I have a confession. Despite being such an avid gamer, I have never played The Witcher 3. Hopefully some of you haven’t lost all respect for me and will continue reading.
Card games have always been favorites of mine from traditional ones like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone to deckbuilders like Dominion and modern spins like Clash Royale. Gwent was such a popular minigame in The Witcher 3 that CD Projekt Red went all in and made it a standalone title. This past weekend’s PS4 stress test gave me a chance to try it out. Here’s how someone who didn’t play The Witcher 3 but loves card games sees Gwent.
Card Game Basics Are Basically All Gone
Health, mana, attacking, defending. None of these traditional mechanics exist in Gwent. Games are played in a best-of-three format and the player with the highest total strength wins each round. Players each play one card per turn. Most cards are units with a strength value that can only be played in certain rows on the board that add to your total strength. Each side of the board is separated into melee, ranged, and siege rows. There’s no inherent bonus to being in any one row, but certain abilities can modify all cards in a row or target single cards along with their neighbors. Any unit reduced to zero strength is sent to the graveyard. Spell cards that add or remove strength, duplicate units, move units between rows, and more round out your deck.
A best-of-three format makes Gwent more of a mind game than most card games. You draw 10 cards at the start of round one but you only get to draw two more cards before round two and just one extra card before the final round. This makes every card incredibly valuable. Any cards in your hand at the end of a round carry over while anything on the board is moved into the graveyard. If you don’t want to play a card, either because you think you have a round locked up or because you want to save cards for later, you can pass. Your opponent has the option to continue playing cards until they also pass. Figuring out when to pass and when to be aggressive is hands down my favorite part of Gwent. Do I want to bother playing more cards now when I might need them to win later rounds? Should I pass and hope my opponent concedes the round? Decisions, decisions.
There are two other major factors in Gwent: card group and weather. Cards come in three groups: bronze, silver, and gold. Most abilities specifically impact non-Gold cards which is a great way of making heavy hitting gold cards stay on the board and feel powerful. Weather effects are spells that impact the same row on both sides of the board. Fog, for example, lowers the strength of all units in the ranged row to one.
Deck Building Leaves A Lot Of Room For Creativity
Building a deck in Gwent, like most card games, is about sticking to a theme. The first thing you do when building a deck is choose a faction. Factions each have a set of cards to choose from as well as a passive ability. Once you have a faction, you choose a leader from that faction. Leaders are powerful ability cards that can only be used once per game. After that, a well designed UI helps you fill out your deck by separating your cards into rows. Decks must have between 25 and 40 cards and can contain any number of bronze cards, up to six silver cards, and up to four gold cards between your faction and the neutral faction.
Mixing and matching a faction, leader, and sets of cards to fit your play style is a lot of fun. I messed around with a few decks but my favorite uses the Monster faction with Eredin as the leader. The Monster faction’s passive keeps the last Monster unit you played on the board when switching rounds while Eredin’s ability summons an 11 strength unit. Both of those abilities play well with my devourer units that absorb the strength of units either from the graveyard or adjacent to them to create beefy units. I also run a few cards that bounce back from the graveyard like Regis, a six strength vampire that is resummoned with 10 strength after leaving the board, and a Prize-Winning Cow with one strength that automatically comes back as a Chortle with nine.
This flexibility even extends to gaining new cards. You can craft specific cards, of course, but you can also buy packs of cards in card kegs. Kegs give you four random cards and a choice between one of three higher rarity cards. Instead of simply getting a card pack/loot box and hoping you get something good, card kegs give you a bit of a choice. It’s another interesting spin on classic mechanics.
Easy To Pick Up, Fun To Outsmart Opponents
Since there isn’t a health pool to manage or a mana curve to worry about, Gwent is super easy to get started with. All you have to do is pick a card and play it. Want to play a 12 strength Geralt on turn one? Go for it. The tutorial decks are good enough to be somewhat viable, but you’ll probably want to make your own deck after you find a theme that interests you. Games are quick, too, only taking about seven to 10 minutes to play.
I’ve played about 20 games of Gwent and the allure of executing on my plans with the few cards I have keeps me coming back. I had a commanding lead in round three of a game before my opponent used a three strength debuff on my row of five units and doubled the strength of four of his eight strength ones. That was a hell of a turnaround. I’ve passed fairly early in round one and had it both work spectacularly and backfire in my face. The late round pressure that the Monster faction creates is a lot of fun but the combination of choosing who goes first and redrawing cards with a Scoia’tael faction deck is incredibly powerful.
I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to being able to know what an opponent might play next. Nearly every round ends with a debate of whether to be aggressive to seal a win or concede and play for the next one. Gwent requires a lot of thought and so far, I’m loving it.
Gwent has been a lot of fun in the three or so hours I’ve put into it. Since I haven’t played The Witcher 3, references and reasons why cards do certain things are lost on me. I don’t know why playing any unit between Eskel, Vesmir, and Lambert will summon the other two or why Yennefer can summon a Unicorn, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not the game is fun and engaging which it absolutely is. Factions and leaders allow for a ton of flexibility while passing, the board itself, and the removal a summoning resource breathe life into an old genre.
My biggest hope is that a mobile version is in the works. Playing a card game on a TV with a controller feels a bit odd and scrolling between cards is wonky but the few games I played remotely on my Vita felt great. I’ve logged the majority of my Hearthstone hours on my phone and Gwent would be a great substitution. As far as quality of life goes, my only major complaint is not knowing what a unit summoned by another will do. For example, seeing that Yennefer can summon a Unicorn from the deck builder is great but there’s no way (on console) to know what that Unicorn unit does without playing one in a match. PC players can do this by mousing over the name of the summoned units in the deck builder so hopefully something similar comes to console.
Have you played Gwent? What’s your favorite deck? Why does everyone seem to hate the Nilfgaardian faction? Sound off below!