Can Gwent: The Witcher Card Game crack the competitive CCG scene?

As the competitive esports scene continues to grow at pace, one area remains relatively untapped; that of the online collectible card game.

One game dominates the competitive CCG landscape: Hearthstone. It’s become the archetypal card-based battle game, and with good reason; it has all the intricacies and strategic depth you’d expect from a quality entry into the genre, coupled with the attention to detail and a strong focus on community-building that developers Blizzard have perfected over years of shepherding their precious Warcraft license.

So is there room for only one CCG on the competitive scene, or could another emerge to challenge Hearthstone’s dominance? 

Here to address that question is Gwent, the new free-to-play online collectible card game from CD Project Red, the talent behind The Witcher series of RPGs. And just to prove the devs are serious about challenging Blizzard’s monopoly of the competitive scene, they’ve just announced the Gwent Challenger Tournament in April, with a $100,000 prize for the winner -- no small amount for a game that hasn’t even had a full release yet.

Gwent is actually a mixture of both new and old. It’s new in the sense that it’s only playable so far in a pre-release closed beta state; it’s old in the sense that it’s derived from a mini-game that will be familiar to Witcher players, as it was included in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

There have been tweaks of course; the version of Gwent in The Witcher 3 basically existed so that, as protagonist Geralt, you would go around gathering the best cards to create an unbeatable deck. In the standalone version, there obviously needs to be a little more attention to balancing.

You can play with a premade deck from one of the game’s factions, or create your own with the deck builder. As long as you meet the game’s minimum of 25 cards, you’re free to indulge in any wild strategy you like, with many possibilities available starter cards. If you want to really get into all the different strategic permutations, though, you’ll need to buy yourself some card packs, or ‘kegs’ as Gwent calls them. Each keg gets you five cards, including one of a rarer caliber. Interestingly, the fifth card is selected by the player from a choice of three, with the choice sometimes feeling genuinely difficult when there’s more than one attractive card on offer.

So at face value. Gwent follows many of the basic rules of the increasing number of online CCGs out there. But get past the deck building and jump into a game, and Gwent looks very unlike your standard me-too card-battler.

Every card in Gwent has a strength value, which, when played, contributes to your overall total. Players take turns to play a card, with the winner being the player with the highest strength value at the end of the round. There’s no direct attacking, either against opponents or their cards, only buffs and debuffs, called abilities, that trigger when cards are played. These affect the strength values of yours or your opponent’s cards. The overall winner is the first to two rounds, and this best-of-three structure adds substantially to the overall strategy of the game for a couple of important reasons. Firstly, the 10 cards you draw at the beginning of the first round stay with you for the entire game; only two extra cards are drawn at the start of the second round, and one in the third. This means every card is valuable, and you must choose when is best to play them over the course of the match. Secondly, you can choose to pass at any point, meaning your opponent can play their cards uncontested for the rest of that round.

The act of passing is an often bold, but always a necessary element of your strategic arsenal. Let’s say you’re taking a battering in the first round -- do you keep throwing cards into the battle, all the while playing catch up with no guarantee you can pull it around? Or do you concede this round while you have the card advantage, keeping a couple of strong cards back so that when the second round begins, you can start strongly? After all, it’s likely your opponent has played a few of their best cards to drive home their advantage, leaving them (hopefully) weaker in the late-game.

When this strategy pays off, you feel like a tactical mastermind. Conversely, when it fails (and it quite often does), it’s a painful defeat. There are few more demoralizing losses than watching, helpless, while your towering strength-lead, which looked insurmountable when you passed the turn, is slowly whittled away before your eyes.

The result of this extra layer of strategy is an increase in mind-games. The metagame that arises from guessing and second guessing what your opponent has in their hand makes for a subtly different experience than those I’ve
 had with other online games. This system rewards patience and a grasp of simple psychology in a way that’s closer to traditional card games like poker than other CCGs. I’d often find myself scrutinizing every move of an opponent’s cursor, trying to ascertain if they had anything, wondering whether to keep my nerve and go all-in this round or concede and try to make my card advantage count in the next.

There are other elements that set Gwent apart, too. Cards are played in one of three rows, corresponding roles on the battlefield. Buffs and debuffs often affect all cards on one row, so tactical advantages (and disadvantages) can be had from bunching your cards together. Other fun strategies can be explored by using the characteristics of your chosen faction. For example, a Nilfgaard player can employ that faction’s focus on subterfuge to predict the opponent’s strategy by snooping on their cards, while as the Skellige, you’ll intentionally send cards to the graveyard just to resurrect a more powerful version of them later.

Most of my issues with Gwent surround its personality…or lack thereof. The Witcher series has such rich lore that extending it into a different style of game seemed a logical choice. At present, though, something about the sounds, the card artwork, and the overall graphical style doesn’t seem to present as consistent an identity as Hearthstone, which seems built from the ground up to delight, using its beloved Warcraft license to the full. As Gwent approaches full release, I’d just like a little more of the unique character that I know The Witcher has in spades brought to the fore.

Of course, whether Gwent becomes the next Hearthstone is largely dependent on whether or not the community takes it to their heart. One thing is certain, though, CD Projekt Red have done everything they can to give it the best chance imaginable. It’s fun to play, has a huge amount of tactical depth, and, perhaps most importantly, feels distinct enough from that other card-battler to create a niche all for itself.