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Friday, 21 July 2017

Gwent: The Witcher Card Game - Beta Impressions










Gwent: The Witcher Card Game is the latest in a long line of games spawned, primarily at least, from the absurd success of Hearthstone. I’ve covered several of them on this very site at this point, and I can’t deny that I’ll always enjoy flinging a few digital cards every now and then. Card games just manage to scratch that certain “itch” that no other game can.

Gwent is somewhat unique in that it’s not simply from a video game series, but that’s it’s spawned from a game within a game. Gwent was an absurdly involving pass time in The Witcher 3. I’d be lying if I said I spent more than a few hours playing it, my deck quickly fell behind to the point where there was little point in me continuing.

For those like me, new Gwent gives us a reason to jump straight back to slinging cards. The game system has been largely overhauled, not in any dramatic fashion, but changes clearly had to be made to change something from a throw-away mini-game into something that can be balanced for play between human opponents.

For me, the game’s most intriguing aspect is how little it resembles other card games. Look at Hearthstone and you see the basic skeleton of Magic: The Gathering draped over simplified mechanics and chunky card art. Elder Scrolls Legends does something similar. By the time you reach Eternal, you have a game that’s gone full-circle; baking in more complex Magic mechanics but still trying to fit them into Hearthstone’s accessible interface.

It’s hard at this point to not think that the free-to-play card game genre has become, well, a bit inbred, and Gwent’s biggest plus is that it shows there’s far more interesting and original design spaces to mine for those willing to do the leg work. If nothing else, I hope it causes other developers to think a little more in what they can do when it comes to designing yet another free-to-play card game.

Mechanics

Rather than operate on a card combat basis, Gwent functions by having players commit cards to the board that are worth a set value of points. Each card typically comes with some rules text to change its function in some way. For instance, you’ve got the battle-hardened warrior that gets stronger each round, or the siege machine that takes points off the opposing side each turn by firing at them.

Furthermore, there’s the concept of rows. Cards can be committed to either the front rank, the ranged rank or the siege rank. Whilst some cards don’t have a choice about what rank they occupy (it’s printed on the card) others can be positioned in any row, adding an additional layer of tactics.


If that were all there were to Gwent, it’d simply be a case of playing the biggest and baddest thing and being done with it. There isn’t, after all, any resource or mana cost to any of the game’s cards, another interesting difference from similar card games. Matches, however, take place over three rounds, with players drawing ten cards at the start of the game, two additional cards in the second round, and another if the game runs into the third.

Passing on your turn, rather than playing a card, gives up any further plays you can make in that round, but allows you to save cards for future rounds. Gwent can perhaps best be summed up by the idea of losing the battle to win the war; it’s rarely the kind of game where doggedly playing the “best” card turn after turn will win you the game. Sometimes, it’s best to give up your chaff, throwing away weaker cards in order to, hopefully, tease stronger ones out of your opponent’s hand.

All this means that many games of Gwent are about eeking out the tiniest margins in the hopes of achieving victory. Card advantage in Gwent is devastating; going into a second round and being two or even three cards down is likely going to be the end of you. The game lacks the tactile, board-smashing fun of a daft game of Hearthstone but that makes it no less satisfying. Craftily pushing your opponent to commit one more card to the board, before folding the round anyway, is the kind of “yomi” that makes Gwent so fun to play.

With no randomness to speak of (a few cards have some general RNG, but it’s scarce for the most part), Gwent is both fun and strategic, rewarding players for optimal lines of play and a good understanding of the game’s systems. It might not always look or sound particularly exciting, but there’s depth to the gameplay here, and Gwent is certainly better off as a result.

Classes

Given that there’s no resource system, Gwent separates its three-hundred or so available cards across five separate classes. Each represents a country or faction from the Witcher series, with a number of neutral cards rounding out the card pool.

As you’d expect, each class has specific things it’s good at, or a selection of strategies it wants to focus on. Skellige decks are better suited to focus on graveyard synergies, for instance, with a number of cards getting better in later rounds of the game. Likewise, Nilfgaard decks are the best at using spies. Spy cards are played on your opponent’s side of the table, but typically coming with powerful abilities, or, given the way the game’s rounds work, allowing you to stay in the round another turn whilst not really playing a “proper” card.

All five of these classes currently come with three different heroes, each of which typically highlight that faction’s signature themes or strategies. So, weather-based monster decks for instance, clearly want to use Dagon, with his ability to “spawn” new weather effects on to the board.

All of these elements; the ten-card hand at the start of the game (with the option of three single-card mulligans) and the “heroes” which nudge you into particular strategies, make for a game that’s about having a plan in mind even before the game starts, and then trying to implement it. This is refreshing when compared to Hearthstone and its ilk, where the biggest question each turn, typically, comes from whether to simply trade away on the board or start attacking your opponent’s face. More than anything else that Gwent does right, it’s that it simply asks interesting (and different) questions in each game.

Wrench in the Works

Of course, there’s always issues, and so far, given that this is the Beta, there’s definitely some here.

As with the rest of the game, Gwent’s issues are themselves unique. A lot of its weaker aspects and potential problems are spawned precisely because it does other specific things really well, or at the very least, differently from other collectible card games.

First off; card acquisition. Gwent’s free-to-play model is about as generous as its counterparts. Gold is accumulated for each string of daily wins; first six, then twelve, then eighteen and so on, leaving players to decide for themselves how much grinding/investment they want to put into the game each day without being hamstrung by a limited number of quests/challenges.

It’s possible even, that the game is more generous than similar games. Decks are comprised of a minimum of twenty-five cards, with all silver and gold cards (you can have a maximum of six and four of these respectively) being singletons in your deck. This means piecing together a deck, in theory, is perhaps quicker than in other card games.

That’s where part of the problem comes from, however. In order to take this aspect into account, accruing cards in Gwent feels slower than in, say, Hearthstone or Eternal. Whereas those games,  feel like they’re doling out new cards to you on a regular basis, it takes longer in Gwent simply because there’s less to actually collect. You’ll build a deck faster, but the cards will feel as if they’re coming to you slower, which means grinding it out with the same deck over and over again.

By far the biggest issue so far, however, is that the game’s strategic qualities risk undermining it’s enjoyment for those without the best cards. Like I said, Gwent is fun precisely because it avoids the lazy randomness that has come to riddle Hearthstone, but because of this, and because the game typically rewards decks that function as engines; there’s the issue where the player with the better cards typically wins a lot more often.

The randomness inherent in many card games allows weaker players to not only “catch up” or even win a game or two, but it also highlights a different kind of skill. That randomness forces players to conjure up new strategies on the fly, or to adjust old ones, the chaos baked into the game’s systems is what makes for a challenge. Randomness isn’t a particular elegant mechanic, but it does prevent stale gameplay scenarios.

In contrast, Gwent is very much a game built around enacting a plan and then sticking to it. Skellige decks built around graveyard interactions want to dump their weaker cards in round one, so that they’re ready and waiting to be resurrected back in rounds two and three for significantly more value. Northern Realms decks that are built around siege units, want to get those out early and then use “crew” cards to trigger additional benefits off of the units they’ve already played.


Obviously, to a certain degree this is the simple synergy at the heart of most card games, and it’s a good thing. However, some games of Gwent can feel futile when played against a player with stronger cards and a linear plan to their deck. Without any randomness stopping them (meaning they’ll almost certainly get to play some of the cards they want), and no real “spoiler” effects aside from a few damage cards and weather abilities, games can feel non-interactive and predetermined, as the opposing player snuffs you out with their superior card power and more potent engine.

It leads to an awkward quandary for Gwent. On the one hand, the lack of RNG is certainly a good thing, and makes for a satisfying, tactical game that rewards smart play. Yet, it also highlights the pay-to-win nature of these kinds of games even more than their more random counterparts. The moment there’s a power level difference in player’s decks in Gwent, it almost certainly begins to feel like an uphill battle.

There’s a strong basis for a solid game here. CD Project should be commended for building a CCG that’s genuinely unique and not simply a reskin or subtle change to one of the preceding game’s systems. The artwork, the different decks, and the breeziness that it all plays out make it satisfying to play but without getting bogged down in stuffy rules management.

The main issue for the game at the moment is making that grind worth going for. Players willing to part with plenty of money from the get go will likely get more from the game at the this point, which makes sense, I suppose. But, if the game is to have any lasting and long-term appeal, it’d perhaps best work at finding unique ways for games not to become too prescribed or engaged in auto-pilot.

If the good parts of the game are anything to go by, however, CD Projeckt definitely have the ability.

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