Gwent: A Cut Above
The fantastic world of hunters and beasts imagined by Andrzej Sapkowski and popularized in the series of Witcher video games by CD Projekt Red has a new collectible card game on the horizon, Gwent. Some of you, more likely most of you, know Gwent as the card game enjoyed by Geralt and the denizens of his realm in Witcher 3. Much like Triple Triad outgrew its roots in Final Fantasy VIII, Gwent has also taken on a life of its own. It became apparent to the team at CD Projekt Red that even though they may be done with the Witcher series for a while they weren’t done with Gwent just yet.
This isn’t a simple cut and paste of Gwent from Witcher 3 and presented to you on your PC and XBox one. There have been a number of changes to Gwent as it has progressed from a Witcher mini game to its own standalone game. Some changes have been purely aesthetic while others have directly affected the mechanics. The two biggest rules changes that immediately jumped out to me are cards directly attacking opponent’s cards, and each player now draws cards between rounds.
In the past there were certain circumstances where a player would be able to draw a card at the end of a round but those were typically restricted to a faction bonus. In this new standalone game each player draws two cards after the first round, and one card after the second round, if the game goes into the third round that is. In another twist cards you play can now directly have an effect on your opponent's cards. In the past this was restricted to weather cards and a few other specialty cards but now, for example, you can play a card that when placed on the board does 2 damage directly to one of you opponent’s non-golden cards. These new direct damage cards have become very common.
Aesthetically the look of the board and the cards have changed. Not really for the better either. One of the allures of the old Gwent cards was their simple style. The cards had an elegance to them that is currently lacking. While it’s understandable some changes would be made the new cards are a bit over the top. The new central card art is very nice but the card borders verge on gaudy.
The board has gone through modifications as well. Gwent in the Witcher simulated two participants playing against each other on a table. More often than not these matches took place in a bar or other watering hole. These locales were typically subdued and the colors matched the environment. There were a lot of browns and it was dark. The game board has become too vibrant. It’s over saturated with color. Buff cards such as the horn no longer sit off to the side either. Once you play them they are buried in your graveyard. The gems that used to countdown your defeats have been replaced by a crown that counts up your victories. I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon and yell at CD Projekt Red to get off my lawn but some of these changes just feel like they were made so they could say they changed something.
At its core, however, this is still Gwent. You want to end a round with a higher score than your opponent. Best two out of three wins. Knowing when to pass in a match and lose a round can set you up for future victory. Different groups of cards are assembled to make your deck. Each deck represents a certain faction within the Witcher universe. Currently the following factions are in the game with their own distinct ability.
- Monsters: Keep a random Neutral or Monsters unit on your side of the battlefield at the end of each round.
- Northern Realms: Whenever a Gold unit appears on your side of the battlefield, add 2 to its strength.
- Scoia’tael: At the beginning of one round per match, you can choose who plays first.
- Skellige: At the end of each round, add 1 strength to the original value of every unit in your hand, deck, and graveyard.
- Nilfgaard is listed as coming soon but not currently in the game and it’s bonus is not listed.
The tutorial does a decent, but not great job of getting you into the game. It could do a better job of explaining some of the card abilities. This version of Gwent seems to make the assumption players have played Gwent from Witcher 3 and understand most of the subtleties. Even if you have played that version enough has changed that you should be able to hover over a card on the board and read all about what it does. Especially now while most players are new and still learning the game's changes. Two such abilities that confused me are lacerate and adrenaline rush. If your opponent plays adrenaline rush that card will persist on the board between rounds. It will have a little fist on the bottom card border to indicate it has been buffed. Lacerate attacks an entire row and does 3 damage to all non gold characters.
The cards have been broken up into tiers; gold, silver, and bronze. You are limited to the number of cards you can have per tier in a deck. Each deck has to have between 25 and 40 cards. It can have a maximum of 4 gold cards and 6 silver cards. The rest have to be bronze. Within the tiers there are rarities of cards. You can tell the tier of a card by its border. You can tell the rarity by a small square gem in the lower right corner. White is common, blue is rare, purple is epic, and gold is legendary. Those gold gems on gold or bronze borders can be easy to miss sometimes. This rarity dynamic isn’t clearly explained in the tutorial and at first the gems are small enough that you can overlook them. Be careful when you are busting open kegs (card packs) that you don’t miss some good cards. There is a deck building tutorial but it really needs some work and fails to go over some of this.
There is also a shop tutorial. You get two free kegs for the tutorial. You’ll also get another free keg for signing up for the newsletter. When you open a keg you’ll get 4 cards to flip and see what you have won. After you view those cards you are presented another three cards. You’ll only be able to choose on of these three. The other two will be destroyed. When opening a keg I wish there was a way to know which cards you had in your deck already and which you didn’t. If you end up with extras you can mill them into scraps that you can use to craft cards that you don’t have in your collection. This is almost identical to the dust system in Hearthstone.
It doesn’t appear that there is any way to talk to your opponent, which is probably for the best. But at the end of the game you can send them a “good game” win or lose. If you send your opponent a good game at the end they’ll be rewarded with additional materials. This can be scraps or ore. If you collect 100 ore you can purchase a keg. If you lose you don’t receive any materials or experience unless your opponent sends you a good game.
Once you’ve made it through the tutorial you can take part in casual play. Ranked play hasn’t made it in but I’d imagine it’s planned for the future. You can also take on the AI if playing against really people isn't your forte.
Part of the allure of Gwent in the Witcher was taking on difficult opponents and winning new cards. You could also buy rare cards off of special vendors from time to time. That part is missing in this game. Hopefully they will find a way to implement PvE challenges that reward players with thematic cards. They don’t need to be overpowered but as a game that has its roots firmly tied to a PvE game there is a lot of source material for them to pull from.
So far I don't think Gwent is a surefire hit. I did enjoy the time I spent with it but I don’t feel the pull that I did for Gwent in the Witcher. CD Projekt Red has definitely put the structure in place to build a good game however. I’m looking forward to see where this goes over the next few weeks and months of closed beta.