Gwent was always the joker in the pack. CD Projekt Red only included the minigame in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt as a throwaway extra in the great tradition of KoTOR’s Pazaak or Fallout: New Vegas’s Caravan. Yet the collect-’em-all card game drew an unexpectedly large following, many players (myself included) finding themselves speeding from vendor to vendor, greedily amassing every card in the game, and ignoring the main quest.
With that in mind, the revamped version I’ve just spent two days playing at CD Projekt’s Warsaw headquarters is definitely not a surprise. The core systems are as simple as ever. Each card has a strength and some special rules. You draw a hand of cards, and try to build a higher strength out of them than your opponent. If you do, you win the round. The first person to win two rounds wins the match. That’s Numberwang! I mean Gwent.
That all sounds like a straightforward base for a wonderful game but in practice, old Gwent was pretty broken, and heavily unbalanced towards the player. Its creator Rafal Jaki tells me that it was only integrated into the game six months before release, as a replacement for another abandoned CCG. He says this external prototype taught them that Gwent had to be “fast paced—not longer than five minutes—simple but not simplistic, and have an element of collectability, so we could have quests and world interactions.” The game as we know it was thus a somewhat hasty combination of these rules and the tabletop games Condottiere, Netrunner, Neuroshima Hex, and War.
So CD Projekt Red set out to fix it. They’ve rejigged the original’s core systems to keep it unique, while learning from the other virtual CCGs out there. However, they’ve also recognised that all Witcher III players were solo gamers—so they’ve committed to supplying singleplayer story-driven campaigns for them too, created by principal narrative designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz and the senior writer who wrote the Bloody Baron quest, Karolina Stachyra.
Multiplayer first though, as that’s what new Gwent’s development director Benjamin Lee says they’re focused on now. Gwent’s beta will arrive in October, and Lee is clear that it’s to balance the game and find the fun. That also means working more deeply into the game’s unique systems.
Take, for example, the way the game is split into three rounds. It means that you can’t just use every card willy-nilly in a round, because you’ll need to win another one afterwards, so you’re going to need another winning combination—and yet another set to lose a round without making it too easy for your opponent. Gwent isn’t simply about winning rounds—it’s about winning them efficiently.
Another unique system is deception. The inclusion of spy cards allows players to play cards on the opponent’s side of the table. Decoys and Swaps enable you to take back cards you’ve played, including cards that the opponent has played on your side, and then re-use them. This allows you to lure an opponent into committing heavily to a round, only to pull back your cards, and save your strength for another round—albeit with those cards revealed. CD Projekt Red has added to this with a resurrection system, drawing from the discard pile, which is core to Skellige play.
A third key system is the three lanes. Like an old-school dungeon crawler, your melee units go at the front, followed by ranged units and then the heavy weaponry at the back. However, this has nothing to do with the damage potential or the factions, and more to do with the buffs and debuffs you can apply to each lane. The Scoia’tael faction has an array of cards that can select their lanes, for instance.
Weather is a fourth special game mechanic. Four types of special cards were available in the vanilla game, each of which affected a row, reducing all non-hero strength on that row to 1. The fourth removed all weather effects. Here again, the Monster faction has been rejigged around this mechanic, with some creatures being automatically summoned from your hand, deck or graveyard when weather appears, and others being buffed by weather effects.
Finally, there are hero cards. In the Witcher III version, these were untouchable cards occasionally with special abilities. In the version I was playing with the dev team, there was a supporting system of special cards, troops, characters and heroes, each with particular numerical limits. Characters are essentially slightly weaker heroes without the immunity to removal powers. For example, Blueboy Lugos is a 4-power Legendary character card who summons a Whale From The Cave Of Dreams on the opponent’s side, which debuffs every unit on its row.
Yet even as we were playing the game, it was out of date. Already the team has changed the game again—shifting the cards from that system to cards that are simply Bronze, Silver and Gold quality.
Whatever the system ends up being, players have a limit as to how many of each they can have in a deck—while we were playing it was ten specials, up to 40 troops, six characters and four heroes, with the deck as a whole requiring between 22 and 40 cards. Like many of these games based on a draw system, the tighter your deck, the more likely the combination you’ve planned will come up—but the more fragile that build is to disruption.
There are going to be four factions at launch: the medieval human Northern Realms, the rag-tag Elven and Dwarven rebels that make up the Scoia’tael, the pseudo-Vikings of the Skellige isles, and the inhuman Monsters. You’ll get a starter deck for every faction in the multiplayer game.
The Northern Realms were the faction you started with in The Witcher III, so they’re the one most players are familiar with. The revamped version here uses two principal game mechanics: a unique Promote special, which turns all copies of one card into indestructible hero units, and the Tight Bond power, which multiplies unit power for each copy on the board.
Expert deckbuilders will have most fun with the Scoia’tael. They’ve taken the old Northern Realms spy game and added Elves, with several spies to deploy and the swap mechanic to re-use enemy spies easily. However, they’ve also got access to Mahakaman dwarves, who use the Resilient power to stay on the battlefi eld after each round, and a handful of other units who benefi t from special cards being played. (They also have a new ability called Ambush, but that wasn’t in the build I played.)
Skellige was a faction added in The Witcher 3’s Blood & Wine expansion, which introduced a resurrection game mechanic. This encourages you to let units die—or even kill them yourself—safe in the knowledge that you can pull them back for another round, buffed by their brush with the grim reaper. For example, Madman Lugos is a classic Skellige character card, who gets heavily buffed every time he returns from the dead. It’s a potentially powerful advantage, but the risk is your cards not reaching their full potential until the final rounds of a game.
The Monsters, meanwhile, have become the foul-weather faction. Units such as fog-loving Foglets and frostloving Hounds of the Wild Hunt are summoned and banished along with their particular weather type, meaning a pack can appear on the board fairly quickly—and disappear just as fast. Other types, like the Wild Hunt Riders and Frost Giants, have their strength doubled by the Frost weather card. And, as in vanilla Gwent, most of their cards have the Muster ability, which plays all identical cards from your hand, deck or even graveyard.
Nilfgaard—which was a playable faction in The Witcher III—won’t be included at launch. It’s going to be substantially rebuilt, given that it was so similar to the Northern Realms. “They’re very, very different to how any faction plays in the game,” says Lee “It’s taking that theme of spies and espionage, and having more information about what your opponent’s options are... you may have a unit that gains power based on the number of cards revealed in your opponent’s hand.” In other words, Niflgaard are information brokers—and I’ll expect to see more targeted removal cards to aid them in that.
Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz is Gwent’s principal narrative designer on the singleplayer campaigns. “We want to tell stories that have not been told yet. We will be referencing events from the games and from the books, but it won’t be direct adaptations of the stories from the books. You can expect to meet characters that you know from the games or from the universe, and new characters too. Basically the idea is to fi ll in the gaps. If you’re a fan of the books as I am, it’s a pure pleasure.”