Gwent: The Witcher Card Game
PC, PS4, Xbox One
After a year-and-a-half in open beta, and two before that of simply being a minigame in sprawling RPG The Witcher 3, Gwent has finally hit 1.0. And, for once, that definitive version number is more than simply symbolic. The game has been transformed for release, both expanded and refined into something more visually arresting and mechanically fascinating than before.
This is CD Projekt’s bid for a slice of the freeto-play online card game market, but it bears little resemblance to its peers. A match is played over the best of three rounds, with the battlefield cleared at the end of each. Two players take turns to place cards, which bear numbers – you win by having the highest total at the end of the round. Though the cards represent warriors summoned for combat, they don’t crash against each other as in Hearthstone. Instead of a skirmish, Gwent is a war, a sort of competitive mustering of forces, with each card’s unique abilities aiding your efforts or disrupting your opponents’ as you jostle for mathematical supremacy.
And, crucially, you’re not always trying to win. Each player can afford to lose one round if it helps their goal of winning the other two, and here things get deliciously psychological. Is your foe actually committing their best, or are they holding something back for later, baiting you into wasting powerful cards on a battle they’ve already decided to concede? A dance of feints and bluffs ensues that combines the best moments of a tense evening of poker with the tactical depth of a strategy game.
A diverse spread of card abilities add much room for manoeuvring. Some soldiers, for example, become stronger over time – powerful plays if you know the opponent needs to commit to a long round, but damp squibs if they decide to concede early. Others only bear fruit later in the game, including a Phoenix whose utility comes in its ability to be reborn in subsequent rounds.
The price of this intricacy is that Gwent is anything but accessible. It’s both complex, and not great at explaining and visually representing its complexity. It’s not as arcane as, say, Dota 2, but it certainly demands your full attention and, unusually for the genre, includes very little randomness to even the playing field. Do your homework, however, and your reward is some of the year’s most satisfying and exciting multiplayer. CD Projekt is fond of dubbing its games ‘mature’, though usually that’s a question of themes, rather than complexity. But it really is the perfect word for Gwent – compared to its genre peers, it feels both remarkably grown-up, and finely aged by its years of open development.
The card artwork is truly beautiful, especially the ‘premium’ animated versions – though an abundance of lithe, naked women feels like a throwback to the bad old days of The Witcher’s sexy pin-up cards