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Gwent: The Witcher Card Game: Our first take

‘Gwent’ is shaping up to be a worthy opponent for ‘Hearthstone’

At E3 2016, CD Projekt Red announced Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, a fully-fledged spin-off based on the engrossing side-game from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Since last month, players have been given the chance to get hands on an early version of the game thanks to a closed beta test. While it’s difficult to judge a competitive experience based on this closed environment, there’s plenty of reason for Witcher aficionados and strategy fans alike to keep an eye on Gwent.

Best of Three

Though inspired by the success of games like Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends, CD Projekt Red’s offering does a great job of differentiating itself from its rivals.

Gwent is closer to a two-player board game than a traditional collectible card game. Players take turns placing cards on the game board, with the overarching goal of beating your opponent’s score by playing cards with high point values.

Cards can have their own unique effects outside of their point values, so there’s good reason to build your collection and refine your deck. But spanning each game across three rounds means that good strategy is about more than having all the cards, and knowing what they do. Toying with your opponent’s mind is just as important.

Players need to win two rounds of a game of Gwent to take home the victory, and to bring a round to an end they need to pass their turn and hand control to their opponent. This mechanic lends demands clever thinking, rather than relying on a lucky draw, or the strength of your deck.

You can try baiting your opponent into using all their high value cards in the first round – just like in The Witcher 3.

You might want to bait your rival into playing all their high value cards to claim the first round, making them vulnerable in the third. But your ploy can’t be too obvious, or else your opponent will catch on, taking the round without overplaying. On the flip side, you might be tempted to hold your cards for the right time – but if you lose the first two rounds, it’s too late. You’ve already lost.

This, when paired with the fact that cards only have one numerical value attached to them, makes Gwent easy for novice players to understand. During your first few games, it might be difficult to fully grasp which cards work well together and which ones don’t. But coaxing your opponent into a false sense of security relies more on classic card-game tactics than on playing the best card, and you’re less likely to be taken down by a wacky combination of card effects.

But that doesn’t mean Gwent is easy to win.

Fierce Competition

As you might expect, the current Gwent player base is comprised of experienced players who spent time with the game in The Witcher 3. Even though there’s been changes since then, these players have a marked advantage over the newcomer.

More: This fan-made Witcher 3 gwent set will make you want to learn to play

Once Gwent is open to all comers, it’ll be easier to stay competitive online. However, speaking purely about the closed beta, the high skill level can make it difficult to make any progress as a novice.

Gwent screenshot

Currently, players don’t receive experience for losing a game, only for picking up a win. The only reward you get for participation is the chance at a few scraps, which can later be used to pay for individual cards — and even this is at the discretion of your opponent.

The result is a situation where newcomers can hit a wall early on. It’s almost impossible to make improvements to your deck without racking up wins, outside of spending real-world money. And if you’re matched up with players who have already put some time into building a formidable deck, you might end up in trouble.

This isn’t a game that’s developed just because Hearthstone is a financial success

Given the decision to limit experience gains to outright wins, it will be interesting to see how easy it is to level up and unlock abilities like card milling when Gwent is ready for the masses. It may be that the planned campaign mode will allow players to earn new cards, which would be a smart way to prepare novices for the challenges of online multiplayer.

Of course, there are plenty of questions to be asked about the campaign, given that we know next to nothing about it. A straightforward series of computer-controlled opponents would be fine as a training tool, but card and deck restrictions would make the mode more enticing for experts. It’s difficult to predict what role CD Projekt Red expects the game’s single-player content to fill.

Fleshed Out

Gwent is a solid game. But there are some parts of it that could stand to be improved before it launches.

Deckbuilding on the Xbox One feels clunky. The controller is the biggest issue — a mouse cursor would be much more useful — so it shouldn’t be too easy to find a solution. The ability to build decks from a mobile app, or perhaps in-browser, would be fine, as would a slightly refined interface on console.

There’s also a disconnect between you and your opponent. This goes to show the strength of the stock emotes in Hearthstone, which allow players to communicate without throwing open the floodgates for foul language and abusive speech. Gwent players can only interact using the post-match GG mechanic to offer a small reward, which is an interesting mechanic in its own right, but doesn’t allow for the same sense of friendly competition as a well-placed ‘Oops’ or ‘Thanks’ in Hearthstone.

Yet there are areas where Gwent manages to outclass its biggest competition. Purchasing and opening kegs, which are used to gain cards, is an entertaining experience, because the game’s sense of humor is more mature than that of the family-friendly Hearthstone. Younger players will still be able to enjoy Gwent, but it’s not quite as cartoonish as Blizzard’s smash hit.

More: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review

Speaking of kegs, Gwent offers a clever twist on the process of gaining new cards. The last card received presents a choice between three cards. This makes the process more interactive, drawing players into the experience and giving a better sense of control over deck-building, even if randomness remains a major factor.

That kind of subtle twist is what makes Gwent enjoyable. This isn’t a game that’s being developed just because Hearthstone is a financial success. It’s an honest attempt at fleshing out the genre with something new. If CD Projekt Red can make sensible changes based on feedback from the beta, then there’s every chance that Gwent will find a passionate community.