The art of horse racing. The thrill of solitaire. And the confusion on your friends’ faces when you try to explain this to them.
Pocket Card Jockey is an odd thing to try and describe to people. I mean, it’s solitaire, mixed with horse racing. If you don’t know how those two work together (nor should you), then you’re possibly as confused as I am when I stare into the complicated mess that is the engine of my car. (Even the trailer for the game makes me sound like it makes no sense to combine the two.) But for what Pocket Card Jockey lacks in logic, it more than makes up for in a charming little gem from everybody’s favorite creative freaks… uh, Game Freak.
The closest thing to describe what PCJ is, in my head, would be my playing solitaire on my 3DS while getting my oil changed and winning at Daytona. What they’ve done here is combine the pacing and pressure of horse racing with a simplistic one-player version of the card game I know as Tri-Peaks, the point of which is to remove all the cards on the screen by using the top card of your draw pile, and pulling from the displayed columns the next card either above or below my draw card in value.
It’s incredibly simplistic, but it takes a watchful eye to make sure you’re not accidentally either trying to pull a card you can’t (for which you’ll be penalized), or miss a chance to take a card or sequence of cards by moving too quickly. On top of that, there’s a time limit to how long you can take cards. There’s a horse race going on, y’know.
So how did the two completely different experiences—professional horse racing and non-competitive card games—combine in the first place? Well, your jockey dies in the first minute of the game, and as a condition for their revival, they need to work hard and become the greatest jockey they can. But before they died, they were a pretty terrible, awful, no-good jockey to begin with. So in order to give them a chance, the angel that revives them allows them to take advantage of their one skill—being not-crap at simple solitaire—and use that to ride your horse to victory.
Geez, the more I write about it the more bizarre it all seems. And I started playing games starring a jumping plumber getting high on mushrooms and jumping on turtles to save a princess… and other mushroom… people. Video games are weird, man.
Anyway, each timed race is divided up into different sections of solitaire as your horse traverses the track and interacts with the other horses. Longer races include multiple draws, shorter races include shorter draws. At the end of each drawing period, your horse has a “Unity Power” counter below the “Giddyap Button”. The Unity Power indicates how happy/content/pissed off your horse is, along with a number up to 100 for how much energy it has at that moment in the race remaining. The Giddyap button is for storing some of that energy so it can be used during the home stretch for a last-ditch effort… and where the main racing happens.
The depth comes in pacing your horse around the track. This means positioning your horse throughout the race, saving the right amount of energy to pace yourself around the track, and completing the solitaire board you’re given. Bonuses and penalties for uncleared cards can mean your horse will not save enough energy, or even worse, get so mad at you that you can’t navigate it around nor save any energy on a given turn. There’s enough strategy to make it fun for a long stretch of time, but with each race maybe taking up to ten minutes, it’s short enough to play in bursts. There isn’t any pausing within races so you can’t stop in the middle, which does bother me since it’s easy enough to cover up the screen with a pause menu. Closing the system seems to pause it, though, and while before every race it will tell you you’ll lose the race, I didn’t experience that happening.
Oh, and there’s horse raising stuff in it too. You start out as the temporary, “testing the waters” jockey of someone’s horse before earning the right to be their exclusive rider, after which you level them up and try to gun for every race possible. Once they reach a certain age, if they lose too many races in a row, you can retire them, couple them with a horse of the opposite sex, and they’ll give birth to a new horse (with some upgraded stats and positive emotional state, if don’t correctly), and you can start raising the fuzzy buggers all over again. Sometimes you can buy a few (limited) items, earn some money, and buy more items or puzzle pieces (which do nothing but prove you like money).
Truth be told, aside from some getting used to in concept and execution both, there’s nothing terribly amiss about horse racing and playing solitaire. It’s easy to jump into, but deep enough that it can take some time to figure the quirks of an individual horse. The protagonist is largely flat while owners are archetypes of random groups that might own a horse, like business moguls or spoiled rich kids. It looks cute with a variety of different horse variations (dressed as a pink shinobi, or one with a cat theme, or what looks to be a yellow horse on fire, etc.), and everything moves fluidly. It’s not quite on the same level as the many simple-yet-deep traditional board games, but it’s adorable and non-threatening enough that my mom would probably enjoy it, and she’ll only play Dr. Mario or pinochle with the family on holidays.
It’s an oddly addicting little thing. I tend to enjoy solitaire of this nature—I was raised on NES games and Tri-Peaks on, if memory serves, the old Windows 95 machine—and adding an element of not only time pressure but horse racing strategy of position and even my trusty steed’s temperament is something I’m glad to see. This is the kind of thing I love about quirky little gems like this: They can either fall entirely flat, or they can be the diamond you know is easily lost in the dark recesses of the cheap-o games section of your online retailer of choice.
The best part? Trying to explain why this is your new addiction to pass time when you need a break from something bigger like Persona Q or Bravely Second. It’s a time waster, one that you dare not say… NEIGH to. Get it? If I leave on a joke, I get a carrot, so there you go. [*tosses carrot* ~Ed. Nick Tan]