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Pokémon TCG Game Director’s insight into making a brand new card game expansion

The Pokémon Trading Card Game is one of the most popular trading card games in the world. To date, the game been shipped to 77 countries and regions and is available in 13 different languages, making it one of the most widely available card games ever to have been invented.

We had the opportunity to talk to Atsushi Nagashima, Game Director of the Pokémon Trading Card Game at Creatures Inc, who has played an important role in the gameplay design for the popular Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG) since 2003.

Thanks to the vision and creative input of Nagashima-san, the card game has maintained its popularity, even since the initial Pokemon boom that took the world by storm back in the early 2000s.

As the Game Director, Nagashima-san helps develop the Pokémon Trading Card Game playing environment through game system/gameplay mechanics development and planning, keeping the hobby fresh and relevant – even two decades after it originally hit the shelves.

Q. You’ve been working on the Pokémon TCG for 17 years now, congratulations! In that time, we’ve seen a variety of mechanics come and go, but the core formula has remained the same – what do you think is so enduring about the TCG’s setup?

A. We are fortunate that the Pokémon brand as a whole continues to flourish and every year we see new fans begin their Pokémon journey, be it through the video game, animated series, apps like Pokémon GO or indeed the TCG.

Turning specifically to the Pokémon TCG, for me there is something special about opening a booster pack, finding a specific card and then examining it in your hand. Staying true to the core concept is a big part of the TCG's enduring popularity.

It's always important for us to add new elements and keep the system fresh but it is just as important is that the TCG remains accessible and open to new players.

The TCG is based on the battle format from the video games, which keeps the underlying rules easy to understand. There are a set of core rules in the TCG that have remained constant – for instance, a player can't act on the other player's turn, once a technique is used the turn is over and damage counters are self explanatory. These rules keep the game accessible, and are very important to us.

We also have a very welcoming community for those who want to actively play the game – starting at a grass roots level with leagues and tournaments at toy and game stores, all the way to our annual World Championships – and we have seen many long-lasting friendships formed over the years.

The Pokémon brand continues to innovate in order to keep our existing fans excited, but also to draw in new players and collectors. Honestly – there has never been a better time to be a Pokémon fan or join the amazing community we have.

Q. When planning a new expansion, are you in communication with the folks at Game Freak – are you working together with the video game developers and taking inspiration from the Isle of Armor expansion, for example?

A. If we are at the beginning of a new TCG series, such as Sword and Shield, our initial conversations are with Game Freak, creators and developers of the video game series to discover the setting, storyline, gameplay features, game concept and, of course, which Pokémon players will encounter.

We then determine how best to implement these themes, mechanics and characters into the TCG. This way we learn a lot about the thought processes behind new Pokémon characters, worlds and mechanics, which we can't get from design documents alone.

Q. Sometimes, we’ll see some standout Pokemon in the TCG that are maybe not that popular in the game – does The Pokemon Company and the TCG team intentionally try to lift up Pokemon that may otherwise get ‘left behind’, so to speak?

A. There are tons of really great Pokémon who don't get their full day in the sun in the core game or the anime.

While we do take care when designing cards to ensure players can make good use of a variety of Pokémon, if there are stand-out Pokémon in the TCG that are less used in the core game, some of that may just be the result of selecting Pokémon that are well-suited to a card game and that fit our play data.

Q. We’ve seen many different art styles in the cards over the years – my personal favourites are the amigurumi from Asako Ito! Will you continue to experiment with new artists and new styles as we head into the future? Can you tease any more styles you’re planning to experiment with?

A. It's great to hear you like Ito-san's creative approach. We believe it is important to keep offering our players and collectors new experiences, be it through gameplay mechanics or the look and feel of the cards themselves.

Just as the features and strategies have evolved over the years, so have the card designs and I for one am looking forward to seeing what our talented artists will create for future expansions. As to what form they may take, I guess I would need to read the artists' minds haha!

We recently held an illustration contest in Japan, and discovered several excellent new artists. I'd also like to hold a worldwide contest, so we can discover even more artists from all around the globe.

Q. What are you most excited for players to experience in the Sw/Sh expansion – is there something specific you’re particularly proud of in this newest addition to the TCG?

A. At the beginning of any new TCG series I am keen to see how players react to the new mechanics and Pokémon we have introduced – to see how they build their decks and what strategies they employ.

So, in the case of the Sword & Shield series it is how players will adapt to the new VMAX system that allowed us to incorporate the Dynamax mechanic from the Sword and Shield video games.

What excites me most is seeing players create new strategies or ways of playing that we had not necessarily thought of when we were planning and testing the series.

Sword and Shield has a lot to offer to a wide range of players, new and old, whether their interest is collecting, character art, trading, building decks or battling.

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