Game Picks: Nintendo’s ‘Pocket Card Jockey’ a hard-to-put-down gem

“Pocket Card Jockey” is mostly based on the familiar tropes of Solitaire, but it builds in layers of strategy and simple role playing game mechanics.
“Pocket Card Jockey” is mostly based on the familiar tropes of Solitaire, but it builds in layers of strategy and simple role playing game mechanics. TNS

Nintendo’s ‘Pocket Card Jockey’ a hard-to-put-down gem

As a twist on solitaire, Nintendo’s “Pocket Card Jockey” could almost be a straight mobile port: a classic with a charming veneer. But it’s actually the mechanical complexity that makes this latest game from the Pokemon studio a strangely hard-to-put-down gem.

In most ways, “Pocket Card Jockey” defies easy categorization. It is mostly based on the familiar tropes of a lonely card game, but it builds in fundamental layers of strategy and simple role playing game mechanics on top of that foundation.

A game of chance

A typical race consists of three to five quick solitaire games. Your performance determines how much stamina you burn and how much energy you can spend on positioning or banking for the final stretch. Especially poor performance will make your horse go berserk, and burn all of your stamina in one go.

Each horse also has its own position preferences which grant bonus energy, and a highlighted comfort area gives bonuses as well. You can also pick up special experience and skill cards on the track. It all culminates in the final stretch where your energy is converted to an “enthusiasm” rating and you can burn extra energy cards for slight boosts.

If that sounds strange and complicated, it is. “Pocket Card Jockey” is not an especially intuitive game, despite the lengthy tutorial. It took me several races to piece together what did and didn’t work. This was aided somewhat by the tutorial horse character Off Course popping up after every race to tell me what I did wrong.

The weakness of all these interlocking systems is that they ultimately rely on a game of chance. It’s frustrating to have your perfect strategy ruined by a last minute issue on the final lap because you were dealt a bad hand, and doubly so once Off Course pops up to lecture you on running out of stamina when it felt like you couldn’t help it.

A sense of humor

Ultimately, you win some and you lose some. As players, we try to perform perfectly, but that simply isn’t possible here. Sometimes races don’t go your way, and that’s life. It’s a game of incremental progress. You race one horse to completion, or retire a real clunker early, and then adopt a new and usually slightly better horse to begin training.

If you do find and train a mighty steed, you can use it to breed at the farm, and the offspring will be better than the average horses. Little love balloons signify a pairing.

That wry sense of humor is present throughout. The entire plot conceit – that playing solitaire impacts your performance in horse races – is developed at the beginning when your character mounts his or her first horse and is immediately thrown off and killed. Or almost killed, at least, as a angel offers continued life in exchange for a promise that you’ll fulfill your life’s ambition of winning horse races.

The premise is goofy and charming in a way that we don’t always see from the studio, Game Freak, which usually plays it straight.

Make no mistake, “Pocket Card Jockey” is weird. The plot is ridiculous, the systems are obtuse, and the reliance on luck can be incredibly frustrating. Despite all that, though, I kept promising myself just one more race, and then another, late into the night. Its complexity can be overwhelming, but once you hit your stride, it’s entertaining all the way to the home stretch.