must have a deck of exactly 60 cards. There are many card types, but all are a subset of these three groups: Pokemon, which you use to fight, Trainers, which have helpful instant effects, and Energy cards which Pokemon usually require to activate their abilities and attacks. Each player’s side of the play field has an Active Pokemon slot, Bench Zone of 5 slots for Benched Pokemon, and 6 face-down prize cards taken from the top of the deck at the start of the game.

Here the anatomy of a Pokemon card is broken down and explained. Note that Pokemon also have weakness and resistance, which modifies incoming damage depending on the element of the attacking Pokemon.

Apart from the first turn, where each player chooses a Pokemon in their hand to be the Active Pokemon, players can only play Pokemon to the Bench. Only Basic Pokemon can be played here, which is the unevolved, simpler Pokemon. You can evolve a Pokemon by playing a Stage 1 or 2 card on top of it provided the evolving Pokemon is the right one for the next stage. Stage 1 and 2 Pokemon tend to be much more powerful, with more useful effects and abilities.

The Active Pokemon will attack the opponent’s Active Pokemon with an attack selected from the list of options on the card, but only if they have the right amount of energy cards equipped onto them. Players can only play one energy per turn. When a player defeats an opponent’s Active Pokemon, they get to take one of their face-down prize cards and place it into their hand. When a player has taken their last prize card, they win the game.

This all sounds rather complex, but in practice, it’s extremely fast paced and quite simple. The complexity of the game comes with learning about when the right time is for certain things: when to attach energy, when to switch Active Pokemon, when to evolve and so on. It’s extremely fun once you get into the swing of it, and it plays very differently from games like Hearthstone, Magic: the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! as well.

So let’s now take a look at how the digital game is implemented.


Dewott uses his Waterfall attack, hitting Skitty for 50 damage.

Gameplay Modes and Features

The Pokemon Trading Card Game‘s equivalent of a single-player campaign here is called Trainer Challenge. You go through three Cups: Gold, Platinum and City Championship at three difficulty levels. When you defeat these AI Trainers, you earn points and Trainer Tokens which is the currency of the game. These Trainers will use hand-tailored decks with their own strategies, so you’ll need to learn what their focus is and then try to counter it with one of your own themed decks. Since you are given a few at the start of the game, you have a mixture of elemental decks to work with and hopefully counter each opponent’s deck with the right elemental weaknesses and resistances.

The Trainer Challenge is pretty fun but can be quite challenging at the higher levels of difficulty. It is designed well to introduce new players to the game at lower difficulties but also provide more of a challenge for experienced players. The development team have done a very good job on the design of this aspect of the game.

Versus Mode is where you can play live multiplayer matches against another person. In Training Mode, there is no consequence to the game so you can just play for fun. In Ranked Mode, even just playing the match will help you earn Trainer Tokens, but players will also get a chance to spin the Bonus Wheel that gives prizes such as Trainer Tokens, Tournament Tickets and other items. Ranked can be quite difficult though since lots of players here will have worked hard unlocking cards and building much stronger decks than the starter decks you are given to begin with.

There are also regular Tournaments that are run online. It costs Trainer Tokens or Tournament Tickets to enter, but the prize pool can be quite large. There are four different play modes here: Standard, which is the latest card sets only, Expanded, which goes back a bit further sets-wise, Unlimited which is no restrictions and Theme which is themed decks only. Tournaments don’t quite seem to be live yet apart from some scheduled events every now and then.

The shop contains a range of packs, decks, card sleeves and other cosmetic items for your in-game avatar. These can only be purchased with Trainer Tokens, and currently there is no way to directly buy any of these products with real cash, which is an interesting decision by the Pokemon team. It’s unclear exactly why this is the case just yet, but since the game is still in an early form it may be that they want to establish a stronger, more stable product before they open the floodgates on premium purchases.


The shop contains cards, boosters and other cosmetic items you can buy with Trainer Tokens, earned only in-game by playing. You can also unlock boosters and decks with codes found in physical card products.

Deckbuilding and Strategy

Currently, the cards that are available in the Pokemon Trading Card Game are limited to some recent set releases. This means what’s available to build with is somewhat restricted, but there’s still a variety of cards to work with if you’re unable to unlock them with codes and buying boosters. The Themed Decks you are given will also unlock new cards for them the more you play with them, so there is some room to modify those a bit as you see fit.

As promised, here are some codes to unlock a free deck in game, the Rallying Cry Deck. Go to Shop > Redeem Codes and put in any of the following:

  • FuriousFists
  • FlashFire
  • PlasmaFreeze
  • PlasmaBlast
  • PlasmaStorm
  • BoundariesCrossed

The Rallying Cry deck is Normal/Water type deck focusing on cross-Pokemon support. The Basic Pokemon Kangaskhan can help search out Basic Pokemon and put them onto your back bench, vital for getting those later Stage 1 and 2 Pokemon out. Lots of Stage 1 and 2 Pokemon in this deck have the “Round” attack, which multiplies depending on the amount of other Pokemon you have with the same attack. The biggest damage dealer here is Exploud who deals a massive 50 damage for each Pokemon you control with the “Round” attack. Try and use your Trainer cards quickly to draw lots of cards and find those Stage 1 and 2 Pokemon so you can start maximizing the Round attack damage you deal.

Another Themed deck you will unlock is the Mental Might deck, based around Normal and Psychic Pokemon. The Psychic Pokemon have abilities that deal more damage the more energy there are attached to your Pokemon, so you’re going to want to try and quickly get out as many energy cards as you can and start attaching them to all your Pokemon, even your Benched ones so that your Psychic attacks will deal high amounts of damage.


Editing a deck can be a little bit fiddly because of the way cards are displayed, but using the filters will help you sort through your collection much faster.

Final Thoughts

The surprising thing about the Pokemon Trading Card Game is realizing just how fresh the game mechanics actually feel. Even though it’s one of the oldest TCGs around, it doesn’t feel like a clone of the other big games because of how differently it plays. Definitely it is starting to show its age in certain areas, such as the resource system, but the game itself is actually holding up pretty well against the test of time. There have been complaints however that “power creep” is slowly ruining the game, where Basic Pokemon are becoming more and more powerful which means older cards and sets are not able to keep up with the rising power level. This is definitely true to an extent, but since the overall power level remains consistent even as it rises, the game itself still plays more or less the same just with higher health and attack values than before.

The digital version of this game is about as close to perfect as it could be – it runs smooth, bright, clearly and simply. The interface is (for the most part) designed to work with tablets so everything is large and visible. Animations and sound are all fantastic and just what you would hope for with that trademark Pokemon polish.

The strangest thing about this game so far is that it hasn’t become a complete “pay to win” mess – there is not really any way to inject money into the app unless you buy a lot of the physical cards, and this is a bold move on the part of the Pokemon company. Whether this is to stop sales of the game from taking over sales of the paper version or whether they’re concerned about parents claiming back money from their children buying cards unauthorized, it’s not clear. It will make for interesting viewing as to how the financial side of this game develops, but in the meantime, it works on a fun free-to-play model where lots of other people have the same cards as you so it more comes down to skill (and luck, with those coin flips!) to win the game.

If you’re at all sick of fantasy trading card games and want to try something a bit different, or revisit some old childhood nostalgia, the Pokemon Trading Card Game is for you. It works for both younger players and older veterans of card games as there are different levels at which the game can be played. You just might find yourself getting addicted all over again. This one gets two thumbs up.

For more screenshots, click here.

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Zac Phoenix
Author: Zac Phoenix View all posts by
Zac Phoenix graduated with First Class Honors in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and has been playing strategy card games since childhood. He has a keen interest in the underlying mechanics and player interactions of trading card games, as well as tabletop game design in the digital space. He also designs card games in his spare time.

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