The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was one of the best games from last year, and yet a lot of people spent as much time playing the game itself as they did the clever card minigame it included. Gwent in The Witcher 3 was a casual game to play between taking down monsters and searching for friends but made for its own adventure in a way. Some players dedicated a lot of time and coin to completing their deck and becoming a master Gwent player. So when it was leaked prior to E3 that CD Projekt Red would be creating a standalone version of Gwent, people were excited. The developers went all out with the announcement even after it was already revealed to the public and they had to postpone the Closed Beta's start date. After a long wait by Witcher fans, the beta is out. Is it everything we hoped for?
Before I get to that, a quick description of what we're working with. For those who have never played The Witcher 3 or who perhaps skipped over the Gwent portions, Gwent is a strategy card game based in bluffing and outmaneuvering your opponent over the course of up to three rounds. You've given only one hand with limited draws to last you throughout those rounds. At the end of each, you must have more strength (points) than your opponent. The unique mechanic of Gwent is the reliance on bluffing and preservation. It is often necessary in Gwent to give up a round to ensure victory later. There is no mana, no land, or any extra resources to manage. You can play any cards in your hand without having to worry about "cost". In Witcher, there were a few major card types. In the standalone, Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, there are many different abilities all of which can vary slightly between each other. CDPR was clearly not content to just put Gwent in its own game - they added a lot of new strategies and possibilities.
The biggest change is the addition of many offensive cards that can essentially damage other cards. There is the traditional Scorch card which removes the highest Strength units, but now there are several other cards which remove units and Strength in different ways, and even unit cards which do the same job. There is a lot of variation which can lead to some creativity with strategy. For instance, the Northern Realms deck has cards like Trebuchet which deals 2 damage to 2 chosen non-Gold enemies. On the other hand, the Triss Merigold card can deal 4 damage to 1 enemy, but it can be any enemy regardless of if they are Bronze, Silver, or Gold. The more logical method to cards like these would be to just damage your opponent's cards, but as you play more you learn how to damage your own cards to your advantage or what order to damage opponents cards in. This is popular in decks like Skellige, where several cards get buffs and bonuses if they're damaged without being destroyed. The additions they've made have added a ton of depth to the game itself, more than enough to justify it being stand alone. There are a lot of new cards, all with gorgeous artwork, and if you're familiar with how original Gwent works you get into it really fast. If you're a fan of Witcher, the instinct to collect every card you can (especially the character cards which make up most of the Leaders and Gold Cards) is more than enough motivation to keep playing, even if a losing streak leaves you salty.
However, this is still a closed beta. The single player campaigns are not yet available in any form yet (which is not unexpected) and there are many issues to run into. Nothing is game breaking at this stage, but as this is a competitive multiplayer game, so there are always questions about balance. While it could be worse, Gwent is definitely not balanced at this time. The system currently in place to gain levels and experience is a large reason for this - you only gain experience if you win. The only way to get significant amounts of materials needed to buy kegs and craft cards is to gain experience. So naturally if you are struggling to win because you lack cards, you're going to be struggling for a long time. You can earn far smaller amounts by just getting a "Good Game" from your opponent, but that's a lot of grinding. Most have already pointed out that this isn't very fair so it'll likely change.
The decks themselves are not perfectly balanced either. There are some cards that are just too powerful and certain decks which slaughter all others. Currently, it's the Monster deck, which is also what more than half the current community appears to play. In the original Gwent, the main means players had to control the field were Weather cards and Clear Skies, which would drop all the units on that row to 1, on both sides. In Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, this is a bit more complicated, but especially for the Monster deck. Rather than Weather being a hindrance, in the Monster deck is actually boosts several units, and can even bring out more units, while simultaneously punishing your opponent. This means beating it requires a ludicrous amount of luck or a deck full of Clear Skies cards (I'm a little bitter at Monster decks by the way).
Again, this can be fixed, though hopefully the result is not another deck becoming infinitely better than the others. If you get the right cards, this isn't as big a problem. Some have complained Gwent seems to be pay to win - if some player can just buy a ton of kegs, then they can make a better deck. This is a valid concern, though it seems that it won't be the case in the long run. First of all, the story quests will provide users with more opportunities to get cards. Second, the kegs are completely random and may not actually contain anything decent. For example, I watched someone streaming Gwent open 60 chests in a row and only receive one Gold Card, and one silver Legendary. On the other hand, from the chests I got from simply playing and gaining experience (likely less than 60) I've found several Gold and Silver cards. The only way to truly ensure a good deck is to craft and the system for that seems mostly fair (though you get Scraps, the crafting material, inconsistently from games). Players can theoretically "pay to win" but they might be paying quite a bit to actually get what they want, and there is nothing available to them that other players can't win themselves or craft. Currently, there aren't even many cards out, and at Level 3 you can just mill the decks you don't want to play.
There is promise here. You can almost guarantee the single player storylines will be of excellent quality - storytelling was one of the strongest points of Witcher, so why wouldn't it be? The gameplay itself and changes to the Gwent formula are all solid, and the beta test should provide the perfect opportunity to polish the mechanics and meta. Come 2017, it should be more than ready for all the would-be Gwent champs of the world.
Gwent: The Witcher Card Game was previewed on PC via GOG Galaxy with a copy provided by the publisher. You can sign up for the beta now for Xbox One and PC. Gwent is scheduled for official release in Spring 2017 on Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC.