Gwent was only a small part of what accounted for the sheer brilliance of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But now, the popularity of this seemingly straightforward mini-game has become its own beast, with Gwent: The Witcher Card Game entering its beta phase. It only contains online multiplayer elements at this stage – a best-of-three match between two players – but Gwent manages to hold its own as a standalone game and quickly becomes an enticing and addictive venture.
The art of building the right deck is almost more engrossing than the mind games at play when in an actual duel. For the uninitiated, the main goal of Gwent is to have the most Strength at the end of a round. All of the unit cards are divided into Siege, Ranged and Melee classes, while Special cards help to increase the value of your own cards or significantly lower your opponent’s overall strength. But the real key to victory is knowing when to play which card.
Currently, there are four decks available in the Gwent closed beta: Northern Realms, Monster, Skellige, and Scoia’tael. All are fully customisable and focus on a particular brand of play. Each deck also has an accompanying Leader, a recognisable figure from the world of The Witcher who applies an in-game ability to your deck. There’s an in-game perk to help you out, too, so there’s a lot to think about despite how quickly each round goes. These prove to be extremely useful and, if played at the right time, can change the momentum and outcome of a duel.
Throughout the closed beta, a favoured tactic amongst users of the Monster deck is to play any gold card they have in the opening round, which includes the ability to play a copy of a Wild Hunt rider called Eredin – granting 10 strength. The Monster deck’s perk allows a random monster card to stay on the board for the next round and, since gold cards are immune to a majority of card abilities and all weather effects, it is a clever way of maintaining the ascendancy. However, after a recent patch, gold cards in the Monster deck can’t stay on the board at the end of a round, while Eredin has been relegated to Silver status. This small alteration goes a long way to re-balancing Gwent for the opposition, in particular, albeit increasing the chances that Eredin stays in the match.
If you struggle to accept defeat and are without a gold card in your opening hand, it also means you must invest more cards to stay in the round – giving you a smaller selection of cards for the following rounds.
Gwent’s major gameplay mechanic is the ability to Pass. This will usually occur if you’re too far behind an opponent’s strength total or think you’ve established an insurmountable lead. The latter gives the other player free rein to play whatever they want – without reply – until they also pass the round. I’ve lost quite a few rounds to sheer arrogance as the opposition plays a series of cards at the right time – forcing me to win the next bout or concede defeat.
There are some contrasts between how Gwent was integrated in The Witcher 3 and how it’s delivered in this closed beta. Here, the maximum amount of gold and silver cards allowed in your deck has been lowered quite a bit, and the interplay between different races when constructing a deck has been tweaked, too. I remember my Northern Realms deck from The Witcher 3 integrated a few monsters but, in this case, it’s much more clear-cut. The Monster deck used to be a definite no-go for me – filled to the brim with vulnerable, low-level melee units – but now its been given a new lease of life with invaluable card abilities and an extended roster of Range and Siege creatures; it’s my favourite deck so far.
Across the four available collections (with the fifth, Nilfgaard, to arrive later) there is a noticeable lack of Spy cards. This card type is very useful for gaining extra cards from your deck at the expense of some strength, which is awarded to the other player instead. The Mysterious Elf, aka Avallac’h, was arguably the most useful card in the entirety of The Witcher 3’s Gwent mini-game. It was a gold Spy card that awarded zero strength to the opponent, while allowing you to draw two cards. But in the beta, your opponent is given six strength and can draw one card; it’s a definite downgrade.
But the act of card crafting allows you to pick and choose what cards you want for your collection. Every card in the game can be created using a certain amount of scrap, which can be awarded from a win, loss, levelling up, or sending your opponent a friendly “GG” prompt at the end of a match. The option to mill a particular card will also grant a set number of scrap, which is useful when you own quite a few duplicates. It can be a long slog to a particular card when there’s zero scrap in your bank, but the reward at the end is more than worth it.
Another way to earn more powerful cards is through a lucky-dip by purchasing packs, called card kegs. These are 100 Ore each (only earned through wins and level progression) and award four random cards, plus a fifth card chosen from a selection of three options. It can be quite tense when choosing that final card and I’ve had more than my fair share of crap kegs; for instance, I had six copies of Torrential Rain at one stage. I’d like to see a last-ditch option, like sacrificing some scrap for a second attempt at that fifth card, to come in a future update.
Gwent: The Witcher Card Game has a lot of things going for it, even in its early stages. There’s an eye-catching colour palette with the playful splashes of red, blue, purple and green from the respective races of choice. The game board isn’t cluttered with icons or numbers and there are some cool animations for some of the cards and their abilities. But Gwent’s biggest positive, I think, is that matches never linger for too long – unless you’re battling against that one person who milks the 30-second clock for all it’s worth.
I’ve never played Hearthstone, but my experience of the Gwent closed beta, after 20-or-so hours, has eclipsed any chance of me playing it. This first offering of The Witcher Card Game is surprisingly slick and improves on CD Projekt RED’s initial mini-game by a substantial margin. There are, understandably, improvements that need to be made, but the ease of play and immense amount of strategy behind Gwent makes it a sure-fire option within the card game genre.
You can still sign up for the Gwent Closed Beta, available only on PC and Xbox One.
Already in the beta? What would you like to see in the next Gwent update? Let us know in the comments below!