One of the more underrated games I’ve personally enjoyed was Solitaire Poker for the Game Gear. It had this simple, relaxing allure that separated it from the typically drab casino video games that were worth almost nobody’s time. I’ve also enjoyed horse racing since I can remember, to say nothing of any humanitarian-based arguments against it. For decades my dad would find the odds for each horse in the newspaper and we’d all put down a dollar, with us kids rarely making good on our bets (unless we won of course).
Still, to say that Pocket Card Jockey blends two of my favorite things would be disingenuous. However, it does blend two things that alone are somewhat commonplace and makes them interesting. Your solitaire skills are what largely dictate how your racehorse’s career plays out, with some other considerations too. Your somewhat flighty but exuberant jockey avatar can buy items with his winnings to increase your chances next race, and hopefully move up the ladder to the Royal Derby.
Along the way, you’ll be riding a lot of horses in their early years as a foal, after which you can continue to race them in Mature Mode, where they no longer gain experience but can still earn money. They can also be retired and mated with other past horses you’ve jockeyed in order to create offspring. It’s like Fire Emblem but with horses………..or is Fire Emblem like horse racing? Regardless, you’ll see many horses come and go, building up to eventually breeding that perfect specimen that will allow you to take home all the glory the game has to offer.
The actual racing only involves you controlling your horse down the home stretch. Otherwise, it’s all solitaire and positioning through each turn. Every horse has a sweet spot on the track where they perform the best, so between rounds of solitaire you’ll want to maneuver to that area while trying to stay on the inside as much as possible. The thing is, the solitaire gets harder the more inside you get, so it’s a trade-off between difficulty and a shorter distance for your horse to run. You can also position yourself to grab power-ups that will come in handy down the home stretch or after the race when your horse gains XP.
The solitaire itself is as you’d expect with no caveats or wrinkles added to the rule set. Some rounds have you clearing more rows than others depending on other factors, but otherwise it’s straight solitaire. There is motivation to finish the hand quickly though, as your horse will get agitated if you take too long. However, mistakes can also penalize you as well as not clearing the entire board of cards.
As you may have noticed, there are factors to weigh throughout each race, so it’s not simply a matter of playing solitaire well enough to make your horse go faster. Each horse has their own speed and stamina stats and can earn skills as well. It’s not exactly an RPG, but there’s just enough here to feel like you’re getting a new horse each time your previous one matures. You can also name them, which is a little feature I’m always grateful for.
In total, you have Growth mode and Mature mode along with pairing retired horses to mate and a simple training mode to practice clearing cards. That’s really it, but good things often come in small packages and I would say that this game adheres to that old adage. The “action” is fun and fast-paced for such a simple mashup. You’ll also be motivated to earn cash towards puzzle pieces that give you certain upgrades and to continue breeding until you finally produce that champion stallion. It’s a good time, especially for the price.
Even with the game’s addictive nature and cheap price, I would still say there are a few flaws to consider. I think the game’s explanation of everything is well-attempted but a little shoddy. Even well after the obligatory learning phase, I’m still not completely clear on everything that determines how a race plays out. You’ll get tips after every race you lose, but they often don’t make sense. I’m often told my horse didn’t have enough Energy when I had a full 100 for most of the race or at least close to it. Energy, Unity, Stamina, and one or two other factors are always a little unclear on how they work. This can be somewhat attributed to a lot of randomness in the game that keeps each race feeling organic, but not totally. In short, you will have to scour the manual and guides online to get a true grasp of how everything works due to a notable but halfhearted effort to explain it all in-game.
The game also lacks a little bit in presentation: Dialogue is fairly repetitive, it’s hard to tell what foals are from what parents, and a horse’s Skills are usually on the top screen where you can’t tap them for more information to see what they actually do. Lastly, for some odd reason you can’t pause or even close your 3DS during a race or you will automatically lose. Why? If the devs were concerned about players pausing then studying the solitaire board before making their next move, then simply put a Pause screen over top of it.
Any criticisms are pretty minor though. For $6.99, Pocket Card Jockey is an easy game to pick up and kill about five minutes, but it also has that “just one more try” addiction built into it as well as almost anything else I’ve ever played. After your learn the ropes, which will be pretty quickly, you’ll keep playing and playing. You’ll wonder why you’re not putting it down to devote time to some other game, and then you’ll click “Next” and your horse will enter the starting gates yet again. A little 3DS gem that is well worth its price point.