Is there life after The Witcher 3 for CD Projekt Red’s card game?
Phil looks into the Nilfgaard faction in Gwent, which is currently in closed beta.
Play too many cards and your opp onent will have the advantage
Card games aren’t my thing. I don’t enjoy
Hearthstone, and Magic: The Gathering makes me sleepy. Gwent is different – not in function, but in conception. It’s the Trojan Horse of collectible card games, having already infiltrated my consciousness through its presence in The Witcher 3.
Gwent is the perfect minigame for an open-world adventure – an entertaining pastime that encourages you to seek out fellow enthusiasts in order to expand your deck. I played it obsessively.
This standalone incarnation is more complicated, but not overwhelmingly so. At its core it’s a best-of-three battle in which players take turns playing a single card. At the end of the round – either when both players pass, or when everyone has run out of cards – the player with the highest attack score wins. Unlike
Hearthstone, with its mana pool, your only resource is the number of cards in your hand. When a round ends, your hand isn’t redealt. Play too many cards in the first round, and your opponent will have the advantage over the next two.
At a basic level this is good design. When to pass becomes a crucial decision. Playing high value cards and passing early might tempt your opponent into overextending – giving you a card advantage in later rounds. Or they could accept the loss, leaving you with lower value cards for the rest of the match.
To further complicate matters, cards can have special traits. Each represents a unit, person or spell from the Witcher’s world, and is played on one of three rows – melee, ranged or siege. Geralt, for instance, is a melee card. He doesn’t do anything fancy, but he’s a legendary – making him immune to most types of damage and debuff. He’s also powerful. Keep him around and his 12 attack score can tip the balance when both players are low on cards.
The Poor Infantry is a melee fighter with only three attack points. When played, he spawns a copy of himself. Strategies form as you play your cards in a specific order to maximise their impact. I stumbled on a powerful combination that paired the Poor Infantry with the Blue Stripes Scout, a mid-value ranged unit that adds four attack power to a card of your choosing. I’d play the Infantry, which would create a copy of itself, and then use Scout on one of the two cards. I’d then play Foltest, a leader card available to use once per match, regardless of your hand.
Foltest will clone any basic unit. Playing him on the Scout-adjusted Poor Infantry creates a copy of that card, which, when played, triggers its own innate ability and spawns yet another copy of itself – both at the buffed attack value. Two cards with a combined six attack power become four with a total score of 24. I felt like a genius for figuring that out, even if my win/loss ratio would suggest otherwise. Tragically, this strategy has already been nerfed. As befits a closed beta, CD Projekt Red is frequently tinkering with the balance. regional variations There are lots of effects, all organised around the basic theme of each faction. The Northern Realms is all about support and reinforcement. The Monster faction can multiply rapidly, and is immune to weather effects. The Scoia’tael is a guerrilla force, causing damage to opposition units. Skellige is all about resurrection, and being strengthened by damage. The fifth faction, Nilfgaard, was only recently introduced into the standalone game. Each faction functions similarly to its
Witcher3 counterpart, but Nilfgaard was considered too similar to the Northern Realms and so delayed to receive a top to
bottom overhaul. For CD Projekt Red, it’s a chance to prove that Gwent has the capacity for further expansion, and a life beyond TheWitcher3.
The new Nilfgaard is based around infiltration and reconnaissance. Disloyalty is a theme, with cards played to your opponent’s side of the board. In The
Witcher3’ s Gwent, spies increased your opponent’s score in exchange for drawing two cards to your hand. It was a powerful move, and one that had already been toned down for standalone Gwent. Nilfgaard’s disloyalty options are more varied. Take Fake Ciri, who sits on your opponent’s side, gaining power every turn. When your opponent passes, she flips allegiance, adding her points to your score instead. That might sound like an overly complicated way of getting a few points, but only a few debuff cards can target a player’s own side of the board. For the recipient of a Fake Ciri, it can be a tactical as well as psychological disadvantage.
One possible Fake Ciri counter is Letho, a new legendary card. As an assassin, he’ll destroy every card on the row he’s placed on, absorbing their strength for himself. If you pop him next to a Fake Ciri on your side of the board, he’ll take her out, and absorb any points she’s gathered. Or, play him on an opposing row, and you can devastate your enemy’s strategy for that round. For all the tactical satisfaction, it’s also fun to see how specific figures of the Witcher’s world have been interpreted for
Gwent’s rules. Letho’s surgical carnage feels appropriate for his character.
Not every disloyal card is as intricate as Fake Ciri. The Ambassador is a low-value disloyal unit that buffs the attack value of a random unit on your side, while the Emissary plays the top card from your deck. And a special card, Treason, lets players coax back disloyal cards onto their side of the board. There’s potential for an effective hand focused around disloyal play – full of decisions about how many cards you can play to your opponent’s side while still maintaining an advantage.
behind the lines
Disloyal cards cover the infiltration half of the Nilfgaardian attack, but reconnaissance can also lead to some powerful combinations. Vattier de Rideaux, for instance, lets you show up to two cards from your own hand. For each card that you reveal, a random card from your opponent’s hand is also unveiled. The applications here are twofold. Firstly, you can choose which of your cards to reveal. Pick those that aren’t critical to your current strategy, and you’re gambling for the chance to glean more useful information from your opponent.
More beneficially, other card traits can trigger whenever a card is revealed. Take the Mangonel, a potentially terrifying siege unit that removes two damage from a random opposing card whenever something is revealed. Given that Vattier can create up to four reveals, and that multiple Mangonels can be played, it’s possible to do serious damage to any opponent unable to nullify the effect. It’s potentially potent as long as you build your deck specifically for those traits, and as long as your opponent doesn’t have a Letho waiting to roll up your siege row, or Mangonels of their own. In the latter case, the board comes alive, as multiple abilities fire off and both sides take a battering. Visually, Gwent is more muted and subtle than Hearthstone, but it still knows how to sell such moments of drama.
Revealing is a great early strategy thanks to another quirk of the Nilfgaardian playbook: resource control. Thier faction perk lets you replace cards each hand – discarding unnecessary cards and drawing new ones from your deck. Nilfgaard also has access to Xarthisius, a card that lets players see the top two cards from their opponent’s deck, and choose to send one to the bottom. It’s not a huge advantage, but the chance to poke and prod at both decks builds a feeling of control and manipulation that seems appropriate for the faction.
It’s an enjoyable deck, full of new options that make sense within Gwent’s existing systems. If anything, it makes some of the other hands – specifically Northern Realms – feel a bit vanilla. The Nilfgaard faction has a strong identity built specifically around the expanded ruleset of standalone Gwent. A faction like Northern Realms, which retains its ties to the less ambitious Witcher3 minigame, feels broader and less focused. Crucially, Nilfgaard proves that Gwent can be expanded in new ways, which will be vital if it’s to have any longevity in the crowded card game market. Despite its origin, I’m hopeful that Gwent can make it on its own.
Crucially, Nilfgaard proves that Gwent can be expanded in new ways
It’s always worth giving troops the (Commander’s) horn.
Monsters thrive in bad weather. Humans? Not so much.