The Trading Card Game Avalanche of the Early 2000s

by Arch Anderson | 20 Sep 2022

Industry Commentary, Op-Ed

In the wake of Pokémon’s runaway success, the early 2000s brought us some very unusual and unexpected trading card game tie-ins. Time has proven that they can’t all be zingers.


A few years ago a colleague gave me a shoebox full of old trading cards they’d found in their attic. These weren’t your father’s baseball cards, though - A number of them featured different Star Wars and Star Trek characters. I pawed through them and felt a wave of longing for that galaxy far, far away - back when Star Wars prequels were on the horizon and nobody had yet decided that they were Bad, Actually. 


This was a time capsule from a particularly great time to be alive. We used to let movies actually hit theaters before forming opinions on them!


Anyway. In the back of the box were some trading cards from Survivor. Not just any trading cards, however - these were collectible card game cards with stills from the popular reality TV show as well as numbers and stats and rules text. Amused by the specificity of this product, I scooped them up and brought them to the office for nostalgia’s sake.


“Check it out,” I announced the next day to a quiet lunch table. “You’ll never guess what I’ve got!” I proudly fanned the stack of cards and placed them on the table. Our lunch group, made up of two older millennials and one gen xer, chuckled in unison. Without a further word, we all shared the very specific memory of the precise point in time from which these cards came. 


My coworker took his iPhone out of his pocket. “I bet we can find the rules for this online.” Sure enough, he did. We sorted the cards into two smaller decks as prescribed and made paper proxies of the missing cards, then dealt out two hands. 


This game might have been impossible to play. We couldn’t figure it out, anyway, despite each of us being long-time fans of similar games.


The Survivor trading card was a single snowflake in a figurative avalanche of “modern” card games following 1993’s Magic: The Gathering. The early 2000s were a particularly wild time: on the heels of the Pokémon Trading Card Game’s runaway worldwide success, games appeared for unexpected IPs like Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Austin Powers, and, yes - Survivor. 


Both Pokémon and Magic before it had the benefit of thorough game development before they hit the shelves of our friendly local game stores. In their haste, the creators of tie-in card games like Survivor faced pressure to strike while the iron was hot. It’s likely that they didn’t always have an opportunity to develop a polished and unique gameplay system before pushing them out to the shelves of Ames, Kmart, Spencer Gifts and the like. While Magic consistently remains a favorite and Pokémon enjoys cyclical spikes in popularity, nobody ever eagerly awaited a Survivor pre-release. That doesn’t mean that Survivor and its peers were failures, however. Perhaps they were not meant to endure but to exist in a single moment in time instead. 


There’s something weirdly beautiful about that.


Arch Anderson is a graphic designer and a huge fan of what happens at the intersection of creativity and constraints. See what he’s up to at!

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