Pokémon is a lot of things. It’s a long-running portable RPG series, a collectible card game, a safari simulator, and the biggest augmented reality sensation to date. Now you can add strategic digital board game to that ever-growing list with today’s release of Pokémon Duel.
Duel is a free-to-play title on both iOS and Android, and it’s one of those games that seems really simple at first, but offers a surprising amount of depth and complexity once you get into. (Not unlike the main Pokémon games, really.) The goal is to get one of your pieces onto the goal on your opponent’s side of the board. To do that, you have a team of six pokémon, which you can build and customize, and you and your opponent take turns moving pieces. Whoever gets to the goal first wins.
This set-up means that, even though the boards are relatively small and simple, your focus is always divided. On one side, you have to protect your own goal, and on the other you need to keep pushing forward to get the win. The strategy comes down to not just how you move your pieces, but also how you assemble your team. Different pokémon have different abilities — some can evolve mid-game, others are more mobile — and when two opposing monsters come up against each other they can enter a simplified battle. This involves spinning a wheel with a variety of moves on it; wherever the wheel lands, that’s what move your pokémon will perform. If your move beats your opponent’s, their pokémon gets knocked off the board.
The game feels really great on mobile. The rules are fairly simple to pick up and feel designed with a touchscreen in mind, while the matches themselves breeze by relatively quickly — but not so quick that they feel insubstantial. It’s also a lot of fun building up your team. It’s almost like putting together a deck in a game like Hearthstone, except with only six characters each decision you make counts a lot. The pokémon also look great, rendered in detailed 3D that makes them feel almost like real-world collectibles. Unfortunately, the rest of the game is a touch more gaudy, with overly-complicated menus coupled generic 2D character art.
Pokémon Duel is a free game, so in order to get more pokémon you’ll need to get booster packs, which require gems that you can either earn in-game or buy with real cash. In the time I’ve spent with the game I haven’t felt forced to spend money yet, though that could always change as I move up to more difficult rankings. But the game at least starts you our right: my initial six pokémon included all three of the original starters, and my first booster pack revealed a Pikachu.