So you wanna understand Pokemon? Or at least have a playing knowledge? So did I, back when I thought it would be easy.
I knew the gist--151 colorful creatures nicely battling against one another. I couldn't pronounce Pikachu, I couldn't tell you whether he was hamster, rabbit or baby moose with premature horns, but I could identify the little yellow guy in a Pokemon lineup.
So as a reporter and as an aunt, I thought I would spend an hour or so picking up the card game with my nephews Drew, 11, and Jonathan, 8. They are allowed to go out in the world, so they know their Pokemon.
One of my colleagues with two Pokemon-savvy sons pointed out that one reason for Pokemon's popularity with kids is its otherworldly quality. It is something of their own, not easily penetrated by parents or other adults.
Now I see why.
"You gotta have at least 60 cards" to start with. Then you pick out six of your cards as "prizes," I was told, and put them aside. Gotcha.
"You can only have seven cards in your hand and five cards on the bench." Like some football players, some Pokemon get benched.
Coin tosses determine exactly how much damage will be inflicted on a fellow Pokemon. Trainer cards "make an opponent pick new cards." "Energy" cards are selectively deployed. "There are some non-energy battles," explained Drew. There are, naturally, various forms of "resistance."
Jonathan very patiently showed me his binder of Pokemon cards, encased in protective plastic sheathing, and explained the evolution of some of the species. For instance: Bulbasaur becomes Ivysaur becomes Venusaur. I was sure the game must be banned in the Kansas public schools.
"Okay, on three, you both put down two cards."
By this time I was tired of concentrating. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would not be understanding Pokemon in an hour or an afternoon or probably even a sustained week. I leaned back and observed as Drew and Jonathan laid down cards, argued over which card was played last, then bickered over whether Drew was rigging the coin tosses. Jonathan was sure he was. Drew begged to differ.
So I appointed myself the impartial coin tosser. At last, a task I understood and could ably perform, except when the coin bounced in the fruit bowl one time.
This job was needed only sporadically, so in between I began examining the cards. Sometimes a Pokemon attack makes the other Pokemon fall asleep or become confused, paralyzed or poisoned. Happily, all these are conditions that can be reversed. Hit points are a major factor. Then there are attack costs, attack damages, evolution states, rarity designations, Pokemon weaknesses and seven types of energies.
"Weaknesses," said Drew very authoritatively, "can be a big problem." That was the one thing I already knew.
There is much more, but I would need to acquire at least 10 types of additional energies to grasp it, much less explain it. If you'd like an explanation from the experts, you can find one. To start with, there's a "Rules, Version 2" of "Pokemon, Gotta Catch 'em All!," a handy reference guide that Jonathan kindly lent me, with 28 pages, including a color-coded map of "how your play area should look," the five things you can do during your turn, "in any order and as often as you like" (see Page 9), as well as a glossary, an index and a diagrammed card of the rare Charizard (which my mother bought for Drew for his birthday, much to the dismay of my sister, who thought the $35 price tag was way out of bounds).
But that's nothing compared with the deluge of magazines, tapes, tournaments and books ready to make you into a Pokemon Master. The only conspicuous absence in the 58 titles offered by Amazon.com was "Pokemon for Dummies."
But life is short, and a 22-page instruction book is, to me, really long. I've got a manual on constructing a deck (the kind you sit on) and installing a whirlpool that would be easier to decipher. I'm sure Pokemon is fun once you understand it. But if I'm going to play, I think I'd prefer that Monopoly version.