Slay your cards right

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - START - Matthew Castle

You might think your­self a Gwent pro. You toured The Witcher3’ s lands, rins­ing bar­men of pre­cious play­ing cards. You hap­pily gam­bled a king’s ran­som on the luck of the draw (and a sneaky save file five min­utes ear­lier). Maybe you even ramped up the minigame’s dif­fi­culty to see your deck take the strain of ag­gres­sive AI. Well, it was for noth­ing: Your first few hours in the stand­alone game will be spent red-faced and dumb­struck.

This is not your fa­ther’s Gwent. In its orig­i­nal form, the big­gest hand ba­si­cally won the day, forc­ing an over­re­liance on spies who drew ex­tra units from your larger deck. These cards still ex­ist, largely as part of the shady Nil­f­gaard fac­tion, but they ex­ist in a vast ecosys­tem of me­chan­ics that make it hard to spam cheap tricks. There are mon­sters who feast on the dead, berserk­ers who find strength in pain, and armies of men that end­lessly swell as re­in­force­ments storm the bat­tle­field.

Gwent is heav­ing with ideas, then; al­most too many to deal with. When cards re­quire an ex­ten­sive on-screen glos­sary to ex­plain the description al­ready printed on them, you know you’re a lit­tle beyond Uno. Even with dic­tionary def­i­ni­tions to hand, it’s of­ten hard to vi­su­al­ize what those pow­ers mean for the flow of bat­tle with­out wad­ing in, throw­ing them down, and mak­ing hor­ri­ble mis­takes. New­com­ers may bounce off Gwent like a blade off a Quen shield (an anal­ogy it would take sev­eral glos­sary en­tries to fully ex­plain).

Which would be a shame, as that ini­tial din dis­guises an el­e­gant game of brinkman­ship. You both have ten cards to place on the board and con­trib­ute to over­all army power. The high­est power at the end of a round wins. But! Be­cause it’s a best of three, you need to win round one with­out ex­haust­ing your hand. Some­times it’s a race to the lead so your ri­val burns their deck play­ing catch-up; other times it’s a bloody slog where you play ev­ery­thing and pray to the gods for one killer card at the start of round two.

Speak­ing up

Ba­sics are ex­plained in clear tu­to­ri­als, pleas­ingly hosted by Ger­alt and Ciri. The in­clu­sion of Witcher3’ s voice ac­tors ex­tends its block­buster sheen to Gwent and has us ex­cited for the paid story ex­pan­sions com­ing with the fi­nal game. At the mo­ment, this is the free-to-play mul­ti­player core, but one that doesn’t am­bush your wal­let like a Novi­grad thug. Fac­tions have enough cards to build your decks in new di­rec­tions, with op­tional chal­lenges to un­lock high-pow­ered lead­ers, and a steady flow of ore, needed to buy card kegs.

Spend time learn­ing the mov­ing parts, and you’ll dis­cover one of the most var­ied card games around (and def­i­nitely the best on Xbox One). At the very least, the chaos of its in­fancy guar­an­tees you meet new strate­gies in ev­ery match; the com­mu­nity has yet to boil the game down to un­beat­able decks. Hell, even our fa­vored deck of 26 cards tells a dif­fer­ent tale ev­ery game: One match we over­whelm with cloned units, an­other they pat each other on the back with end­less buffs. If we’re really lucky, we get to rain down comets and watch the other dude squirm. For now, no one is a Gwent pro, and it’s a thrilling propo­si­tion. n

“We get to rain down comets and watch the other dude squirm”

right Each pack of cards tells a dif­fer­ent story ev­ery time.

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