Establish a successful collectible-card-game brand, and it's like a license to print money.

"We say it all the time: Card games are essentially cardboard crack," says Ken Baumhauer, the operations manager for The Roundtable Games & Stuff store in Conshohocken. "Once you play them, you can't get enough. [Players] come in and buy pack after pack, card after card."

The hard part is getting a toehold in this highly competitive field, which is dominated by the games Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon.

These games require a considerable investment of time and money. Expecting kids to switch their loyalty to a new game is akin to asking an adult to change careers on a whim.

But one newcomer is making its presence felt in the collectible-card industry, which generates more than $1 billion annually in North America.

Chaotic, a game that will have a display booth and match-play area at the Wizard World expo opening tomorrow at the Convention Center, had several ingenious tricks up its sleeve.

The game-makers knew that the way to a boy's heart is through his eyes. So they developed a television cartoon series

, Chaotic

, based on the game. It debuted in September, a couple of months before the cards hit the market.

"In the television show, there's a kid named Tom who plays the trading-card game Chaotic at his middle school with all his friends, and he's really good at it," says Drew Nolosco, a senior game designer for 4 Kids, Chaotic's licensor and animation partner. "Tom wins a tournament one day and gets a code e-mailed to him, and he thinks that when he types the code [into his computer], he will be rewarded with a special cool card that no one else has. But, in fact, it sucks him into the computer, spins him around these tubes and spits him out into the fantasy land of Perim, where all these creatures actually exist."

The early rollout of the cartoon primed the pump, establishing the look and premise of the game, and even provided player tutorials.

But Chaotic has another feature that really sets the game apart. Each card is imprinted with a unique 12-digit code. Enter that alphanumeric sequence at the Chaotic Web site, and you get a digital duplicate of the card. So kids can play the physical version face-to-face or challenge each other online with their virtual decks.

That wrinkle had two advantages.

It put an old-school pleasure onto the technology platform where kids increasingly spend their time. "This is where tabletop game-play meets the online game-play that many of today's youth have migrated to," says Bryan Gannon, president and chief executive officer of TC Digital Games, which manufactures Chaotic.

And the online version also got Chaotic over the biggest hurdle all new collectible-card games face: finding a pool of players to challenge.

In the past, you might spend a small fortune equipping yourself with a starter deck and all the paraphernalia for a promising new game. But then you had to find someone at your school or in your neighborhood to play with, someone who had made the same investment. And until your new pursuit reached a certain tipping point of popularity, that could be a frustrating search.

But you're never alone at the Chaotic Web site (

).

"We've had over 25 million cards uploaded to the site as of May," says Gannon. "We've had over 30 million game-play usages in the first five months."

So far, the cards are being retailed only in Canada, the United States and Mexico, but interested participants have been buying the cards on eBay and registering to play from as far away as Asia.

Tom Emmons, a teenager from Connecticut, is a typical Chaotic player - well, except for his skill level. Under his

nom de jouer

, Occasus, he is rated fifth among more then 60,000 ranked players on the game site.

"I found out about the game when I got up early one Saturday and watched the

Chaotic

cartoon show and found out there was a game behind it," he says. "I've been playing it since mid-November, about two weeks after the site went live. I play two or three hours a day, about 20 hours a week."

In the game, players wield decks of 48 cards, made up of creatures and assorted other elements (including battle gear and location). The creatures engage in combat, with the victor determined by a variety of mathematical formulas.

Emmons attributes his high ranking to an appreciation of the game's nuances. "Chaotic strategy is really timing. It's knowing when to use a card and when is the best time not to use it.

"How you set up the deck is extremely important," he says, "much more important than in other games. In Magic [the Gathering], you play with a 60-card deck. One card won't change much in the match. But in Chaotic, one card can be the difference in winning or losing."

The game is specifically tailored to appeal to 11- and 12-year-olds. That's a precarious age: too old for Pokémon, too young for Magic: The Gathering.

But Chaotic still has to make inroads with Yu-Gi-Oh! acolytes. And that's a formidable challenge, particularly in the Delaware Valley.

"Our area is considered CCG country," says Baumhauer, abbreviating the collectible-card-game genre. "Just to give you an idea: When they run regional events for Yu-Gi-Oh!, they're getting 400 to 500 people, which is a lot.

"It's really hard to get a game going without sniping players from other systems," he says. "And for the age group Chaotic is geared for, it's pretty much the same audience as Yu-Gi-Oh! And I found, for our area, Yu-Gi-Oh! players are very dedicated to their game. They don't want to switch unless it's that much better. And there's not a whole lot of crossover."

In other words, let the battle begin. Or as Tom and his young friends say on

Chaotic

, "Let's kick some code!"

If You Go

Wizard World is at the Convention Center, 12th & Arch Streets, tomorrow through Sunday.

Hours:

Noon to 6 p.m. tomorrow; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets:

$25 daily, $45 for a three-day pass; available at the door, at

, and at select area comic-book shops.

Information:

.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com or 215-854-4552. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ daveondemand.