Like most people who grew up in the 90’s, I collected Pokémon cards. Not to actually play with them, mind you, but because I got it into my head that I had to “catch ‘em all”. Not exactly sure how that happened, to be honest; I just remember feeling an overwhelming urge, that seemed to grow with each passing week, to spend as much money as my parents could spare on booster packs… anyway, the long of the short of it is, my collection spent almost the entirety of its existence tucked away inside a cheap plastic binder, only seeing the light of day when I wanted to show off my shiny Chansey (that’s not a euphemism) to my friends on the playground.
I acquired a few Yu-Gi-Oh! cards back in the day too, though the only person I ever competed against was my younger brother, along with a couple of video game adaptations (Stairway to the Destined Duel and an abysmal PS1 tie-in called Forbidden Memories). Otherwise, I’m just as unacquainted with the world of popular CCGs like Hearthstone and Shadowverse, as I am string theory.
That is, until recently, when I decided to download the Gwent: The Witcher Card Game public beta on PS4, and discovered a fantastic little card game that’s well worth trying, even if you’re a complete CCG noob like myself.
As someone who spent an inordinate amount of time playing the original minigame – Geralt’s mission to defeat the Wild Hunt would have ended much sooner if I hadn’t forced him to spend countless hours challenging every other player in Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige to a game over the course of his adventure – Gwent: The Witcher Card Game offers a pleasingly familiar experience.
There are a few new mechanics that add an extra layer of depth to the proceedings (‘locking’ and, in a recent update, ‘dueling’, for instance) and give each of the game’s five factions a more distinct identity. Not to mention a vastly increased pool of cards, many of which possess a range of interesting new abilities; a handful of UI tweaks; and a comprehensive visual upgrade (the revised card illustrations are particularly impressive). But the game itself remains as easy-to-understand, if deceptively nuanced, as it always was.
Players construct decks of up to forty cards comprised of units (soldiers, mythical creatures, spies, and the like) of varying strength, and special cards (spells, tools, items etc.) which apply beneficial or inflict detrimental effects to the player and their opponent respectively; the ultimate goal being to build the strongest army using a mixture of these cards over the course of three rounds. However, because players can only draw new cards at the start of a round and recall previously discarded units or specials by triggering specific abilities, players have to think strategically and more or less make the most of the eleven cards they draw at the start of round one.
Games are usually quite tight, as a result, though surprisingly fast-paced nonetheless; in my experience, matches tend to last roughly 10 minutes, on average. And that’s why it’s so compelling. When you win, you feel like a strategic genius – the Gwent equivalent of Napoleon; when you lose, no matter how certain or straightforward your defeat actually was when viewed objectively, the often-narrow margins convince you that it could have gone either way if only you’d drawn a different card at the beginning of round three.
It certainly helps, when faced with defeat, that the Gwent community is, on the whole, a very welcoming and supportive one. I’ve played countless games since I first downloaded it in the Autumn 2017 and, in that time, I’ve honestly only ever come across a handful of trolls who like to punctuate every single action with a provocative jibe (using the game’s in-built ‘taunt’ system which, despite the name, is more often used to congratulate rather than ridicule other players). Conversely, it’s equally rare not to receive a ‘good game’ message from an opponent at the end of a match; even from those who, realizing they can’t possibly win, decide to forfeit midway through round three.
Naturally, the bonus players receive upon receiving said message is a key factor in the ubiquity of this particular example of virtual sportsmanship. However, I like to think most players aren’t wholly motivated by greed, hoping that the unspoken rules of reciprocity will compel their opponent to respond in kind, but instead relish the opportunity to act graciously.
The importance of a strong, considerate community can’t be underestimated in a game that is, first and foremost, a multiplayer experience; especially one that places such emphasis on competitive play. Indeed, until the delayed single player campaign, ‘Thronebreaker’ launches later this year, the only single player content available are the semi-regular, limited-time events developer CD Projekt Red release to coincide with real-world holidays, and a handful of tutorials. So players are, to a certain extent, reliant on the goodwill of their fellow players if they’re to enjoy the game as intended.
Refreshing as it is to be part of an understanding online community when so much is said about the toxic nature of various other analogous games, what I like most about Gwent is the way it’s constantly evolving; not that this comes as much of a surprise, considering how well supported The Witcher 3 was after release. In the four or so months I’ve been playing it, CDPR has, as well as introducing the abundance of new cards and mechanics mentioned earlier, implemented numerous balance changes that have successfully nerfed some of the more overpowered cards and strategies (the Kaedweni Cavalry/Trololo Northern Realms combo, for example – a tactic I’ve used to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on numerous occasions). Not only have these alterations made Gwent a far richer, more rewarding game, they also serve as a tangible reminder of CD Projekt Red’s laudable concern for the satisfaction of its fans, arguing well for the future of the game, and even making it easier to accept the inclusion of the micro-transactions that support it.
Now, the fact that the game’s loot boxes – the primary method of obtaining new cards with which the player can bolster his/her decks or exchange for additional resources – can be bought with real world money, as well as ‘ore’ (Gwent’s own in-game currency), certainly creates a pay-to-win element; which doesn’t do anything for the integrity of the game or the wider player base. Just like launch-day Battlefront II, this type of setup favors that small sub-set of players who’re willing to pour money into the game in order to gain an advantage over those who cannot afford or simply object to doing the same.
However, as Gwent offers numerous, non-premium ways of unlocking new and powerful cards (rewards for levelling up, increasing season rank, completing randomized challenges, winning a certain number of rounds per day, scrapping duplicates etc.), eschews locking away specific parts of the game or certain features behind pay-walls, is continually worked on and improved, and is free to download in the first place, the game’s microtransactions are nowhere near as obtrusive or exploitative as many other titles that favor the freemium business model. I’ll admit, I have been slightly aggrieved at times in the past when I’ve been defeated by someone who, a day after the latest patch drops, appears to be in possession of a suspiciously complete collection of the latest cards. Yet, I’ve never really felt that my unwillingness to spend money on loot boxes has put me at a significant disadvantage; I’ve always felt that success or failure depends on my skills, more than anything else.
Whether it’s as good as the likes of Hearthstone I couldn’t possibly say, having never played it or any other major CCG. What I will say is that Gwent is well worth the time of anyone who enjoyed the rudimentary version of the game that appeared in The Witcher 3, or is simply looking for an easy-to-understand, impressively deep, and (for most of us) cost-free aperitif to any of 2018’s numerous life-consuming open world RPGs.