GWENT: THE WITCHER CARD GAME
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