What started as a haphazard feature added at the last minute, GWENT: The Witcher Card Game was announced as a standalone digital collectible card game based on a surprisingly addictive minigame of the same name from the widely popular and successful RPG The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In a presentation held behind closed doors, CD Projekt RED revealed to E3 show-goers that they had been working on the standalone GWENT game for nearly a year now in secret. Motivated by the enormously positive fan response to the Gwent minigame in Witcher 3, and the subsequent cries for a full-fledged standalone game, CD Projekt RED soon got to work expanding, balancing, and reworking their budding collectable card game into a full feature package. The result is a delightful step up from the original addictive, but somewhat shallow, in-game distraction – featuring over ten-hour long single player story campaigns for each of the five card factions, an explorable open-world map, greatly expanded and reworked decks, a juiced up UI, and a closed beta heading to Xbox One and PC in Fall.
To begin with the most alarming surprise of the presentation, GWENT‘s single-player story mode is presented in a fully voiced visual novel format. Quest Designers and Writers from The Witcher 3 are on-board to ensure the game’s single player experience is as deep and authentic as possible. Visually, the cutscene and conversation art style is the same as the comic book-style introduction cutscene to The Witcher 3 and the interludes throughout its main story that discuss the choices and consequences of the player’s decisions. There will be morally gray player decisions throughout the story mode, just like in the Witcher game series, as well as optional side objectives and branching story paths. Between card games and story scenes, players actually have an top-down isometric open-world map to explore with a small avatar. Of course, every conflict or fight is represented by a game of cards – specifically GWENT. The most interesting part of the story campaign mode is that every card the player has at their disposal is represented by an entity in the plot. For example, Geralt’s position as the leading role and player character means the player has access to Geralt cards. Just as well, the supporting cast each have their own cards in the game for use in the player deck. To compose a deck, Geralt conveniently goes through the plot with an army at his back who share his goal, or some other plot-related convenience. The members of that army, their battlements and resources, all represent cards available for the player’s deck. This also means that characters or things encountered when exploring the open-world can join Geralt’s group and thereby earn the player their corresponding card.
GWENT is meant to be a representation of two battling armies. For those unfamiliar with GWENT, it is a digital collectable card game with cards based on characters, objects, and entities from the Witcher game series. A game of GWENT starts with both players drawing a hand of ten cards, and then picking up to three cards in that hand they would like to place back into their decks to redraw a new one in its place. The basic idea of the game is to get a higher score than your opponent with the ten-card hand you drew, and possibly redrew, at the very beginning of the game. The victor of a game of GWENT is determined by the most rounds won out of three. The vast majority of cards in a deck are usually unit cards, which each have a number that adds to the player’s score when played. The players take turns and each must either play a card or pass on their turn. If the player passes, then they pass for that entire round and their opponent can keep playing cards until they too decide to pass or run out of cards. For newcomers, it is important to remember that the first ten cards they draw and settle on at the beginning of the match are basically all they have to win two out of three rounds with – not just one. Do you bait your opponent into overplaying their hand on the first round, letting them win it while believing what you have saved in your hand can win you the next two? Or do you play a strong first round, relying on special faction or card effects to give you a point lead in the next round? Planning and adapting from the get-go is essential, just like with any other competent CCG. You have one hand and two rounds to win.
There are many things – basic things even – which have not been covered in this short primer. Much of GWENT‘s rules come more organically from playing the game itself, as with many other card games. CD Projekt RED are dead-set on making the game as easy to pick up as possible, positing that if someone doesn’t understand their game after trying it, then they have failed as designers. Of course, even then it gets far more complicated when playing additional matches and taking the different factions and card effects into account. There are five color-coded factions, each with their own play-styles. Cards of a specific faction may only be used in decks of that faction, but there are also neutral cards which can be added to the deck of any faction. Finally, there are Legendary Character cards which are not affected by any special effects, positive or negative. Legendary Character cards tend to include main characters and have appealing unit scores.
The biggest challenge with making GWENT into a balanced and interesting competitive game is that it was originally designed to be a single-player endeavor and was therefore inherently unbalanced. CD Projekt RED has personally seen to it that every imbalance present in the original minigame is either squashed or drastically modified, including completely changing how some factions and card effects work while keeping their tactical purposes intact. For example, Spy cards are very powerful in the original Gwent minigame as they allow players to draw two cards on top of their original ten-card hand. Of course, they came with a caveat in that they need to be played on the opponents side and therefore add to the opponent’s score. This cost was negligible, since drawing two cards at the end of a round, for example, could be a deciding factor on who takes that round or the next. But in the new standalone GWENT game, a Spy card instead requires the player draw two cards – one of which is visible to their opponent – but must then choose one of the two to keep. Other balancing changes can be seen in the factions, such as how the Northern Realms faction no longer gets to draw a card for winning a round, but only after losing one instead. There are also different versions of cards representing characters of multiple talents, specifically Geralt, who has different variant cards like a “Geralt: Igni” card which has a lower unit score than the standard “Geralt” card, but features a unique ability.
Based on a handful of hands-on matches with the new GWENT, it seems that many changes have been added to allow for more defensive and retaliatory maneuvers. Veterans of the original minigame may need a little adjusting to the new, more extravagant user interface. A close-up of the selected card is now clearly visible to the right side of the screen, while the last card played is displayed on the left. For the most part, each card has beautiful, brand new artwork. It’s pleasant to look at, and there is more information on-screen than before. All of it makes referencing card effects and tracking moves much easier. As a free-to-play game, there are confirmed paid premium cards which can be acquired without real money at greater difficulty. Premium cards have the same gameplay abilities as their non-premium counterparts, but they feature detailed looping animations instead of still pictures. Players can even rotate the view on them to see into the corners of the world animating within the card.
Though the game is not done, and ongoing adjustments are not only planned but already underway, there does seem to still be a balance issue. In the Witcher 3 minigame, this writer found the Northern Realms faction to be the strongest and the most adaptable. Based on the limited experience with the same faction at E3, that still feels very true. Perhaps players still need to adjust to the new factions and their changes. After all, the Northern Realms deck is the first one players had access to in Witcher 3. Oddly enough, there does not yet seem to be anything a player can do if their opponent never makes a move. That said, the new GWENT definitely feels far more fleshed out than its minigame sibling. The new cards are interesting and exciting, while the plethora of changes are very welcome and actually open up a ton of new possibilities in the game. In general, each faction does not play fundamentally differently from before, but they do have way more options per turn. Constant shifts in advantage and lead seem more commonplace now, making the struggle for dominance each round more grueling. This in turn makes planning and winning a whole match more hazardous, but easier in many ways due to new cards and card abilities. Only time and further player testing will reveal whether GWENT truly has what it takes to stand with the CCG giants with its eventual release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.