The problem with reviewing an ongoing game is that you’re basically writing on water. This is especially true of such a complex and mercurial tactical game as Gwent: The Witcher Card Game. It officially launched in October last year, after two grueling years in beta. There’s a strong temptation to compare its current state with the many iterations of the beta version. I’ll make every effort to avoid it. There’s really no point in comparing versions, it’s just dwelling in the past. While the final release was missing some cut-and-thrust, most players will agree that it was already missing since the infamous Midwinter update in the last months of beta. That’s the only comparison I’ll allow myself. The point of this review is to determine the long-term potential of Gwent as a digital collectible card game.
Rounds, Hands, Mulligans – Core Gameplay in Gwent
Part of what makes Gwent such a compelling card game is its core gameplay structure. It’s basically best of three rounds, the player with the most points wins the round. You have the option to pass between rounds at all times, but you can only play one card per turn. Players get three extra cards from their decks between rounds, with the hand limit set to ten cards. The Mulligan Update from January resolved some issues, and the vast majority of players approved it. It’s probably the constraints of its core gameplay structure that allows Gwent to shine in short bursts. It feels like a leaner, more concentrated experience than other digital card games, with shorter, tighter matches.
The final release also managed to settle the endless dispute over the coin flip in the beta version. Because of its structure, going first is not an advantage in Gwent. Hence, players who have to go first get that leg-up with an extra mulligan and the Tactical Advantage card that grants a five point boost. It’s almost a chess-like solution that could’ve been implemented long before. Most players are satisfied with it, and the coin flip seems like a non-issue if someone still brings it up. The struggle to gain card advantage over the opponent is still part of the fun. Now, however, it feels more feasible for players to win a match even with one card down. That’s because point-slamming (using only high-point cards or trying to increase them every turn) is not as viable a strategy as it used to be, which is good.
Factions, Leaders, Units – Picking Your Side in Gwent
If you’re completely new to Gwent and The Witcher, the sheer amount of information you’ll have to process can be overwhelming. Cards range from the most obscure characters from Andrzej Sapkowski’s books to the major figureheads of The Witcher trilogy. Granted, you don’t need to know the characters and what they were like in the books and games, but it doesn’t hurt if you do. You’ll have to grasp the very basics at least, which are the main factions and leaders. There are five factions, same as the beta version: Monsters, Nilfgaard, Northern Realms, Skellige, and Scoia’tael. Each faction has six leaders, including those introduced in Thronebreaker and Crimson Curse.
As you become familiar with the leaders and cards, you’ll note that each faction has its own identity. These identities emerge through different archetypes, which encourage different playstyles. Some archetypes of faction identity seem obvious from the first matches. There’s Skellige’s “Discard,” where the player discards units and uses the graveyard as a possible win condition. There’s Monsters’ “Consume,” where units consume each other and absorb their points, usually also triggering the “Deathwish” ability. Northern Realms is probably the strongest faction for “engines,” that is, units that generate points over time, rather than having a set value. One of Scoia’tael’s popular archetypes is “Movement,” where units move between rows and trigger some effects, usually boosting each other. The consensus is that Nilfgaard currently lacks a strong archetype, with the “Reveal” archetype not quite as viable after some nerfs.
All of these distinctions are subject to change with future patches. The fact is that with each patch or expansion there’s usually a redefinition of the strongest factions, leaders, and archetypes. The first month or so after a new patch, many players favor an archetype that will net the easiest wins. Even if it isn’t always fun or fair. As the meta settles and grows stale, other decks and variations on archetypes begin to emerge. That’s where Gwent shines, in its wealth of possibilities once players focus more on exploring those possibilities rather than trying to win at any cost. When you see your opponent try something that few (if any) other players tried, and succeed, you don’t really mind losing a match. Witnessing the beauty of its reactive intricacies matters more than just a notch in your scoreboard.
Gwent's New and Old Mechanics
In my preview of the final release, I mentioned the “Order” mechanic as the most interesting and most fertile in terms of potential. I stand by this assessment, even if it isn’t always a winning formula. While you are bound by the rule of one card per turn, the “Order” mechanic gives you extra room to maneuver between turns. Not to mention that it feels like a proper battle when you can actually give orders to your units. You should note, however, that you can only give orders while you are still playing cards. If you pass, or if you run out of cards, you won’t be able to give your units any more orders. If you don’t use all your unit charges before passing or playing your last card, they will go to waste.
The introduction of new mechanics in the latest expansion also added a lot more depth and variety to the meta. For instance, “Formation” – “If played on the melee row, gain Zeal. If played on the ranged row, boost self by 1.” It makes rows matter even more than they already did in the final release, which is one of the defining traits of Gwent’s core tactics. “Deathblow” adds more tactical meaning to removal, which is still a bit simplistic sometimes, even with the revamped “Shield” mechanic. Speaking of which, this simple but elegant revamp also manages to avoid the exploits that were common to the first iteration of “Shield.” All of which makes gameplay consistently richer and more reactive. As you get used to them, you’ll learn from your mistakes as a player, instead of repeating them.
The Nuances of Deckbuilding in Gwent
One of the features that was unanimously approved in the final release was the provision system. It basically ascribes a provision cost to each card. The Mulligan Update also improved it by making the total provision dependent on the leader of a deck. With a base provision for every deck at 150, leaders can add between 10 and 19 provision points. Cards cost between 4 and 15 provision points, whether units, special cards, or artifacts. The overall system adds quite a bit of dimension to the deckbuilding process, making it more cerebral than it’s ever been. It’s also more intuitive and flexible, in the sense that decks don’t have to follow a rigid structure to be viable. It also favors more consistent synergies.
When I referred to Gwent as a mercurial tactical game, I was thinking precisely of the countless changes and nerfs. It’s a constant challenge to keep your card effects straight. Reading patch notes is a must if you want to stay competitive. Even if you just want to play casually, as I do, to collect the cards and have a bit of a thrill, you’ll need to invest quite a bit of time and attention to keep up with the meta. Knowing the meta and the most popular decks is very useful, even if you don’t really want to play those decks. The ideal is to be able to fool your opponents into thinking you’re playing a popular deck and then pulling the rug from under them. It’s easier said than done, but it’s satisfying when you do achieve it.
Rewards, Ranks, MMR – Progression in Gwent
One major argument to play Gwent is its highly generous and engaging freemium system. It’s pretty much impossible to pay-to-win. Most players can gather great collections just by working through the Reward Book and the ranking system. Even if you missed the several opportunities to amass a full collection during the beta period, you’ll still manage to gather enough cards and resources without ever having to pull out your credit card. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to pay for one of the bundles, which are fairly affordable. Many players usually want to support the game after spending some time grinding, which is a testament to the generosity of the freemium system. It’s likely the main reason why many former Hearthstone players switched to Gwent completely and never looked back.
The current ranking system managed to remove some of that initial “ladder anxiety,” or at least I think so. You don’t care that much when you lose, as the system doesn’t show the wins and losses until you reach rank 25. Then you do care, but you can still gain a lot of experience and rewards even if you’re on a losing streak. What you should keep in mind while climbing the ladder is that you get experience even when you lose, and especially if you don’t concede. Even if there are reasons to concede sometimes, with players spamming emotes and playing control or “no unit” decks that suck the fun out of the game, it's better not to give them the satisfaction of conceding.
Thronebreaker, Crimson Curse, and Future Expansions of Gwent
Both Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales and Crimson Curse added a lot of variety and depth to the base Gwent experience. While the single-player campaign part of Thronebreaker did suffer in terms of challenge, as per my review, the additional set of cards definitely enhanced the PvP experience. Crimson Curse was especially successful, not just by adding new mechanics and over 100 cards, but by demonstrating that Gwent will not remain static. It’s a commitment to show players that they will continue to evolve, refining what works and reworking what doesn’t. For a while, it felt like Gwent was suffering a slow death, bleeding players and streamers. With Crimson Curse, they show that there’s still plenty of blood left.
It’s also highly unlikely that Thronebreaker will be the first and last single-player expansion. Not only it would be unfair to the other factions, but there was also an unfinished story arc for the tavern narrator. I hope to see at least four other The Witcher Tales games, one for each remaining faction. While the sales for Thronebreaker were underwhelming, they weren’t altogether insignificant. I believe it’ll probably do better in the long-term, especially if Gwent stays viable as a collectible card game. And I believe it will, even if it never rises to the massive popularity of Hearthstone. It’ll probably sit between Magic: The Gathering Arena and The Elder Scrolls: Legends, closer to the former than the latter.
Art Direction, Soundtrack, User Experience – Gwent's Presentation
The one aspect of Gwent that has always been unanimously praised throughout its two years of beta and since the final release is the magnificent art. It occupies the full card, instead of only the top panel, like in other card games. That makes it stand out quite a bit. And the art never seems like an afterthought or a minor detail. Even when it comes to minor characters from Sapkowski’s books, the artists sometimes manage to squeeze in details and references. It makes for a truly striking visual experience. That’s just considering the standard cards. Once you unlock some premiums, there’s a whole other dimension and beauty with amazing animation loops. And then there’s the soundtrack from the same composer of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, one of the finest gaming soundtracks of all time.
“How about a round of Gwent ?” | Final Thoughts
Like many fans, I was a compulsive Gwent player in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I would go as far as to say that the minigame helped the game stand out in a way. It was designed as a last-minute replacement for the dice poker minigame from the first two games in the trilogy, but it was so special that fans soon started developing their own PvP versions. It’s been a long journey since then, and there were troubled times for the community. Gwent wasn't always worth the time and energy. Still, I’ve poured hundreds of hours into it since the start of closed beta, and I intend to keep investing my time.
Sure, I might take a break after a patch sometimes, or after going through a bad losing streak. I might curse control and "no unit" decks when I play against them. I'll definitely go on despising Scoia'tael, as I've always done. However, I very much doubt that I will ever give up on Gwent. As long as there are servers and players, I’ll be there for a few rounds every once in a while. It's a tactically intricate card game with constantly evolving mechanics and truly beautiful art. I know it will keep reinventing itself, patch after patch, expansion after expansion, for years to come.
TechRaptor reviewed Gwent: The Witcher Card Game on PC via GOG Galaxy with the reviewer's free-to-play account.
- Deep and Intricate Tactical Gameplay
- Generous Freemium System
- Variety of Factions and Archetypes
- Fascinating Fantasy Universe
- Magnificent Art Direction
- Still Lacking Some QoL Tweaks
- Meta Can Get Stale