Gwent is out now, in open beta—which effectively means the "full" game, subject though it will be to myriad updates, is available to play, for free. What began as a mini-game within CD Projekt RED's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has blossomed into a standalone collectible card game—and I could not be happier with it.
Prior to Gwent, my CCG of choice was— as it's been (and remains) for many—Blizzard's Hearthstone. But having spent time enough with the newer option to comfortably admit to something of an addiction, it's quickly become one of my favorite card games ever, certainly my favorite game of 2017 so far, and has got me into the wider Witcher universe in a way I did not expect at all.
If Hearthstone is the beginner-level CCG experience, a good foot in the door for newcomers to this kind of game, Gwent feels like the step up. It takes your knowledge of mana, life points, attacking and defending strategies and all manner of other values-balancing to the next level.
Which is not to say the two games are completely comparable— but, both are CCGs in the fantasy realm, spun-off from bigger franchises (Hearthstone, in case you're playing catch up, features characters from the Warcraft series), so there are surface-level similarities enough to warrant a deeper exploration of why Gwent has stolen me away from my Old Gods and Karazhan critters.
In the areas I felt Hearthstone came up short, Gwent delivers in spades. In the former, it's common for a match to end within its first few turns, due to a bad match-up, cheap and fast start, or a bad mulligan (and apologies now for the CCG lingo—it's hard to work without it when it comes to this kind of inside baseball). There are times when you'll know there's no point in playing out certain games before the initial turn's been taken.
But in Gwent, board clears are incredibly rare, carrying as they do consequences for both players. Whereas in Hearthstone the Flamestrike card can decimate opponents in one fell swoop, relatively risk free, Gwent doesn't really have a "one size fits all" solution to permanent crowd control—save perhaps for its First Light card. As such, deck composition is about more than sheer attack strength, and adding in specific kinds of buffs or combos is encouraged, as it gets really fun to figure out what works and what doesn't.
Gwent is less about specific collections, and more about what you do with the cards you've got—which you can argue is true of Hearthstone, too, but there's more emphasis there on buying up legendary cards, with no limit set on how many you can hold in a deck. Gwent does impose a limit on its gold and silver cards, forcing the player to better understand the ins and outs of basic commons and rares. There's no "curve" in Gwent, either, which works to its advantage—what is so vital in Blizzard's game, to developing the course of each match, disappears, leaving players free to play whatever they want, and have fun.
Anticipation, reactions, predictions and a penchant for an occasional gamble are all paramount qualities the player needs to make the most of Gwent—and you can, and should, bluff a little, too. It's like poker, Euchre and Magic: The Gathering had a baby, and it was the first in the (okay, pretty weird) family to get a degree in game design 101. Psych-outs, mind games, risk and reward, baiting—it's all here, and there's a pure, joyous mystery to every turn that runs the course of every match.
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I'm purposefully skimming over a lot of the deeper, more particular mechanical aspects of both Hearthstone and Gwent here, so as to not confuse those who've not spent much time with the former, but are tempted to take the latter out for a hand or two, after enjoying it in The Witcher 3. And that's because, seriously, those depths get pretty bottomless, pretty quickly. (But if you want to discuss those things, I'm on Twitter.)
But to cut to the core of the argument, such as it is, here: Gwent is a game where every moment matters, whereas Hearthstone, whose failings have only felt exacerbated over time, is all about sustaining momentum—but still falls prey to dead ends and wasted opportunities.
Gwent is just more interesting, right now—and, sure, some of that is the freshness factor, but it's also because it's just so much smoother to get into, and way more player friendly than its predecessor. There are no aggro or control decks, no grinding(!), no Patches the Pirate (uh). Instead, foresight is rewarded, and big swing plays only end rounds, not entire games.
It's got some way to go before it can challenge Hearthstone as the preeminent CCG on the market, and not without launch hiccups—I've run into my share of glitches and bugs, server crashes and balance headaches, and there's no doubt that it needs to move from PC and consoles to tablets and phones ASAP. It needs its single-player campaign up and running soon, too. But there's something about Gwent right now that's just so damn attractive (enough that since getting into it, I've also started The Witcher 2—thanks, Games with Gold—and have bought Wild Hunt too, for when I'm done with it).
It might have something to do with the fantastical but grounded world in which it's set—The Witcher isn't a series where stuff just happens, adhering as it does to its own logic, its own societal hierarchies and geographical politics. Perhaps it's the lack of stingy daily quest restrictions, or all of those gorgeous animations that play out as you upgrade your cards. It's not just one thing that's doing it for me, right now—it's the fact that the whole, already, is surprisingly much more than the sum of its precedent-rich parts.