How Pokémon cards have continued to evolve with the video-games, despite going underground

From a fun game to a playground menace to a potential investment opportunity: the Pokémon card game has just kept growing over the years

Pokémon cards
While Pokémon cards were at the peak of their popularity in the late 1990s, they're still going strong in 2020 Credit: Stephen Hird

The last place you would expect to find stories about Pokemon is probably in high-brow, straight-laced financial news. And yet, a few weeks ago, that’s just what happened.

Stories claimed that retired rapper Logic, apparently spent somewhere in the region of $226,000 on a rare first edition Pokémon card. This sparked a reappraisal of the cards, not from a gameplay point of view, but as a potential investment opportunity. 

For most of us, Pokémon cards are probably something we haven’t thought about much, if at all, since the 1990s when they were the centre of furore in playgrounds up and down the country. Kids got into fights over them, schools banned them, there was some degree of a moral panic about the whole thing. But then the next craze came along and Pokémon cards went underground. 

A Japanese first-edition of the rare shiny Charizard card recently sold for thousands of dollars

Well, that’s probably what most of us thought anyway. In fact, the Pokémon trading card game (TCG for short) is actually a huge money-spinner for The Pokémon Company International which owns the franchise.

“Put it this way, when a video-game comes out a consumer buys it for £50 and plays it for a year or so until the next one comes out,” a Pokémon representative told me last year when I was observing the Pokémon World Championships live event which gathers fans of the series, both TCG and video-games in a real-life battle extravaganza. “But if they’re into the card game,” he went on, “they might spend £10 on a few packs of cards every few weeks.” 

And despite next year marketing Pokémon’s 25th anniversary, among the young fans at the Championships I saw, cards are as big a part of the series as they ever were. 

That’s not to say, however, that the TCG is the same game which took over playgrounds all those years ago. Like the video games which it’s based on, the card game has continued to evolve, mimicking and even expanding upon features introduced in the games. Just like in Sword and Shield or Pokémon Go, card players can now take part in collaborative ‘raid’ tournaments or go head to head with ‘V-Max’ which gives their 2D Pokémon an incredible power boost. 

The man behind all these developments is Mr. Atsushi Nagashima, game director of the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Involved with the TCG since 2001, it’s Nagashima-san’s job to fine tune the card game in at least as much detail as his counterparts on the video-game side of things. 

“As fans ourselves, we're always excited to see new mechanics show up in the core game,” explains Nagashima-san. “Adapting these new mechanics for the TCG and creating a balanced and fun play environment can be a headache, of course, but that challenge is part of the fun.”

He explains that conversations with Game Freak, the studio responsible for developing the Pokémon games are always the starting point for each and every new ‘series’ of the card games. 

While the games spend years in development, Nagashima-san and his team are often faced with tighter deadlines. “On average we work around six months in advance for each expansion. 

Mr. Atsushi Nagashima has shepherded the Pokémon TCG since 2001 Credit: The Pokémon Company International

“When it comes to the design of each card, we aim to capture something that defines that Pokémon's character, type and abilities in a single image. It can be a tough assignment, especially with the introduction of brand new Pokémon, but luckily we have many talented artists who we work with. The design will naturally go through some rounds of feedback and editing until we settle on the final image.

“We also need to look at how a card plays and what mechanics it fulfills in a gameplay environment. It is crucial that any new expansion is balanced and we have an internal team of testers who play TCG continuously, gathering as much data as they can on how a card performs. The card data that comes from playtesting is then used to tweak and develop each card to ensure it remains at the correct power-level and is balanced for the play environment. This is especially true with new gameplay mechanics, such as VMAX, which was introduced in the Sword & Shield TCG and incorporates the Dynamax mechanism from the Sword & Shield video game.” 

TCG’s gameplay is designed to emulate the video-games as closely as possible, albeit in a simplified, analogue setting. Each Pokémon has a type and moves, just like the video-games, some of which are more powerful than others. There are also ‘Trainer cards’ which are akin to ‘items’ from the video-games, adding extra effects. For the uninitiated, the intricately balanced system is something akin to rock-paper-scissors meets 4D chess. 

“Each card varies on the amount of development time required,” says Nagashima-san. “The highlight cards in a set, for example VMAX Charizard in Darkness Ablaze, may take longer to create when compared to a basic Pokémon card. This is also true of Trainer cards, as their role in the game allows many other cards to be 'viable' in gameplay and therefore require a long testing period to get right.”

And while it can be challenging to get it right, Nagashima-san feels an immense satisfaction seeing people come up with strategies to utilise his cards in ways he’d never expected. 

He also takes into account that, for some fans, the cards are more like collectors items than game pieces, still remembering his own favourite card, from a set released all the way back in 2002. “I'd have to say Machop from the Skyridge expansion [is my favourite card],” he says. “The illustration makes it.... There's a jet of water shooting up in the background. When I first saw it, I had no idea what the illustration was trying to say. But once you compare it to its evolutions and the expansion as a whole, it does a great job of communicating the set's worldview.” 

But after a career of adapting gameplay elements from one medium into another, would Nagashima-san ever like to see a TCG mechanic enter the video-games? When I put it to him, he played coy: “We're just happy to see fans enjoy the world of Pokémon in many different ways!”

Whatever the case, as long as the Pokémania which continues to propel the video games to new heights continues apace, you can be sure the card game won’t be far behind.