Standalone Gwent is looking pretty dang good

A completely rebalanced version of the minigame from Wild Hunt is hitting beta in September.

So: fans have been asking for a standalone version of Gwent, the card game Geralt plays in Witcher 3. Apparently they've been asking a lot, and very loudly, and it quickly became very obvious to CD Projekt that they should make a standalone multiplayer version of Gwent.

But they didn't stop there-- they apparently went and also made an entire ten-hour-long singleplayer Gwent RPG with a overworld and characters and fully-voiced narration and dialogue full of “untold stories from the Witcher universe.” Writers and quest designers from Wild Hunt are apparently working on the game's several single-player campaigns. There will be choices and branching stories. There will be some Geralt, but a bunch of other people from other Witcher stories, too, and even some new characters. And really nice animated 2D art, and special decks with Leader cards for the characters in the stories, and sidequests, and events on the overworld, and, and, and--

Look, CDP could have made just multiplayer Gwent, and people probably would have been happy. But they're making a full-on new Witcher RPG, basically, with card battles for combat. A+ job, CDP. If the people working on the story and writing for this game are definitely the same ones who did Wild Hunt, then we're in for a treat.

So, let's back up: if you're not familiar with Gwent, it's a competitive card game where two players build decks and face off in a three-round match. You only draw ten cards from your deck for every game, so unless you've got cards which let you draw more cards or resurrect cards from your discard pile, you've actually got an extremely limited amount of options to work with. There are no resource cards or currencies in the game: it's about deceiving your enemy and tricking them into playing their powerful cards badly, not about having more effective resource use than your opponent, like Hearthstone often is. Matches are short and sweet. It's a mind game, mostly: it's about fucking with people, playing weak, and coming back with a surprise combo that leaves your opponent wondering how they could have been so blind.

In Wild Hunt, Gwent was fun but TERRIBLY TERRIBLY UNBALANCED. Geralt and Ciri and a few other heroes were ridiculously powerful. Winning usually relied on stuffing your deck with Spy cards, which increase your opponent's round score but allow you to draw more cards into your hand. An easy way to win would be to use as many Spy cards as possible on your first round, sacrificing that one and allowing your AI opponent to win, then using the next two rounds to completely dominate them with your vastly increased hand size.

This is no longer exactly possible. (I tried the Spy gambit on a live person and it did not work.) The whole game has been rebalanced, and there are new mechanics, new buffs, new types of card synergies and powers, and even a whole new faction/deck type, Skellige, which focuses on resurrecting cards out of the discard pile. Weather effects-- fog, rain, and frost-- are still here, but now there are kind of a lot of Monster cards that take buffs from weather effects, to the point where the Monster faction has become the "weather combos" faction. Nilfgaard is not in the game yet, but Northern Realms is still here with a ton of same-card combos, and so are the Scoia'tael, the nonhumans/elf deck, which is still focused on using cards which can be played in multiple positions on the board (and now on the enemy side, as debuffs).

There are also new "glyphs" to buff cards with-- like a "spores" card, which adds a "spores" glyph to a row and buffs everything in it, similar to the Commander's Horn from Wild Hunt. There are also a lot of new Leader cards, with new powers-- it looked from the footage of the campaign they showed us like various characters in the story missions would be represented as leader cards in the combat they participated in.

The way the story missions interact with the card battle combat itself is pretty interesting. The deck represents actual people or resources that the player is travelling with as they explore the world during the quest, so the characters will be cards, and their followers and soldiers will be cards as well, and as they explore the world an experience hidden overworld events, these will also contribute cards to their deck. We saw a whole choice-based sidequest where the player walked over to an abandoned elf ruin and, after choosing to explore it, opened a secret chamber containing elf bombs which then entered their deck as a Scorch card.

We also saw a bunch of dialogue scenes where the various characters said a lot of fully-voiced stuff to one another. (Geralt's got the same voice actor, huzzah.) The quest we saw was about Geralt and a few buddies escorting a preteen duchess through a spooky forest. The player could walk around the map and explore places-- like the elf ruins-- on their way to the next main quest objective, where we saw a short 2D cutscene and then a battle against a demon character who was possessing the girl. The demon had a name and came with its own deck and leader card; the player had a deck with a Leader card of the dude who had hired Geralt (who was himself a card in the deck).

We didn't get a lot of detail about how we'll be building our decks for the multiplayer mode, but the game will be free-to-play with in-game purchases, and they did mention that there are "Premium" cards-- identical to regular cards mechanically, but with special, animated, 3D-scene card-art which you can wiggle around like a holographic image. I am not sure whether they'll be selling card packs or what, but looking at other F2P games in this genre, I'm sure that's likely.

In general, the look and feel of the whole game-- not just the cards-- has been improved. The board is a lot more colorful and a lot more obvious about critical game data, like card rules and scores. Your opponent's last-played card is now always shown on the left, and your highlighted card and all its card text is automatically displayed on the right side of the board. It's basically easier to tell what's going on, but there's also a lot more flash and pizazz associated with basically every action. Cool animations for weather effects; cool sounds; cool, much-more-dynamic-and-exciting card art.

I played four matches of Gwent and won only one of them-- with a Northern Realms deck, which was what I mainly played with in Wild Hunt. A lot of the cards were familiar to me, but they've been rebalanced, and many of the cards in all the decks had new effects and powers. There were, it seemed, a much larger number of cards which summoned more cards to the field when you played them, and I felt like I was seeing more characters which allowed me to draw cards or add cards to my hand. It also seemed like there were lot more characters in multiple factions which let me, say, draw a card out of my opponent's deck, or draw two from my own and choose one, and so on. Some familiar cards had new powers. It seems in general like there's just a lot more going on in the new version of Gwent. Although the core rules are the same, the cards themselves are a lot more complicated and diverse in their effects.

Anyway, I was extremely pleasantly surprised by the scope of this game. I don't think Gwent will appeal to exactly the same group of people who love Hearthstone-- it's a game about deception and trickery, and it's almost less about the cards and more about the way and the order in which you play them. But there's already a huge fan audience for Gwent, and I'm pretty confident in guessing that this version of the game is better than the last one.

Gwent will be free-to-play. It will have a closed beta on PC and Xbox in September, with a PS4 one following after.