The last time we saw Gwent it was bundled with a gigantic mini-game where you travelled the world, levelled up and fought monsters. But now the monsters are nothing but cards, the levelling up revolves around getting (or spending) money to buy new cards, and you don’t so much travel the world but play cards against other people over the internet. It's that multiplayer portion that this new closed beta focuses on, rather than the single-player modes which will also be included in Gwent: The Witcher Card Game when it’s actually, properly out.
One of the most important parts of Gwent is knowing when to quit. If you’re anything like me you’ll find that tough, as my brain tends to think that everything could be turned around with just one more turn. But Gwent is a best-of-three game, with the board wiped clean at the end of each round, and its players are largely stuck to the same pool of 10 cards for the whole game. Invest too much at the start and you’ll burn out, save too much for round three and you’ll be ground down before you get there. You need patience, which years of YouTube videos and social media has pretty much eradicated from my brain, and then to excel you’ll need to consider canny combos and careful attrition, plus the universal truth that one player will always absolutely have to win the second round.
How do you win? Why, mind games of course. And rules.
Cards in Gwent have a strength value, and at the end of each round the player who accumulates the most total strength is the winner. But, really, it’s definitely mind games that win the day. Like watching where the other player’s mouse cursor is going as you read meaning into those long pauses between turns, then raising the pressure by over-investing when you sense nerves. Or, failing that, luck: the hand-rubbing satisfaction of plucking out the jammiest card possible at one of the game’s few draw opportunities. One of Gwent’s most devilishly maddening decisions is that you can either play a card every turn or pass, but doing the latter forces you to sit out the rest of the round and allows your opponent to play whatever they want uncontested. You will lose rounds through callous arrogance, smugly throwing in the towel and then watching everything turn upside down.
Right now, a popular tactic is rushing out Geralt (who is readily available to all players) on turn 1 and then passing. He’s got a hefty amount of strength, which means the opponent often needs to invest a few cards in order to get close to winning that round. That’s the rub – you’ve got to find your moments, take the opportunities and pass when you can, so why not force the other player to invest, sacrifice the first round, and then double down on rounds two and three with more cards in your hand? Oh, because Gwent has a knack of ensuring things go horribly wrong for you in a couple of turns. I see.
Geralt’s current prominence is partly due to the fact he’s a gold card, which means he’s rarely affected by anything bronze and silver cards can do. There’s no direct attacking in Gwent, so having cards essentially immune to the various (and otherwise game-changing) nerfs makes them doubly powerful. The beginner card sets don’t include much in the way of dealing with these pesky gold cards, although options do exist in the game, so this is one of the big ways I expect to see Gwent shift over time as people slowly amass their collections.
Decks are built from a minimum of 25 cards, split across neutral and class cards: there’s Monsters, Northern Realms, Scoia’tael and Skellige available now, with a fifth (Nilfgaard) on the way. Each class gets its own passive ability – the Northern Realms always get an extra buff from playing powerful golden units, for instance - alongside a deployable class ability, such as the Monsters being able to play the 10-strength Eredin. There have been significant changes to the decks since The Witcher 3. There, Gwent was essentially about Geralt creating the most overpowered deck in the continent, whereas in the standalone game everything’s aiming to be a little more balanced. I’m sure I don’t have to specifically point out that everything here is likely to change over the next few months, but after a dozen hours of play, Gwent looks like it has enough scope to see numerous styles and trends emerge.
But it does need more personality. Let’s look at Geralt again: 12 strength. The art, animations and audio are all lovely – but there's more excitement in his haircuts. Triss: remove 4 strength from 1 enemy unit. Yennefer: summon a Unicorn (+2 all units) or a Chironex (-2 all units). Even Dandelion just spawns another in-game card. It’s all a bit Ready Salted. I'm not asking for CDPR to make Gwent a random number generator, but it feels like some of the source material's character has yet to make the jump. I appreciate that's me complaining about the light fittings while CDPR is still laying foundation, but I want to see the potential for big playmaker cards outside of just adding and removing strength from units.
Popular decks right now include things like runaway Northern Realms clone armies, with players buffing and duplicating low-strength Poor Infantry cards until they’re unstoppable titans. There are cheesy but satisfying fog Monsters decks, as players summon poor weather onto the board along with creatures that thrive in it. I also get frequently mullered by high-strength Skellige decks, their sturdy warriors growing stronger as they recycle their card pool, along with flexible but fiddly Scoia’tael decks that most players are still getting to grips with.
Progress and refinement of these decks is slow and steady, and the economy is taking a cue from Hearthstone. Your card stocks are bolstered by either melting down old cards for scant amounts of scrap or opening kegs, purchased with either in-game ore or the same regular-world money you use for food and bills. Inside each pack (keg, sorry) you get four cards randomly, and then pick the fifth and final card from a list of three more random options, which can be surprisingly tense when you’ve got to choose between two good ones. The process is all a bit fiddly at the moment, mind, as it’s very hard to tell if you’ve already got dupes of your cards in the menus as you’re making that all-important choice.
Similar menu frustrations dig in when you’re putting those whizzy new cards into your decks: right now you’ve got to back out of one menu, completely with brief loading screen, and go into another if you’re crafting cards while putting your deck together. Once you’re playing, though, Gwent is already particularly slick, with fantastic artwork and the right amount of on-screen cues to make the rhythms of play easy to observe.
Gwent arrives at a good time - holiday season fast approaches, and you can't be seen dead at the RPG winter ball without your card game spinoff. Oh, Mr Blizzard, your in-game economics are just the talk of the whole town! Gwent is regularly tense and, crucially, plays nothing like Hearthstone, which means it just might gain traction in an increasingly copycat genre.
You can still sign-up for the Gwent beta, and if you ask me you probably should.