Never in a million years did I imagine I'd be emotionally invested in a horse-racing game. And yet, here I am, dreaming of that glorious day when I take the gold in the most prestigious G1 race, riding gallantly atop one of my many goofily named thoroughbreds. Leave it to the developers of Pokemon, Game Freaks, to make a hybridized horse-racing game I not only care about, but predict I'll be playing for months to come. This is the best mashup of solitaire and a completely unrelated activity since Fairway Solitaire, and believe me when I say that is some tremendously high praise.
Like HarmoKnight and Drill Dozer before it, Pocket Card Jockey is a handheld gem that gives Game Freaks a chance to experiment with something other than collectible monsters. And if you didn't already know, the studio has effectively mastered the art of making quirky, inventive games that gleam with an even coating of pure, crystallized charm. Everything from the cutesy graphics to the cheery (and agreeably jazzy) music in Pocket Card Jockey is a delight, and maintains its appeal whether you're playing for five minutes or two hours. There's also the kind of endearingly weird writing that characterizes some of Nintendo's best; without spoiling anything, I'll just say that there's a canonical explanation for why your prowess at solitaire translates to skilled horse-racing (ridiculous though it may be).
And that's the gameplay, in a nutshell: bouts of solo, time-sensitive card collecting, as you try to string together all the cards on the table in sequence before your deck runs out, interspersed with bits of strategic planning as you maneuver your horse into its comfort zone. If you've played Fairway Solitaire on PC or iOS (which you should absolutely do if you haven't), then you already know the surprising sense of contentment that comes with stringing together a massive chain of cards. I don't give a hoot about poker and the like, but there's just something about plotting out a path to combo perfection - and hoping that the luck inherent to any card-drawing game is on my side - that makes the satisfaction synapses in my brain light up like fireworks.
Because the card-based portion of the game is so straightforward, Pocket Card Jockey has that much more room to occupy your brain with all kinds of horse-racing minutiae that can determine whether you nab a spot in the winner's circle. For instance, some steeds prefer to sit at the front of the pack - but others have a more counterintuitive method of winning, where they bide their time just behind the frontrunners before blasting through at the last second to take the lead. Your horses have a limited span of time to shine before they've passed their peak - both in terms of the span of an individual race and their overall careers - so you need to level them up with special cards and study their individual habits pronto.
Don't worry, there's no glue factory sadness here; instead, you can opt to retire horses and even match them up for breeding, which is essential for adding a champion horse to your stable. And every time you acquire a new horse, you get to enjoy the comically creative act of coming up with the perfect horse name. If you didn't already know, equestrian sports lends itself to some hilariously bizarre names; some of my favorites I've seen from my in-game AI competition include Minimal Animal, Quiz Hammer, Gorgeous Time, and Ske-ske-skeleton. I take pride in the naming of my current prize stallions, Bingo Bango and Cat Mania, though I strive to devise even kookier names for their successors. Now, you could opt to go with their given names, which are already chuckle-worthy - but it's so much more amusing to make up your own moniker, especially given that you can't just randomize a word pairing or choose from a preset list. You've got to really dig deep to find that name that'll make you laugh each and every time the announcer is shouting it excitedly during the home stretch.
Keep in mind, horse racing had zero appeal to me before I decided to take a chance on Pocket Card Jockey (which has a free demo on the eShop if you like to try before you buy). But thanks to some sage guidance and helpful words from the lovable tutorial horse Off-Course, I'm now up to speed on all kinds of horse-centric lingo and the subtle strategies a jockey has to keep in mind. And even though every horse on your 3DS looks like an adorable chibi pony rather than the strained steeds of real life, there's a real tension to the prospect of watching your chosen horse win or lose. The difference is, I don't need to bet my nonexistent mortgage on a race to feel invested - I just need to play my cards right.