Browser-based games don't capture our attention that often, but the Pokemon Trading Card Game Online is something different. For fans of the tabletop version of the game, the TCGO replicates everything you can do in the physical game and then some. It even allows you to import your real collection of cards online through redemption codes found on the packaging of all new cards henceforth, so you can play online against your friends using your own deck. The TCGO is perhaps most exciting to newcomers though, because it offers a wealth of tutorials, free decks and cards, and single-player AI tournaments to get you ready to build your own deck and play against real people. And it's all free of charge.
Above: The TCGO is generous with free decks – you get three to start with, and more unlock as you play
If you're completely new to the Pokemon Trading Card Game, once you've logged in to your account (you can set one up here), you can go through the tutorial to learn the basics, or you can skip ahead to the single player campaign right away. The beauty of the TCGO is that it caters to all experience levels every step of the way, so even if you skip the tutorials, the single player has a help system that reminds you of your current play options and suggests optimal moves (of course, you can also turn all of help functions off if you don't need them).
The one of the goals of the TCGO seems to be to emulate the experience of playing the card game in real life, and the single player campaign takes you through a tournament hosted by a fictional game store, with 15 AI opponents (all with unique personalities and flavor text, including some good-natured trash talking), who you challenge through four leagues of 12 games each for a total of 48 games. You can replay these games over and over too, which is particularly helpful if you're a hardcore player looking to test a new deck against AI opponents before using it against real people.
Above: Attacks are animated
Speaking of decks, the TCGO also features a deck editor with a robust set of features for building decks with as little or as much help as you'd like. You can filter cards by Pokemon, then have the computer build a deck around the Pokemon you choose, and then tweak it however you want, or you can build a deck completely from scratch – it's up to you. You can even bring out a list of the cards in your deck and bring it with you for real-life tournament play.
So, the single player options are great, but the big debut in the latest update to the beta is the online multiplayer. So when you've played enough of the single player that you're ready to play against real opponents, you can jump into some PvP. I'm told that the matchmaking has really been refined too, and there's even an elegant solution to punish rage quitters – frequent disconnectors are paired with other frequent disconnectors. Friends lists haven't been added to the beta yet, but soon you'll be able to challenge friends too.
Aside from battling, you can also trade cards (it is a trading card game, after all) with users through an online trades marketplace, where you can put cards up for offer and browse cards other users are offering. And in case you're worried about getting taken advantage of, you can set up trading controls that only allow like-for-like trades, so you don't accidentally trade a rare card for a common one.
Normally, we'd look for more to criticize, but it's pretty hard to complain here – The Trading Card Game Online simply offers a new way to play the Pokemon TCG, and unlike the physical version, it's totally free to play. This preview could go on and on listing all the features available to explore within the TCGO, but in the immortal words of Reading Rainbow's Levar Burton, you don't have to take my word for it. The beta is available to everyone now at http://www.pokemontcg.com/. If you already have a pokemon.com account, it works with the TCGO already, and if you don't, it's easy to set one up. It's all free, so if you're a Pokemon fan there's no reason not to check it out, especially if you're a fan of the videogames who's curious about the TCG.