Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pokemon TCG, Good Thing Or Curse?

For those who don't know TCG refers to Trading Card Game. Pokemon, the aggressively marketed, Japanese anime import has a variety of related product lines such as video games, TV shows and movies associated with it. But perhaps the most interesting among them from my point of view is the strategy/collecting card game. Pokemon TCG falls into an entire category of strategy card games most popularly represented by Magic the Gathering and Yugioh.

Like chess and go, TCG's are turn-based strategy games that are generally played between two players, but that's pretty much where the similarity ends.

Briefly, TCG's usually involve two players drawing cards from their own deck and battling with character cards based on rules of engagement/attacks/moves that are unique to each card type. A variety of rules govern interactions between cards which greatly affect game play. Because there are unseen cards and decks are randomized, TCG's are games of imperfect information. In addition, each player designs his/her deck prior to the start of the game, selecting a fixed number of cards from a pre-arranged universe of playable cards.

The marketing masterstroke, however, is undoubtedly the fact that the game designers periodically release new cards into the game and may even introduce new rules or clarifications to govern play with the new cards. This not only ensures that players continue to purchase products (cards) from the designers, but it adds a so-called "meta-strategy" to the game. As new cards are introduced, strategically powerful deck arrangements come into popularity. But if certain deck arrangements become too popular, it is possible to do well in competition by designing a deck which works well to counter the popular configurations.

Though the number of turns in a typical game is usually quite small (relative to chess and go), the number of potential card-sets/strategies is very, very large. When the game is well-balanced (there are no clearly dominant deck choices), the overall complexity seems to be quite high, perhaps even much higher than with perfect information games like chess and go.

As an old fogie that basically post-dated the popularity of TCGs, the whole trend is something I basically missed so I have very little knowledge of how to actually play these games.

But recently, Richie has become keenly interested in Pokemon which is widely recognized as the sort of "gateway" TCG game, targeted at the pre-teen set. Basically the young kids get hooked in from the cutesy cartoons and if all goes well, they (or more likely their parents) end up buying thousands of Pokemon, Yugioh, Magic, etc. cards over the next 15 years. The parallels with substance abuse is not accidental. In recent years, with the popularity of various forms of poker, we've actually seen quite a few former TCG champions emerging as tournament poker winners which isn't all that surprising considering that poker, too, is a game of imperfect information where strategy and meta-strategy can give a player an edge.

At this point, several of Richie's friends that are a couple of years older (he's 5 now) collect the cards but they don't actually play the game by the rules. They seem to be more interested in collecting their favorite characters or cards that appear to be strong cards, but they really don't know how to play by the rules.

So the question is whether I should this be something I let Richie really get into? There is probably as much of an argument for Pokemon as there is for chess as a mental development tool. But the whole card collecting aspect, where ever more high powered cards are needed to compete effectively is somewhat of a turnoff. To put it into concrete terms, Richie has decided that he wants a particular card for his upcoming birthday and is willing to spend $35 on it. This is for a card which will, in all likelyhood, be worthless in a couple of years at the latest.

Well, rightly or wrongly, I decided tentatively that we'd take the plunge and see how it works out. The main positive side-effect I hope to get out of this is that it might spur him to learn how to read a little quicker. Right now he basically relies on memory and by reading some of the key numbers on the cards but eventually, if he wants to play properly, he'll need to know how to read and understand the cards and the rules.

I have purchased a few "theme" decks, a rulebook and strategy guide, and of course Richie got his special card. I guess that will be enough to get started.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Summer Doldrums Redux

Just like last summer, our chess activities dropped off significantly towards the end of the school year. The kids played just couple of tournaments after the supernationals with uninspiring results. In the last tournament Richie accepted a draw against one of his friends in a completely winning position and it reminded me of the scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer where Josh offers a draw to share the championship with his opponent even though he sees that he has a forced win in like 10 moves. We'll have to see what we can do about stamping out that weakness (kidding). We have enrolled them in a summer chess program at Darien High School for a few weeks but except for the very occasional home game I don't expect them to play much before the next school year. Unfortunately I believe their new school will not have a chess club so they won't be able to play anymore in school. For the last few months, Richie has declined to play chess with me at all, but the other day, he took up the challenge. I played quickly but fairly seriously so I was actually a little surprised to lose. I told him that I was no longer going to go easy on him because he had gotten too good for that. Based on that game, I guess he might have improved over the last few months, but it has been harder for me to tell without actually playing him and with his relatively poor recent tournament results.
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