I want to take a break from US Internats practice to explain something. That thing (and you may not be shocked by this) is competitive Pokemon. I want to better flesh out how to truly explain the game to someone who knows nothing about it. The most common explanation I’ve heard (and used) is that the game combines elements of rock-paper-scissors and chess, outlining a hodge-podge of luck and skill elements, of guessing and careful strategy, therefore being a combination of mental acumen and good fortune. I use that explanation regularly. However, that explanation fails to capture completely what Pokemon really is, and, consequently, fails to acknowledge why Pokemon is a skillful game in spite of the luck elements that seep inevitably into gameplay.
First, I want to address the weaknesses of the aforementioned rock-paper-scissors-chess analogy. Most of those weaknesses arise from the rock-paper-scissors piece. It makes the game sound as though strategic elements, what a player knows to be the Pokemon themselves, are selected somewhat at random at the tournament. One could argue that the parallel, in this case, is Team Preview; players really do have to pick which four Pokemon of the six to use against an opposing team, and in some cases the four that a player picks could have very specific matchups against other combinations of four the other player could select. That player could have a “rock” equivalent and a “paper” equivalent, and their opponent could have a “rock” equivalent and a “scissors” component, in regard to what matchup is favorable–and it’s possible to imagine that a given matchup could express any number of different hand-sign equivalents, up to the point where one might need to consider the oft-maligned playground “gun” and “bomb” options to explain every possibility. This is imaginable. However, Pokemon has plenty of situations, even within this strange analogous universe, where both players pick “rock” and where it is, in fact, both players’ best interest to pick “rock.” Players often have no reason to take the kinds of risks involved in picking other options; they establish a sort of Nash equilibrium on an even or close-to-even match-up, because the choice that leads to it loses less often than other choices.
This situation is where Pokemon happens, where the game itself arises. And when you play a lot of that game, you start to realize that the situations you thought would be always-win or always-lose often aren’t so. You learn that careful play, or a more careful management of options, makes many of those situations act more like the rock vs. rock situation than was immediately intuitive, so you restructure your reasoning. You argue instead that the rock-paper-scissors moments of the game happen during gameplay itself, not in team preview, and that those choices have very clear outcomes, and that they are the reason that rock-paper-scissors is an apt way to define how the game works. I would agree that these moments embody the spirit of rock-paper-scissors; Pokemon players call them 50-50s. They don’t happen on every turn. In fact, they’re usually either beginning-of-the-game scenarios or rare endgame situations. So rock-paper-scissors is adequate then, but what about the rest of the time? Does chess explain that sufficiently?
Given how that section of the game pivots upon careful management of a board state, conscious management of the opponent’s next most likely play, and the execution of one’s own strategy… I guess so. I don’t have too much chess experience, so I can’t say for sure how perfect the parallel is, but in regard to the common idea of what “chess” is, it seems pretty close. I also may not understand rock-paper-scissors well enough to say much about it–there are large competitions, after all.
If I say that chess could adequately explain the remainder of the game after the rock-paper-scissors elements are worked through, though, how could I argue that the analogy is too weak–so weak that I need to make a post about it?
The answer comes in team building.
Team building in Pokemon stands unique amongst its peers; the closest parallels I know of can be found in deck building for card games, a la Magic: The Gathering, Yu-gi-Oh!, Hearthstone and, of course, our own Pokemon Trading Card Game. However, in those games, the choices you make in deck building are centered on card draw. The likelihood of drawing a card, the likelihood of your opponent having certain cards, and the management of card advantage all play a substantial role in winning the game. These things can be manipulated through the selection of certain cards to fulfill roles–search cards, mana cards, tech cards, and core strategic pieces, to name a few concepts–and through variation in the numbers of each card included. In the Pokemon video game, however, you can, in a way, pick what cards you draw and you can see what cards your opponents have drawn, although you cannot know precisely what effects those cards will have (the moves, items, and stats of each Pokemon). The game is not about managing the probability of having or not having certain tools; the tools are already in front of you, and the onus falls on the player to figure out what effects each tool can enact in a given match.
I think about Pokemon often as if it were a fighting game, one in which several technical execution success rates were put down to chance in the form of “hax.” A move can miss because it is difficult for your Pokemon to “execute.” A secondary effect can occur because a Pokemon can execute it “perfectly.” And, as in fighting games, Pokemon has situation-specific “option selects,” where in this case the definition is modified slightly to reference an action that has a positive outcome against a variety of the opponent’s choices and possible unseen tools. It’s still just one input, but your moves will be used the same way regardless. The computer doesn’t decide what moves result from your input, but it does decide how those moves interact with the opponent’s–therein lies the option select. Switching and defensive play work like a sort of very slow-moving footsies game, and aggressive play can rely heavily on reads, and so forth (Pheromosa/Tapu Lele/Nihilego, anyone?). Pokemon differs in that its situations and interactions move much more slowly than those in a fighting game, and often carry more weight. The game state also carries momentum from prior interactions; it’s as if you could remove the opposing player’s limbs by winning interactions and, thus, limit their future options. A player cannot reset the game state to neutral. That’s what KOs and speed control and all those sorts of things parallel to. This also seems like an interesting analogy for what competitive Pokemon is, but it falls short in two ways: first, it is inaccessible for people that do not understand terms and concepts from the fighting genre. Second, it still fails to account for teambuilding.
However, I think it possible to continue from the fighting game analogy and explain teambuilding. Albeit I don’t know of a fighting game where one might do this, think of a Pokemon team like a character; a core collection of Pokemon serves as the character model and base set of abilities. Take for example Gardevoir-Amoonguss in 2015, Groudon Xerneas in 2016, or Arcanine-Fini-Kartana in 2017. With just the core of a team, a player has options, but perhaps not always enough options; just two or three Pokemon cannot sufficiently cover the broad range of possibilities an opposing team could have, or at least cannot cover them as well as six Pokemon might. Hence why people do not bring teams of four Pokemon to tournaments (and do well) often. If the core of a team provides the character’s most basic options, then the remaining Pokemon allow for more advanced, less predictable ones; a character’s special or signature moves, for example. While in many cases different combinations of Pokemon moves are vastly more situation-specific and numerous than those of fighting game characters, they still service the analogy: options usable in certain game scenarios with certain inputs that have an effect dependent on the game scenario. Follow Me + Geomancy was like a Shoryuken. Skill Swap + Origin Pulse, Shine-Back air. Instead of having preset characters, Pokemon allows for players to design their own characters. Pokemon compensates for this myriad of possibilities by making the game incredibly slow compared to most fighting games, not overloading players with the huge variety of options.