I’ve been a massive fan of CD Projekt RED’s meta card game, Gwent, ever since I played my first round in White Orchard. And having come off binging Hearthstone for the better part of a year but feeling a bit lost in that game’s ever-changing meta and power-creep, it was the simplicity and closer-to-poker style of gameplay in Gwent that kept me engaged throughout my 1000+ hours with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its two major expansions.
It was always going to release in some sort of standalone form, given the popularity of digital CCGs and The Witcher 3 itself, and I was stoked to learn that console would be one of the platforms, given Hearthstone is yet to make the leap to under the TV gaming. There’s more to Gwent, too, but in the recently-released closed beta we only have a barebones experience that includes a Tutorial, a Practice mode against AI and Casual which pits you against other beta testers. Oh, and it’s fully running cross-platform play between PC and Xbox One, which is sweet.
You can build custom decks from the four main factions in Northern Realms, Scoia'tael, Skellige and Monster, but starter decks for all four are also available for you to jump right in. The game follows familiar digital CCG rules in that winning nets you rewards, and collating some of those rewards into a large stash -- in this case, 100 pieces of ore to offer a troll who is holding a Keg full of Gwent goodies -- is how you currently get the bulk of your cards. Each Keg will also always come with at least three legendary cards, but of these you can only choose one. Further, as you progress in level you’ll start unlocking cards on your quest to your next level, which is dictated by a progress bar with varying numbers of question marks depending on which level you’re now going for. My push for level 2 had a lot, yet each time I hit one, I got zip. Not sure if it was just a gauntlet, or a glitch, but either way it was a bit frustrating.
You can also break down unwanted cards, and then construct news ones -- provided you have enough of the sweet scrap ingredient they need. Obviously the better the card, the more scrap you need -- this is called Milling. Cards are split between Gold, Silver and Bronze. Gold cards -- mostly -- can’t be touched by any game-changing effects such as weather cards, the ever-damaging Scorch (which burns out the highest point card on the battlefield), Dimeritium Bomb (which sets all non-Gold units back to their original strength) and so on. Some cards can change card types, such as any Gold to Silver, or any Bronze or Silver to Gold, like the handy Promote card. Moreover, other cards gain power when Gold cards are played (or promoted), which can have you learning early strats around when you should be playing certain Gold cards, or placing Bronze or Silver cards that buff after Golds are played or promoted.
So far I’ve spent my time specialising in the Northern Realms faction, and have hung onto the deck’s default Leader card: Foltest. His ability allows you to replicate any non-Gold card along with whatever that card is currently showing in terms of strength, but it will also activate whatever that card’s ability is. So, I tend to lean towards the Poor Infantry card which has a base value of 3, but once played it duplicates itself. Then, I try and buff at least one of these cards with the likes of, say, Kaedweni Siege Support which adds 3 strength to any non-Gold unit, a Blue Stripes Scout or two, which adds 4 strength to any non-Gold unit, a Thunderbolt Potion which adds 4 strength to any non-Gold card as well as any other copies of it on the battlefield and, if I'm lucky enough in my drawn hand, add in a Swallow Potion which adds 8 strength to a single non-Gold card and a Commander’s Horn, which doubles the strength of all non-Gold units in a row. So, if by a fluke my now superior Poor Infantry hasn't been attacked throughout any of this process, he should be sitting on 44 strength, and if I then use Foltest’s ability, he’ll replicate the Poor Infantry who will then duplicate itself, complete with all of the above-mentioned buffs, leaving me with at least 132 from those three cards, excluding anything else I have on the battlefield.
It's a powerful strat, but requires a perfect storm of cards and opponent cards to be able to pull off in its entirety. And all the opposition needs to negate it is either Scorch or Biting Frost. Another addition to this strat is to add Adrenaline Rush to your now not-so-Poor Infantry so that he returns should you do it in the first round, or lose a round, in the next round. And already the game is full of complicated, multilayered strats like this, which is beginning to make it very interesting.
If you never played Gwent, or The Witcher 3 for that matter, but enjoy CCGs, Gwent separates itself from the rest in its end-goal and structure. Rather than attacking a hero character, or engaging with melee against minions, Gwent’s goal is for the player to accumulate the most number of points (or strength) against the opposition. Certain cards are capable of attacking other cards, but it’s not the focus of the game, while cards are distinctly separated into different categories with corresponding rows. These are melee, ranged and siege. Broadly, three different types of weather: Biting Frost, Impenetrable Fog and Torrential Rain will deplete any non-Gold cards in each of the respective rows to a value of 1, unless that card has an immunity against that weather effect. However, there is a Clear Weather card that bites through all of these, but it’s difficult to predict when you’ll need any of these cards, let alone the Clear Weather antidote, and you’re only able to play with a total number of 40 cards per deck, with just six silver and four gold allowed within that number (you also need a minimum of 25 cards to play that deck at all).
The game is also split into a best of three rounds. If you draw in the first round, you both gain a point and go into the next round in a sudden death scenario -- if you draw again, no one wins meaning there’s (almost) no reward. Certain cards can be left on the battlefield to emerge in the next round, and depending how you make this happen, can give you a huge advantage as the game progresses. Interestingly, one of the better strategies in Gwent is to bait your opponent to use up as many cards as they can in first round with a mind to concede when you think they’ve spent the majority of their best cards too early. With the ability to extend the game beyond a second round, patient players can take advantage of eager-beavers and ride out the rest of the game in total control. If you get to three rounds, you’ll draw two cards from your deck for the second round, and just one for the third round.
There’s only one emote available to communicate with your opponent by way of a GG option at the end of the game where you’ll reward your opponent with five scrap, and they you, should they choose to do the same. It would be good to have a few more during rounds, and while CD Projekt RED are likely avoiding doing too many things like Hearthstone, the emote system is still a good way to let someone know they’ve just played an incredible series of cards, or to let them know they’re all but doomed with what you have in store.
At the time of writing, I’m sitting at level 10 and have a relatively decent deck and a handful of interchangeable strats buried into said deck. It doesn’t always work out, but that’s the differential with these types of games or, as the hardcores call it: “RNGesus”. Missing from the closed beta is the adventure/RPG game I saw at E3 and Gamescom this year, but that won’t be requiring as much balance as the card game among humans vs humans given it’s a single-player addition to the whole product, but I do hope it gets added to the beta before release.
I’ll take an in-depth look at each faction and their strengths and weaknesses in the coming weeks as I explore them, but even just today while finishing up this write-up, I came across a number of devastating and gnarly strategies I hadn’t even thought of, so it will be interesting how the community drives Gwent as it closes in on release. Thankfully, nothing -- so far -- appears OP or unbeatable, which means the studio is definitely on the right track.