I've spent well over a hundred hours playing The Witcher 3, and I would even go as far as to say that I consider it to be one of the finest RPGs ever made. However, while I've certainly done my fair share of exploration and monster slaying, I am willing to wager that a good portion of that time was spent in taverns rather than out in the wilderness. You see, in my world Geralt didn't really do as much monster hunting as he did card hunting, because lets face it, demolishing yet another damnable nest of Nekkers isn't going to help me complete this Gwent deck!
But no matter how addictive and creative The Witcher 3's Gwent minigame was, it still suffered from a limited amount of viable cards and balance holes so large you could drag a Wyvren through them. Most of the decks were based around the same few overpowered cards, while the rest of the collection simply rotted away in Geralt's backpack alongside a variety of monster heads and body parts. Even back then it was obvious that what Gwent really needed in order to become truly great was a standalone release - an entire game dedicated to the concept and filled to the brim with brand new cards, mechanics, and a whole host of balance changes. And as luck would have it, that little wish came true about a week ago as Gwent: The Witcher Card Game entered closed beta!
So now that we have a standalone version of Gwent I'm sure the big question on everyone's mind is whether its any good or not? Well, let's find out!
Video version of this review
Before I say anything else, do bear in mind that Gwent is currently in an early closed beta state. As such there are multiple features missing, the balance isn't yet nailed down, and there is a distinct lack of small, quality-of-life features that make the game easier for new players. Naturally, all of this is still being worked on, but if you manage to get a beta key yourself don't be surprised when you log in and notice that the single player content is completely missing - that will be arriving at a later date given that this closed beta is mostly about the multiplayer experience.
With that brief disclaimer now out of the way, allow me to first explain what exactly Gwent is. To put it simply, it is a card game that focuses heavily on resource management, card advantage, and careful planning in order to ensure your own tricks don't end up working against you. Unlike most other card games, in Gwent you're only allowed to play one card per turn, so there is always a chance to counter the opponent's strategy before it actually grows to fruition, but also to bait them into a devastating trap!
Most interestingly of all, the match winner is decided through a best-of-three system that only allows you to draw three extra cards throughout the entire match. As such, it is of vital importance to ration your threats and answers given that they're all you have to work with, but also recognize when you have been bested so that you can concede a battle in order to win the war! These sort of mechanics have already proved themselves to be a great deal of fun in The Witcher 3, and I'm glad to say that the standalone version of Gwent has only managed to make them even better!
Don't be afraid to sacrifice a round in order to win the match
So what are the major differences between The Witcher 3's Gwent and the standalone version? In terms of gameplay they are almost exactly the same, so if you're a fan of The Witcher 3's card game odds are you're going to love this one as well. Its still welcoming to new players while also being surprisingly complex, there are still plenty of ways to trick your opponents in order to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and there are still plenty of different deck archetypes that you can toy around with. But while the gameplay mechanics are mostly the same, the cards have been drastically changed as many have been uplifted from their previously useless state, while other have received a much needed nerf.
Some of the irrelevant and incredibly boring siege units have been granted an ability to damage enemy units when entering the battlefield, which means that the siege cards are now actually worth putting in your deck. The overpowered cards that doubled their strength have been toned down in order to reduce the "I win because I drew the godhand" potential. Even "Poor Fucking Infantry", one of the worst cards in the entirety of The Witcher 3 and a bane to all new players, is now a completely viable choice when building a deck! The list doesn't end there, however, as many of the specialist cards have also received a significant rework, most notably the obscenely overpowered dragon and the equally obnoxious spies.
Some of the old and boring cards have been turned into actually interesting ones
Villentrentemerth (yes, that is actually the dragon's name) now no longer instantly destroys the strongest creatures when he enters the battlefield, but rather three turns after. Not only is this much more enjoyable to play against given that the game didn't just instantly swing 20 points in the opponent's favor, but you also have the ability to use this against them! Since the ability only takes effect three turns later you can strategically buff enemy cards in order to make them the dragon's targets, thus shifting the focus from your own units. Obviously, the opponent can do the same to you, so every time Mr. Villy comes into play the entire game takes a hilarious turn as you stop trying to make your own side stronger, and instead start focusing on making your opponent look like juicer target.
As for the spies, they have either been completely reworked in order to no longer provide a card advantage, or have become so much stronger that giving them to your opponent is actually a significant price to pay. Unlike their previous incarnation, every single one of them now provides a slightly different take on the concept, and as such fits the game in a much more natural and balanced way. And best of all, games no longer take 20 minutes because both players are drawing through their entire decks!
It sure would be nice if I owned any of these cool and unique Legendary cards :(
While this new version of Gwent might be nicely balanced, or at least balanced enough that my newbie eyes cannot tell the difference, there is a sinister evil lurking deep within its core - randomness! If you thought that playing against Yogg-Saron in Hearthstone was obnoxious given his ability to completely flip the game around purely by random chance, then I'm afraid you're in for a surprise with Gwent. There are a couple of cards, and this sadly includes the passive ability for the entire Monsters faction, that are able to pretty much win you the game by flipping a coin. Not exactly what I like to see in my strategy focused card games...
So what's the problem? Well, in the case of the Monsters faction their passive ability states that one random creature will remain on the board at the end of reach round. This sounds innocent enough, especially since the Monsters faction loves to swarm the board with absolute garbage, but this passive ability also works on Gold (Legendary) cards. Nothing says skill better than having the Monsters player luck out and start the round with their absolute best creature on the board while you have quite literally nothing! But better yet, if you're the Monsters player you might just start the round with a creature you WANTED to lose due to its powerful on-death effect, but didn't because the dice decided you belong in Loserville instead.
Nothing says fun like playing against the same Legendary three turns in a row
And speaking of Yogg-Saron, the Scoia'tael faction has a card that functions in a similar way. Once you put it on the battlefield it will take a random spell from your deck and simply play it, no matter if it ends up summoning a firestorm over your own troops or a freezing winter that completely decimates your opponent's army. You could build a deck entirely around this card so that you only have spells that positively affect your own minions, but given how powerful card combos are in Gwent you simply have to carry a large of removal spells as well. Then again, you could choose to not use this card at all, but given how card advantage is everything in games with limited drawing power its not so easy to simply ignore a 2-in-1 effect. It will occasionally ruin your game on its own, but if you hedge your bets and make it a 70% chance for a positive effect, that's more than worth featuring in your deck. And that is exactly where the problem lies.
Personally, I despise mechanics like this. Sure, in the grand scheme of things they are perfectly balanced as the positive/negative effects will average out over the course of thousands of games, but in that one game where you get completely and utterly trashed its impossible to not get angry when the only reason behind your loss was a random dice roll! Gwent is supposed to be a strategy game, and one that puts the player's skills front and center, so to have mechanics and cards like this is a bit of a strange design choice. They don't really add anything to the game as they aren't as zany as some of Hearthstone's random effects, but they come with the same sort of negative experiences so hopefully CDPR will do something to lessen the randomness and promote a more interesting and skillful playstyle instead.
Losing the game? Might as well flip over the table and see what happens!
I'm sure some of you are thinking I'm just a big 'ol whiny baby and that I can simply replace the cards I dislike for those that I consider 'truly skillful', but this is another problematic area for Gwent. Since losses give you absolutely nothing, and since you don't start with many Silver (Epic) or Gold (Legendary) cards, you are going to be stuck playing the basic decks for a very long time. This wouldn't be too much of a problem if the Silver and Gold cards offered great power at a equally great cost, but they are unfortunately just better and stronger versions of the Bronze cards. Most importantly, Gold cards are completely immune to spells (both friendly and enemy), so if you have four Gold cards and your opponent only has one, you are going to be at a distinct advantage!
I've been playing Gwent for a good chunk of hours now and I've unpacked multiple kegs (card packs), but I'm still playing basically the same decks as when I started. This is because the cards I've gained so far aren't worth putting into a deck without having at least a couple of them due to deck consistency and synergy. This is especially problematic for the extremely powerful Gold and Silver cards, of which you can only put a certain number in your deck, as I don't even have enough to fill out all of the slots yet. You would think this wouldn't be a problem so early in the closed beta, but I'm already being demolished by people whose card quality simply eclipses my own. Fighting an uphill battle every now and then is an exciting experience, but getting steamrolled because the basic cards are just flat out worse than some of the rarer cards is a different story entirely.
The starter decks aren't badly designed, but they are in desperate need of quality cards
To Gwent's credit, however, I do love how they've designed the progression system, even if I think its terribly slow right now. Much like Hearthstone you are able to disenchant cards you don't need in order to craft different ones, and use the ore (gold) you gain by winning to buy more card packs. Best of all, if both you and your opponent decide to end the match by sending each other a "Good Game!" message, you'll be awarded with a small bit of currency! Its a nearly meaningless feature, and one that in theory doesn't really do anyhting, but I still somehow found myself feeling all warm and fuzzy inside whenever the opponent would send me a GG message. I guess the little things really do matter!
Even the way you open card packs has been cleverly designed to remove frustration. Instead of simply getting five random cards and a swift boot to the buttocks, Gwent gives you four random cards and the ability to choose the fifth one yourself! Naturally, you can only choose from a couple of randomly generated cards, but since they can be of any quality its a nice way to fill out those gaping holes in your deck. I cannot praise this system enough because it not only makes building your decks slightly easier, but it also helps you invent new ones by introducing you to potentially exciting cards you've never seen before.
This is such a great feature I wish every card game had it!
The final topic I wanted to briefly go over was the UI and the design in general. While I don't have any major complaints about the interface, there are numerous tiny ones that all combine together to make Gwent a lot clunkier than it should be. The most annoying problem is that some enemy cards just don't show up on the "recently played" part of the screen, so if you turned your head away from a moment you might just come back to a completely different board and no idea what in the world just happened. On a similar note, I also dislike how the "You passed your turn" text covers up all of your cards, essentially making them unreadable. This isn't too big of a deal given that you most likely know exactly what you have, but I'm one of those weirdos that likes to constantly fiddle with his cards, so having this massive black bar over them is rather unfortunate.
As for the artwork behind the cards themselves, its pretty damn good! While Hearthstone and similar card games feature mostly cartoonish artwork with a massive focus on silly jokes, the cards in Gwent represent the completely different side of the spectrum. They are drawn in a realistic and professional manner, similar to MTG cards, which goes a long way towards making them more enjoyable to play with. It also helps that the voice acting is generally top notch, so all of the cards both look and sound awesome. Most impressively, some of the cards have multiple cosmetic variations, so if you spawn an entire horde of Nekkers no two will be alike!
With all of that said, I do believe Gwent still has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to animations and death effects given that they are currently extremely basic and repetitive. It shouldn't be the case that archers, catapults, and even demonic elves from a completely different world use the same animation when dealing damage. Most people will argue these little details aren't important, but when it comes to ensuring that each round of Gwent feels exciting it is exactly them that most people will point towards. So hopefully CDPR will realize how important this is, and dedicate a couple of future patches solely to design-related polish.
Ciri's artwork is one of my personal favorites
Gwent might currently be in an early closed beta state, but even now it is a vastly superior version of The Witcher 3's minigame. The balance is tighter, there are more viable cards with which you can craft decks, and the card abilities themselves have been greatly redesigned to offer a much more strategic experience. If your only wish from Gwent: The Witcher Card Game was to get a new and improved version of The Witcher 3's Gwent - you can consider your wish granted!
When compared to other card games, however, Gwent still requires a fair bit of work. There is a definitive need for more cards in order to make each strategy less obvious, the animations and sound effects could use a bit of an overhaul if Gwent is ever to compete with Hearthstone, and overall I would like to see a couple of future patches dedicated solely to quality of life issues and the new player experience. While all of that might sound like a tall order, it is well worth mentioning that Gwent only recently entered closed beta, so CDPR still has plenty of time to make all of the necessary changes in order to create something truly special. And here's to hoping they actually manage to do so because more competition among card games is something everyone will benefit from!
If you get a beta key make sure to try the swarming Monsters build. Its a ton of fun!