Pokémon Duel is somewhat clever, but also frequently frustrating

The free-to-play model is pretty friendly, but the game's dependence on chance kills the fun.

fft pokemonduel lead
Credit: The Pokémon Company

Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).

Pokémon Go might have seemed like a fad, but even though it’s no longer the widespread craze it was last summer, the game recently passed an estimated $1 billion in revenue—faster than any other mobile game to date. We’ve highlighted some ways in which the game has only gotten better over time, but one thing hasn’t changed at all: you can’t really do much with the location-based experience unless you leave home. 

fft pokemonduel board The Pokémon Company

You’ll swap turns and try to guide one of your Pokémon to the opposing center marker.

Looking for a Pokémon mobile game that you can enjoy on your couch? Maybe Pokémon Duel will do the trick. Just released a couple weeks back, it’s not a traditional role-playing entry like those on Nintendo’s handheld systems, but it does have you battle monsters… albeit via a one-on-one online board game of sorts. It’s kind of interesting, but also irritatingly dependent on chance—not the best formula for a competitive, collectible-centric game.

The pitch

Pokémon Duel finds a middle ground of sorts between a strategic board game like chess and a collectible card game. You’ll build a “deck” of six Pokémon figurines, which have an alluringly plastic-like sheen to them, and then face off against another player on the opposite side of the board. Each player’s goal is to make it to the opponent’s starting marker, which immediately seals the victory.

fft pokemonduel spin The Pokémon Company

Spin the dials and hope you have the better result!

Getting there won’t necessarily be easy, however, at least if your foe puts up some resistance. You’ll place your Pokémon figurines on the board, one by one, and attempt to block the paths of incoming enemy monsters. When opposing Pokémon are on adjacent spaces on the board, they can enter battle, which is surely when the strategic action begins… right?

Nope. Instead, the combat is left entirely up to chance. Once the Pokémon begin dueling, each monster’s dial of attacks and other maneuvers starts to spin. Tapping the screen gives you a result on each side, and the more dominant move automatically wins the battle. Pokémon Duel doesn’t bother with health bars or healing moves; if you spin an attack that hits for 20 points and your opponent spins one that does 30 damage, your piece will be knocked off the board entirely. You lost that battle.

fft pokemonduel battle The Pokémon Company

Did I just land 70 points of damage? Nope, the opponent spun a starred move, so I’m just screwed.

It’s severe and startling, and being on the losing side of a one-and-done skirmish like this can be incredibly frustrating. There are some maddening tweaks to the formula that show a further lack of nuance, too: spinning a star-rated move (usually a status effect or a blocking move) automatically trumps any damage-causing move, for example, and one player I faced had “battle armor” that allowed them to force only me to re-spin any time they didn’t like my winning result. That’s absurd. There are also “plate” power-ups that you can bring into battle and activate as needed, but the spinners hold most of the power.

In other words, Pokémon Duel seems to put a lot more emphasis on which Pokémon you bring into battle rather than what you do with them. There is skill required in building out your deck, picking which Pokémon you engage with, and how and when to use the plates, but the larger focus on chance muddles the game’s tactical approach.

The catch

The catch, of course, is that your selection of available Pokémon is really critical to your battle success, and spending money can get you access to much, much better Pokémon.

fft pokemonduel menu The Pokémon Company

Booster packs can take up to a day of real time to unlock, although you can spend gems to speed up the timers.

Luckily, Pokémon Duel seems pretty generous right off the bat. You’ll get free, unlockable booster packs for winning battles and also simply for playing, with the ability to store up to three packs at a time. Each booster takes between one hour and 24 hours to unlock, and if you have too many packs in your inventory, you simply won’t be able to earn any more in the meantime. It’s very much like the fantastic Clash Royale in that regard, including the ability to spend gems to speed up the timers.

Gems can also be used to buy additional booster packs outright, and they’re sold in bundles ranging from 12 gems ($1) to 1,960 gems ($80)—and there’s a monthly spending cap of approximately $400, which seems friendly and considerate. On the other hand, spending anywhere near $400 a month in Pokémon Duel would be utterly insane.

The premium booster packs range between 50 gems for a single Pokémon and 200 gems for a four-pack with other perks and better selection of random, high-level Pokémon granted. I’d planned to spend enough money to get 200 gems to see how worthwhile the high-end pack is; I would have spent $5 for a promo pack with 84 gems and an extra booster pack unlock slot for 30 days, and then another $8 for 120 additional gems. That was the plan, at least. 

fft pokemonduel open The Pokémon Company

Pokémon Duel has more than 200 different monsters available to unlock, including this weirdo.

But then I checked the in-game messages box and found 600+ free gems waiting for me. Color me surprised! I would have had to spend nearly $40 in real-world cash to buy that many gems outright. It seems that Pokémon Duel is amazingly giving with its promotional gems, between daily login bonuses and other random rewards. I was able to buy three of the 200-gem packs and get a load of powerful Pokémon, which definitely gave me an advantage in battle thereafter. It’s not clear if these huge gem bounties will continue on for a while, but they made spending real money seem completely unnecessary for now.

You’ll also earn coins and materials through play that can be exchanged for figurines, although it seems like the best of the bunch are unlocked through the premium booster packs. Additionally, Pokémon Duel has an energy meter, but it only seems to tap out when playing the breezy single-player missions—not when facing other online players. 

The verdict

Pokémon Duel isn’t the easiest game to get into: the rules seem a bit complex at first and the tutorial is long-winded. However, once I got a hang of it, I started to enjoy the back-and-forth battling and lightly tactical design. The chess-like play for positioning and power proves an interesting dynamic with a deck of Pokémon in play. Sadly, those happy sensations didn’t last.

As the random-chance battles dealt surprising losses and helped drag out battles, the tedium began sinking in, and my initial days of enjoyment gave way to boredom and frustration. Pokémon Duel has some good ideas in play, but by taking the actual combat out of the battles and sucking most of the nuance from the experience, it just loses steam. I didn’t end up spending any money due to the initial surplus of bonus gems, and chances are great that I won’t play enough to even consider it again down the line.

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