When Pokemon cards invaded school playgrounds in the late ’90s they were physical, sometimes sparkly manifestations of our favorite characters from the Game Boy and the TV. Even the most common cards like Squirtle or Sandshrew were exciting and valuable; I think we were just happy to carry around 2D Pokemon in our pockets. I didn’t buy a ready-to-play deck at the time because I had games lined up with local players, but because it contained one of my favorite Pokemon (Hitmonchan). It was no coincidence that outside of Japan, Pokemon cards were published by Wizards of the Coast, the creators of one of the world’s most successful trading card games: Magic the Gathering.
The Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) may have been massively popular because it was riding the wave of a cultural phenomenon, but it has stood the test of time since, as at its core, it is a solid work of game design, and one that few have rivaled since. That’s why booster packs remain on store shelves today, and that’s why Pokemon cards continue to inspire new generations of young Trainers to a world of games that don’t take place on a screen but in a more tangible manner on the table in front of them. It took me over a decade to realize this, as sometime in my early twenties I picked up a booster pack on a nostalgic whim and discovered a new world of local gaming stores, a friendly tabletop community, and playing card games at a competitive level.
Fortunately for new players, The Pokemon Company is always coming up with new ways to show prospective players the ropes, and the new Battle Academy set looks like the most streamlined version yet. At first glance it appears to be a board game, smartly designed to fit alongside Monopoly and Scrabble at family game night, but inside its cardboard walls is everything needed to teach new players how to be the next Pokemon Trading Card Game master. I’m familiar enough with playing the Pokemon card game that it’s proudly listed as a skill on my LinkedIn resume, so it’s safe to say this box isn’t intended for me. However, I wanted to see how good this set would be for teaching the game to new players, as I’m always trying to rope in more people to play with me.
New players are encouraged to start out with the Charizard and Pikachu decks, as these come pre-arranged for a guided game scenario, with clear instructions to follow in the included guides. Just like in the video games, a back-and-forth battle begins, with the aim of the game to knock out your opponent’s Pokemon with a series of well-timed attacks and power-ups. The decks include well-known monsters from the very first generation, such as Charmander, Kangaskhan, and Chansey, with a few more recent additions like Salazzle and Zebstrika. The deck guides are really easy to follow, and even for someone who has never played a card game before, it won’t take long to get a feel for how the game works; the cards in these two decks are numbered so you can run through the guided game again if need be. Or if you’re feeling brave, you can take the stabilizers off, shuffle both decks, and devise your own strategies for victory.
I mentioned a third, Mewtwo-flavored deck, but this is very much still a two-player game. The Mewtwo deck comes with an advanced rulebook to expand on the basics that Pikachu and Charizard have taught us. Mastering this third and final rulebook will prepare players for their first visit to their local game store, which can be a surprisingly intimidating experience for newcomers. The decks themselves are about as basic as your standard Theme Decks, the kind released with every new expansion of Pokemon cards. On the plus side, they seem to be relatively well-balanced, with no tricky elemental advantages to give players a hard time, and a variety of Pokemon to make them plenty replayable. That said, these decks are best played against each other, and would need some significant upgrades to reach a competitive level. Seasoned players will be impressed by the inclusion of staple cards like Welder, Pokemon Catcher, Cynthia, and Electropower, but the decks aren’t consistent or strong enough to be considered playable outside of friendly games at home or with friends.
That’s completely fine, though, seeing as the Battle Academy is designed to be the very first step for new players. Or it could quite happily remain a self-contained game experience that gets pulled out at home for a few bouts of Pokemon battles, without the expensive addition of booster packs needed for higher-level play. It’s certainly a smart package to help make the Pokemon Trading Card Game far more approachable, even if it’s purely by a familiar board game presentation. I can honestly say that had I been gifted the Battle Academy when I was first infatuated by Pokemon, it would have been a hell of a head start for my love of tabletop games.