One of the markers of a great game is that I think about it when I’m not playing it. The games I really love aren’t just enjoyable while I’m playing, they’re compelling. If I’m reading a history book, I sometimes find myself wondering how Europa Universalis IV implements the country or idea I’m learning about. When I’m doing something routine like ironing I’ll sometimes think about what I’ll do differently the next time I play Hitman. Gwent is a really great game. Since I got into the beta about a week ago, I’ve been thinking about how I could change my deck and what cards I’d need to build another, even when I’m not playing the game. I’ve enjoyed drawing up a list of cards for a necromancy deck based around returning units from the graveyard, and it’s been fun to improvise with the cards I already have.
The key to Gwent’s success is that at its core it’s different to most other card games digital or physical. On PC, games like Heathstone, Elder Scrolls: Legends, Duelyst and even my favourite card game, Scrolls, are different from each other but ultimately derived from the Magic: The Gathering formula. In other words, you play unit cards on to the game board and during an attack phase you aim to reduce your opponent’s power either by directly attacking her/him or indirectly by removing her/his units. Over time or by playing certain cards, you generate resources that allow you to play more powerful cards. These games have little in common besides the fundamentals, but as a sub-genre they could all be classified as ‘attack-defend’ card games, since you’re either working to attack your opponent or defend yourself.
By contrast, Gwent is a bidding game. To win a round, your units need to have a higher combined strength value than your opponent’s. You and your opponent take turns, playing a card each turn from your hand. You either play a unit with a strength value, who sits on your side of the board and adds to your total, or a special card which either buffs your units or de-buffs your opponents. You don’t normally draw cards during a round. Instead, you start with ten cards each (nine in your hand, plus one linked to the faction leader you chose) and draw cards only after a round finishes – two after the first, one after the second. The effect of this is to make Gwent a game not so much about deciding how you want to win as when you want to win. Because each match is played in a best of three format, it doesn’t pay to play every card in your hand as quickly as possible, even though in theory you could play your highest strength card or set up your most devastating combo in turn one. Each round is played on a fresh board so units and effects are cleared away but you keep the same hand. One of the most common strategies is to get your opponent to over-commit to a round: they might win, but you can empty their hand and win the rounds after.
Since I haven’t been playing Gwent for very long, I’ve been using the Monster faction, which is both relatively simple to play and powerful without having to buy extra card packs. Each faction has a special ability, and in the case of Monsters it’s to let you keep one randomly selected unit from your side of the board in the new round. As a result, you’ll see a lot of Monster players dropping one powerful creature in round one and, turn by turn, buffing it up to ludicrous strength. If they can bait their opponent into playing a lot of creatures in the first round, they could still be winning the game even if they lose the round: they’ll get to keep that one creature while the opponent’s board will be discarded. Similarly, the Skellige faction have lots of units which get bonuses when they’re resurrected from the graveyard. So players drop just those cards in the first round since they need to get rid of them, and if you’re playing cards without special resurrection abilities, all the better for them.
If that kind of thing doesn’t sound exciting, you may as well stop reading. Most of the complexity and ultimately the joy of Gwent comes from the potential combinations of its 416 cards across four factions, each with different abilities and leaders to choose from. Just looking through the collection is interesting: often, I’ll hit on a unit and think about how I could build a deck around it. While I was getting screenshots for this post, in fact, I came up against a Monster deck which relied on lots of weak units with the ‘breedable’ tag, meaning if you play the monster nest card you get an extra copy of each.
To this point I’ve avoided being too specific when talking about Gwent: I love it, of course, but it’s in closed beta so it’s not clear what changes it’ll undergo. As it stands, I’ve got two areas of concern, one related to business and the other to play. First, Gwent is less generous than other free to play card games in terms of the rewards you get for winning matches. It takes a long time to earn enough ore – which can be used in lieu of real money – to buy card packs. I don’t begrudge the developer, CD Projekt Red, for wanting to make money. Given, though, that it’s now competing with games like Duelyst which gives out cards much more quickly, it could stand to increase the rate at which you gain ore. On a purely practical level, playing the same deck gets boring and even if you do pay up facing the same two or three cheap decks is boring too.
In terms of play, my worry is the direction Gwent seems to be going. Gwent originated as a mini-game in CD Project Red’s last game, The Witcher 3. The standalone game plays much the same as the mini-game with one notable exception. The developers have significantly increased the amount of cards which deal direct damage to your opponents, board, either by killing specific units or reducing their power. So Triss Merigold, who had no effect in The Witcher 3, now removes four strength from an opposing unit when she enters the battlefield and similarly Iorveth removes six strength from an opposing unit. My concern here is that if the developers continue to emphasise cards like this going forward, Gwent could become less a bidding game and more attack-defend like other card games. If that were to happen it would lose its identity: what made Gwent distinctive in The Witcher 3 was that you didn’t attack your opponent’s units. Of course, the game is in its infancy, and I’m more interested in flagging up this concern for the future than venting my frustrations about the game today since, as of now, it’s not a serious issue.
On the whole, Gwent is a really exciting game that invites you to think both about the kind of decks you want to build and how you’ll play turn-to-turn. Gwent’s transition to a standalone game has been largely successful and I really look forward to playing more.