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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Pocket Card Jockey: Mysteriously Satisfying Mechanics

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - We treated knowing how game mechanics work as spoilers.

I have been meaning to write this for a very long time, but never found a good opportunity. Today, as the first article of KoopaTV's new Wonderful Wednesday series, I'm going to write the Pocket Card Jockey article, as it's been referred to in KoopaTV's internal staff communications for months on end.

One article. Covering every thought we have about Pocket Card Jockey, an absolutely wonderful game developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo. It's a Nintendo eShop exclusive on the Nintendo 3DS, purchasable here for $7.

Why are we so enamoured and fascinated by Pocket Card Jockey that I have over 123 hours logged on my Activity Log and play it deep into the night? Meanwhile, RawkHawk2010's Activity Log claims he's at over 264 hours, but his log was hacked by the Russians or something.

Pocket Card Jockey to me is the equivalent to how a kid wants to disassemble a model car to see how it works... or a bomb-clock. It is a completely new gameplay system that I've never encountered before. This isn't a gimmicky twist to an established gameplay system like Paper Mario: Color Splash is to a traditional RPG turn-based battle system. This is brand new, and that was exciting to me when I picked it up.

Pocket Card Jockey, to its detriment (or perhaps credit), does an absolutely dreadful job of explaining its gameplay systems to the player. It opens up with a very long tutorial/monologue by Horse-Off-Course, and he occasionally shows up to talk more. Besides that, there is a Tips section and a digital instruction manual, which is basically the Tips section but with beta elements (or they're so rare I've never seen them) included for some reason.

Pocket Card Jockey TR Charger characteristic tip tight right turn
What is defined as a tight right turn and how do you do one?
Questions like that are everywhere for Pocket Card Jockey.

That said, you never have to deal with the likes of the TR Charger characteristic if you don't want to. Characteristics are like Pokémon abilities, and you know what they are ahead of time when you choose a new horse because they are innate. You can pick a much more useful ability that makes sense.

However, there are mysteries that are ever-present and both confounding and critical. Take a look at a horse's statistics screen for an example:

Pocket Card Jockey Type: Null horse statistics farm
Type: Null is a horse after all, though he's not the robot horse I envisioned him to be.

All horses have basic stats to them, the most prominent being Stamina and Speed. These are increased by leveling up.

It's clear what Stamina does: For every 10 Stamina points you have, you'll have another Stamina heart. (Note that the mathematical relationship between Stamina and the hearts seen during a race is never stated in game, but I noticed it early on. Others may not have figured it out.) You need the hearts to GO! (whip your horse to give it a quick speed-boost) in the homestretch race, and you also need them so your horse isn't dead from exhaustion. You can lose them during the race by being outside of the zones during turns and being tired from Peak Time.

Pocket Card Jockey Dream Match retired horses farm race card
If Graseux and Kawayo both have 80 Enthusiasm at the end, Kawayo should be in better shape.

What does Speed do? Presumably, more of it is better, but your horse's racing success in the homestretch is determined mostly by Energy, something you build up during the race. Speed seems to exist as some kind of tiebreaker. It's explained unhelpfully in the game as “how fast the horse can run on straight lanes”, but horse-running speed is never a concern except for the homestretch race, which is actually influenced by Energy (which translates into Enthusiasm).

Speed is one of the most prominent stats and it's unclear how important it even is or to what it extent it affects anything. Mysterious. 

It's also unclear just how much of the game is affected by random number generator, or what is determined by some algorithm. For example, Chirp, the shopkeeping peddler, sometimes appears in Mature Mode with outrageous prices on power-up items. Sometimes she doesn't. What determines whether she does or doesn't? No one knows.

Pocket Card Jockey no GameFAQs FAQs
GameFAQs does not have a FAQ on Pocket Card Jockey, and there's not even a Wikipedia page.
The closest thing to an Internet information page is this one Reddit post, which is sorely lacking in many details.

What determines when a horse will retire in Mature Mode if you haven't lost three races? I've had very successful, big-league horses that don't even reach their sixth year, and I have no idea what the game has against them.

There are also many other things that were once mysteries that I've now solved, such as your horse's Peak Time ratings affecting which cups will appear on your calendar. When you start the game, there are so many things hidden from you that will eventually just click. Then you'll understand them.

That is such a scrumptious feeling to have.

Another thing incredibly satisfying about Pocket Card Jockey is that competency improvements over time aren't defined by your player character having levels or statistics that go up like an RPG. You're better at the game as you play because you are improving as a person. I definitely recognise that I am getting much better with very quickly evaluating my options for the most optimal moves and combinations in the Solitaire phases. Keep in mind that you are under two forms of time pressure in the Solitaire parts of the game: They're timed in that if you take too long, it'll end automatically and you'll be penalised; and you're also timed on how long it takes to complete all of the Solitaire phases of a race if you want to try to beat your own score/Jagger's records/StreetPass records.

Pocket Card Jockey playing solitaire Speed Draw
I'm now trained to recognise that you start with 3, then 2, then A, then K.
A lesser person might've started with A, then 2, then 3, and would miss K.
Chains and opportunities can be much more elaborate and longer than these.

There's no in-game statistic that quantifies my own development as a player. I like that, because it makes it feel like I leveled up. I can't attribute me getting better at the game to non-me excuses like, “Oh, I grinded my stats to be ten levels higher than the enemies.” or “I'm using the most overpowered equipment.” It's my accomplishment. My own decision-making that I've been refining over a ton of time.

Not many games do that anymore.

Another point of decision-making in Pocket Card Jockey: Purposefully losing races. In Growth Mode, there are a limited number of races before your horse becomes mature and stops leveling up. You want to max out your level (10 + 1) before that happens so your horse is the best it can be, and then you can breed that horse for future generations of horses to choose from. There is a lot of path dependence in the game, and it raises the stakes of your decisions.

So, why would you lose a race? You don't need to actually win every race to proceed in the game. In fact, if you lose some races, you can actually participate in more races than if you just won everything. More racing opportunities means more level up opportunities, because there is a low margin of error on the experience cards you need to pick up to level up. If you just totally screw up a race and its experience card gain, you might have screwed your horse's chances of maxing its levels forever. That is, unless you lose a race and take a different calendar path.

Just a note: Breeding three-star horses makes Growth Mode easier and more comfortable, but by no means guarantees success. Also, you're not going to be getting anywhere near consistent leveling/breeding success until you successfully complete all of the in-game puzzle pieces from the shop, which will take many hours of doing because they're expensive.

I wanted to incorporate a lot of the aspects of Pocket Card Jockey I've discussed above into The Wonderful 1237, KoopaTV's videogame released at the end of 2016. (Therefore, you can surmise that development of The Wonderful 1237 did not begin until after I've played Pocket Card Jockey enough to become mesmorised by it.)

Part of The Wonderful 1237's design philosophies, which I'll get to in future articles during Wonderful Wednesdays, is that I wanted to hide information from the player, and leave it to them to figure out how things systematically connect. ...‘cause they do, and hopefully more clear than in Pocket Card Jockey in that you can figure everything out instead of playing the game for over 100 hours and still being confused. The Wonderful 1237 also borrows Pocket Card Jockey's pacing and activity flowcharts, along with music and character archetypes. It's quite a homage, and, I promise I'll get into more as to why and how in future articles.

For all of the hundreds of hours RawkHawk2010 has put in the game, he's also been creatively stimulated and inspired by Pocket Card Jockey. For his part, he's also thinking about new game ideas:

(“Pocket Card Jockey 2” NOT coming as a Flash game to a KoopaTV near you.)

Ludwig hopes the wait for THE Pocket Card Jockey article was worth it. He highly recommends the game, of course. That goes without saying. You should Follow him on Miiverse at NNID PrinceOfKoopas, where he keeps his horse cast up-to-date here.

The next Wonderful Wednesday article expands on the notion of horse-racing in politics.
There is another THE Pocket Card Jockey article, dealing with the speed-run records of the game.
Here are the full credits of everyone who worked on Pocket Card Jockey.
Note that Pocket Card Jockey's basic game mechanic isn't really Solitaire.
Pocket Card Jockey got a remake (not a sequel) in 2023 called Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On!. It has some different mechanics.


  1. Pocket Card Jockey is so much more fun than I expected it to be! I played it for a freelance review and expected I'd play it a bit to get the idea, write the review, and never play it again. Instead, I had to take a break from playing to get the review written, and I've been still playing ever since.

    1. Why haven't I seen your review of Pocket Card Jockey?

    2. Because the person in charge of the site hasn't posted it yet. It should be up next week.

    3. To be overshadowed by the whole Nintendo Switch release week? That's disappointing.

    4. The review should be up before the Nintendo Switch comes out.

    5. I assume that anything published next week will be ignored because all Internet traffic will be Switch-related.

      That's why there's no Paper Mario: Color Splash review here, yet.

  2. The advice found here is actually really helpful! I've always wondered why, once my horse has fully matured, the stats were incredibly low compared to other horses.
    As for the money, I've been spending it on the puzzle pieces. I'm one away from completing Mr. Blingman, and it's kind of exciting!

    1. Yeah, you definitely want to spend all of your money on puzzle pieces until you've solved all of the puzzles.

      You only get benefit (a big benefit) from solving each of them once. After that, they loop again, but there is no benefit to completing them again.

      I believe the purpose here is to force you to take a very long time to learn the game before you're able to get to its harder races (King's Gate), which you won't be able to do without the benefits of the puzzle pieces. Essentially, it puts in place a minimum number of times you have to play through so you can't unnaturally skip ahead.

      (Which is why you should never delete your save data for any reason.)


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