A new, official Pokemon mobile game, Pokemon Duel, recently arrived on iOS and Android. It’s a free-to-play strategy board game that came out of nowhere, and it’s confusing–not because the board game itself is, but because I can’t really figure out why it exists.
If you were pretty much anywhere in the world (besides China) during the summer of 2016, you probably encountered Pokemon Go in some capacity. I talked to Uber drivers, random people at bars, and distant relatives who knew next to nothing about Pokemon but were swept up in the excitement of it all, happily telling me about their latest catches. To get it out of the way early, Pokemon Duel is not comparable to Go.
That’s not to say Pokemon Duel is bad, though it does suffer from many of the same technical hiccups as Niantic’s Pokemon game did early on. It’s just overwrought. A 20-minute tutorial dumped a ton of information on me that I struggled to keep straight, but really, all you need to know is that you have to move one Pokemon figure to the opponent’s goal to win. That’s it.
Doing that requires a small amount of strategy, but it’s not terribly challenging. I did enjoy seeing how typical Pokemon status effects like confusion and poison–as well as Pokemon’s abilities–worked in a totally different setting. I learned to send out Bulbasaur, for instance, to poison the opponent’s Pokemon early on, which weakened their attacks. Then I’d send out Shuppet, which has the ability to move through figures that would otherwise block it, and it would have a better chance of winning a battle against those weakened Pokemon and therefore stay active on the board long enough to make it to the goal. Still, it felt like I didn’t have to try that hard to win.
Once I figured that out, I wasn’t really sure why I was playing. The virtual Pokemon figures in my “deck” of six didn’t seem to matter. Battles are completely chance-based, and attacks are chosen by the spin of a wheel. I moved my pieces on the board with only a little forethought and rashly challenged strong Pokemon (meaning, those with more high-damage attacks for their battle wheel to possibly land on). I beat a Mewtwo figure with a Charmander by sheer luck–I spun a weak attack while the usually powerful Mewtwo spun a miss–and went on to win the duel on my next turn.
With that in mind, it’s entirely possible to play Pokémon Duel without spending any money, since I was never desperate for a better Pokemon or a good item drop from its loot boxes. (You can pay to unlock them immediately or just wait a specified number of hours.) That’s a big plus, since paying for a chance at a better deck doesn’t outweigh the minimal strategy you need to win.
But that also means there’s little satisfaction to be had from winning and little incentive to work toward something better. It’s an okay way to spend a few minutes of down time, but Pokemon Duel doesn’t give me a reason to keep playing, either.