Even with a very big hit under their belts (ever hear of Pokemon?), Game Freak is not afraid to try something a little outside of the genre that has become a global phenomenon. The developer has released both Drill Dozer and Tembo The Baddass Elephant in between Pokemon releases which have found little success with critics. Released in early May of this year was a game that I was completely unaware of existed called Pocket Card Jockey. Many in the United States were likely unaware that the title released in Japan back in 2013. Good things come to those who wait as Pocket Card Jockey is a fun quirky title that is great for small sessions.
The premise of Pocket Card Jockey is simple, you play a modified version of solitaire all while competing in a horse race. As difficult and complicated as this sounds, Pocket Card Jockey is really quite easy to learn. You do not have to worry about completing suits as this is a speed version of solitaire where picking the next adjacent card value is key. Making things a little tougher though is a timer for each round of solitaire that goes faster depending on the difficulty of the race you are in. If you have had enough of solitaire from playing on Windows 95, then maybe Pocket Card Jockey is not for you as you play quite a bit of solitaire here.
Once you get out of the gate by playing a very short and quick solitaire game, it is time for the main game to start. The size of the deck you will play depends on your position in the race. The lower part of the screen shows what is called the Comfort Zone that is comprised of three levels. Being in the third level will earn you more energy, with the more you collect the faster you will run in the final stretch. A forecast shows you roughly where and how much the comfort zone will move. Remember, this is just a forecast. Sometimes it is pretty accurate, while sometimes it is a little off. Staying within the third level of the comfort zone brings the most energy which is crucial to earning a Super Unity Mode that is quite useful.
While this seems fairly simple and straightforward, there is a bit of strategy. Unless you clear the deck in comfort zones two & three, your horse will lose stamina. How much depends on the pace of the race, which is mostly random. Do you risk going in comfort zone level three to build more energy towards the end of the race, or do you play it safe in by staying in level two? Also, do you want to be lower to the track (more crowded, less stamina used) or go more upwards (less traffic usually, more stamina used). Some horses also build more energy if they run directly in front or behind another horse so there is a lot to take into consideration. There is a bit more strategy than just playing the best speed solitaire.
The final thing that must be taken into consideration while running are the random cards that litter the raceway. During Growth Mode, collecting these cards will significantly help level your horse's speed and stamina. Both of those will be needed to win the most challenging races in the game. Positioning yourself requires not only paying attention to where you currently stand within the race but also other racers.
The on-track gameplay is good for the most part with only a few issues. Sometimes the game of solitaire just screws you over, which you could chalk up to luck. Playing smartly with the bigger decks is absolutely required to prevent you from having too many cards left over, which can put your horse in a bad mood or worse. Collecting cards with lightbulbs will unlock skills for your horse that can help alleviate the aggravation of the solitaire games.
The element that brings Pocket Card Jockey down is the off-track management. Once you decide on a horse, you better win within three races or you're fired. If you win a race, though, you get to keep riding that horse until the end of year three. A schedule of races can be viewed before you head to the racetrack but nothing can be done other than just browsing the races. The schedule remains the same every time you start with a new horse but this becomes a problem with progression for the first couple of hours.
As you get acclimated to the solitaire of Pocket Card Jockey, races start to become pretty easy to start. But before you know it, your horse is entered into some races it likely has no business being in. Even if you play perfect games of solitaire, other horses have higher levels of speed and stamina that will result in your horse getting passed up. This becomes a point of frustration through the first couple of hours of the game until you can breed better horses. Things only get worse in Mature mode where your horse will run against much higher leveled racers where you have little chance of winning.
The shop in which you can purchase items to help your chances of winning is also quite flawed. Money earned from winning races is used to buy things such as carrots that increase your stamina. These items can indeed be useful, especially in that race you have not won yet. What breaks the shop is that the price of the items quickly jump. Very cheap early on, the items quickly go into the tens of thousands of dollars. Considering you slowly earn money and that accumulated money only stays on the owner of the horse you won it on, it can be frustrating. It is understandable that you should not be able to purchase items every race, but this becomes a problem for new horses. The first race you run an item might cost $300 but then the next race the price skyrockets to $15,000?
Once you run several races and your horses are retired to the farm, it becomes apparent that in order to capture all the trophies for the game you must go through some horses. No so dissimilar to grinding levels in Pokemon, several horses will need to run and then breed before you find that stud horse.
It is not to say I disliked my time with Pocket Card Jockey, but the somewhat surprising difficulty spikes and tedious grinding brought down the experience as a whole. The price feels right for $7.00 and is a great game to pick up for an hour or two. But if you are looking to get everything done in four hours or less, this might not be the title for you. Nonetheless, Game Freak has done the impossible in combining solitaire and horse racing for a fun experience.
+ A speed version of solitaire is fun
+ Tactics on the race track are easy to learn
+ Fun, cartoonish look
- The difficulty spikes after the first few horses
- Items jump in price to greatly too soon
- Solitaire seems a little unforgiving at times
Hours played: 8+ on the New Nintendo 3DS XL
Available on Nintendo 3DS systems