When Pokémon and Magic Cards Went to War

They don't seem that similar aside from the fact they're printed on cards, and they were never really competition, either, but in October 2003 that didn't stop the companies behind Magic Cards and Pokémon battling somewhere other than the tabletop or the schoolyard.

This story begins in the late 1990s, when role-playing giants Wizards of the Coast acquired the rights to release Japanese sensation Pokémon in the West. With experience in the field thanks to its Magic: The Gathering cards, which were first released in 1993, Wizards of the Coast were a natural choice for the license.

It was thought at the time that, upon release in January 1999, the cards would be a hit for the company. Yet few could have predicted just how big a hit they'd turn out to be: over 400,000 packs of Pokémon cards were sold in just the property's first six weeks on sale in the US, which was 10x what Wizards had been expecting.

So great was demand, in fact, that in order to print enough of the packs to satisfy demand, some lines of sporting cards had to be shut down in 1999 just to satisfy demand. By the end of that year over one million packs of Pokémon cards had been sold, making it one of the biggest childhood crazes in living memory.

But the gravy train couldn't last forever. By 2003 Nintendo's own internal organisation tasked with managing the franchise, The Pokémon Company, had established an American division, which was to take over production of the trading cards when the last of Wizards' original contracts ran out on September 30.

The two companies, however, did not get along. In 2002, two of Wizards' senior executives were lured away by Pokémon Company USA, along with several other high-ranking employees, while there were also bitter disputes over the release of expansion sets of certain lines of Pokémon cards.

What should have been an easy transfer of power got even more complicated, when Pokémon Company USA cards began hitting shelves in September 2003, right alongside those licensed to Wizards of the Coast, which technically still held the rights to the property.

On October 1, 2003, Wizards of the Coast filed suit against Nintendo, claiming that Pokémon Company USA's pre-emptive sale of cards constituted a breach of their agreement. It also accused Pokémon USA of using Wizards' "patented methods and technology" to manufacture their version of the cards, and that the enticing of seven key former Wizards exmployees meant Pokémon USA could use "Wizards' proprietary information to solicit Wizards' distributors, vendors and customers."

"Pokemon USA used the intervening period to undermine its relationship with Wizards", the suit itself states, "deprive Wizards of the benefit of its bargain and take its intellectual property, all to gain competitive advantage over its longtime partner."

The case never made it to the courts. In December 2003 all parties involved announced that they'd reached a resolution. While the terms of the agreement were never publicly released, given the severity of the accusations levelled against Nintendo and the swiftness with which they settled, it's not insane to speculate that Wizards of the Coast were paid handsomely for their troubles and sent on their way.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.

You can contact Luke Plunkett, the author of this post, at plunkett@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.