De­spite its ap­par­ent sta­tus as a diver­sion in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt – just an­other thing to do in a game, and a world, that was full of them – for many, Gwent be­came the main event. Play­ers sunk hours into the one-on-one card du­els, prompt­ing CD Pro­jekt Red to green­light this fully fledged stand­alone game. Gwent has been playable for months in beta form, its core strat­egy and combo-build­ing mo­men­tum – the goal, to win two out of three rounds by ac­cu­mu­lat­ing the most points with the cards you play – now beau­ti­fully pre­sented and in­fused with new me­chan­i­cal dy­namism.

So far, so shiny new ad­di­tion to a ven­er­a­ble genre. But CD Pro­jekt Red’s sights are set higher. Set some time be­fore the events of The Witcher III, forth­com­ing sin­gle­player cam­paign Throne­breaker casts you as Meve, Queen of Lyria and Rivia, and tells of her fight for the North­ern Realms in the face of an in­va­sion, us­ing a mix of third­per­son ex­plo­ration, branch­ing di­a­logue and spe­cially crafted me­chan­ics in its nar­ra­tive card bat­tles.

“We knew that if we ever de­cided to do a sin­gle­player mode, it would be an am­bi­tious project,” prin­ci­pal writer Jakub Sza­malek tells us. Pre­vi­ously se­nior writer on The Witcher III, he has fond mem­o­ries of play­ing col­lectible card games such as Magic: The Gath­er­ing and Bat­tlelords. “They showed you can com­bine map ex­plo­ration with a card game and it’s not such a huge jux­ta­po­si­tion. We re­alised that we needed more space than just the play­ing board.”

In­deed, Gwent’s Throne­breaker cam­paign has in­her­ited some RPG ten­den­cies from its pro­gen­i­tor. The five maps across which the 15-hour story is sprawled are filled with loot: re­sources like weapons or craft­ing ma­te­ri­als that will aug­ment Queen Meve’s ‘army’, the fight­ing units in your deck. They are found in chests around the map, of­ten pro­tected by light en­vi­ron­men­tal puzzles that need solv­ing, and some­times con­tain­ing valu­able ‘pre­mium’ cards (an­i­mated ver­sions of stan­dard fare). At any point on your jour­ney, you’re able to pitch camp to upgrade fa­cil­i­ties, such as the train­ing yard or work­shop, to im­prove bat­tle abil­i­ties.

That might not be quite what you’d nor­mally ex­pect from a col­lectible card game, but that’s the point: with Throne­breaker, CD Pro­jekt Red is try­ing a new ap­proach to the genre. This ex­tends to bat­tles, which re­ject easy cliché. “What we took away from other card games was that we didn’t want to make a story about a Gwent cham­pion,” Sza­malek says. “We felt it was best to use Gwent’s me­chan­ics to rep­re­sent real-life bat­tles, and use the cards as a way of sym­bol­i­cally telling a story.” Meve, for ex­am­ple, can be sum­moned fre­quently and re­peat­edly, and buffs nearby al­lies. Ex­actly who fights along­side you de­pends on the di­a­logue op­tions you choose in en­coun­ters through­out Meve’s jour­ney. “As in the Witcher se­ries, there are still choices, and con­se­quences that make you think and re-think those choices. But we want you to feel the re­spon­si­bil­ity that a com­man­der feels,” Sza­malek says. “Ger­alt had the com­fort of work­ing on his own, whereas Meve is lead­ing an army.” Choose to be char­i­ta­ble if sol­diers desert you, and you may risk un­der­min­ing your author­ity; pun­ish them harshly, and the ef­fect on morale could be crip­pling. The pres­ence or ab­sence of cer­tain ad­vi­sors or of­fi­cers also af­fects the kinds of unit you’re able to build and take ad­van­tage of, as well as forc­ing your hand in cer­tain quests where you might have been able to avoid a brawl.

Throne­breaker is set to be a par­tic­u­lar treat for sea­soned Gwent play­ers, Sza­malek says: “We don’t have to be so care­ful about bal­ance, so we can cre­ate cards that are over­pow­ered, or craft scripted bat­tles which con­tain chal­leng­ing logic puzzles – things that we can’t do in a mul­ti­player game.” But it’s also about of­fer­ing a less in­tim­i­dat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for new­com­ers when the ex­pan­sion launches. “I think peo­ple who avoid mul­ti­player games worry about look­ing silly in front of oth­ers,” Sza­malek says. “As long as there’s no one look­ing over your shoul­der, you’re safe to make some mis­takes here. Lots of peo­ple pre­fer sin­gle­player games, and aren’t happy to play mul­ti­player. The op­po­site is also true. But some­times it’s worth cross­ing the bound­ary and see­ing what’s on the other side. A game like Gwent, which has both com­po­nents, can be a place to do that.”

“As long as there’s no one look­ing over your shoul­der, you’re safe to make mis­takes”

Jakub Sza­malek, prin­ci­pal writer

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