Gwent Year One: A Retrospective
Guest author Quetzylus takes us back through Gwent's first year in Beta to review the road we've taken, and shed some light on the things yet to come.
Gwent was once just a minigame in The Witcher 3, a side-quest in the overall storyline of the RPG. But with the upcoming release of Thronebreaker, the tables will soon be turned, and role-playing will be Gwent’s minigame.
Turning a simple board game from a singleplayer RPG into a massive multiplayer CCG is by no means an easy task, but one that CDPR has undertaken with success so far. The game we see in its current state is staggeringly different from where it was a year ago at the beginning of the Closed Beta, or even at the beginning of the Open Beta in May. So how exactly did we get here, and what does Gwent’s future hold for us?
Gwent in The Witcher 3
Gwent began in The Witcher 3 as a minigame that allowed the player to interact with various characters across the world and eventually obtain the cards necessary to build an optimal deck. The gameplay of Gwent in The Witcher 3 is, at its very core, similar to that of standalone Gwent in its current state. The goal of each game is to have more points than your opponent to win a round, and to ultimately win two out of three rounds. Each player begins with 10 cards, and units may be placed on one of three rows on a player’s side of the board. There are five factions, and each faction has several different leader abilities to choose from.
But outside of these core similarities, The Witcher 3 Gwent is very different from the current standalone Gwent. Players don’t draw cards after the game begins. Each faction has their own passive ability that changes how the game is played. Almost all units can only be placed on a specified row. “Hero cards” (the analogue to current gold cards) are immune to effects. Weather affects a single row on both sides of the board, reducing all affected units down to 1 power. And, besides the short list of spells, there is barely any interaction with the opponent’s board.
As a singleplayer minigame, the goal of The Witcher 3 Gwent is not to be the most balanced game; in fact, it becomes more and more favored towards the player as he traverses the world and finds newer and better cards. Therein lies the key difference between The Witcher 3 Gwent and standalone Gwent: while the former was designed with a progression system allowing for the game to eventually be “solved”, the latter was designed to have an array of different tactics and archetypes that could each be competitive in a multiplayer environment.
Closed Beta (October 2016 - May 2017)
The Closed Beta version of standalone Gwent shared many similarities with The Witcher 3 version. However, the Closed Beta changed deck composition by introducing designated silver and gold slots for decks and fixing the deck size to 25 – 40 cards. The inclusion of silver and gold cards allowed for greater design flexibility, and prevented players from simply filling their deck with the most powerful cards available, as in the original version. Instead, players would have to think carefully about what silvers and golds to include, as those slots were at a premium.
The introduction of the Closed Beta also saw the inclusion of many new cards, allowing for the formation of more unique abilities and factional archetypes. In The Witcher 3 Gwent, each unit had one of a small list of abilities, and therefore many units in different factions were similar. With an increased card pool and greater card variety, entire archetypes could now be formed around a game mechanic, such as discard or unit consumption. More interactive cards were created, making control decks viable and widely improving the game’s overall diversity.
Faction Passives Removal (May 2017)
The beginning of the Open Beta saw the removal of each faction’s passive ability. While the faction passive had been a tool to add greater factional identity, the introduction of new cards and an expanding set of archetypes made the faction passive a hindrance to game design. Factions were unnecessarily forced towards specific playstyles that weren’t necessarily synergistic with their archetypes. For instance, the Northern Realms passive boosted the power of all gold allies by 2, making the promotion archetype intrinsically more valuable than other potential archetypes in the faction. Some aspects of the removed faction passives were integrated into the designs of the cards themselves: many Skellige cards received the Veteran tag, increasing their base strength in later rounds as their old passive did, and resilient Ekimmaras provided a substitute for the Monster carryover passive. While many were initially skeptical of the change, the removal of faction passives allowed new archetypes to flourish, and many of the passives’ core concepts were integrated into the archetypes themselves.
Weather Rework (May 2017)
Weather in Gwent originally reduced the power of units on a particular row on both sides of the board to 1. This idea was completely scrapped with the beginning of the Open Beta, which reworked weather as a damage over time effect. Weather would instead be applied to any of the three enemy rows, damaging certain units on the row depending upon which weather was played. Biting Frost, for instance, would damage all units on the row by 1 each turn, while Impenetrable Fog would damage all the highest units by 2. This attrition damage drastically changed the course of the game. No longer would weather be a binary effect that either demanded a weather clear or forced a player out of a round. Instead, players could potentially play around weather without the use of a weather removal card. In theory. In reality, the early days of the Open Beta saw rampant use of weather, particularly the gold weathers Drought and Ragh nar Roog, which could deal up to 9 points of damage per turn. However, by July, the damage dealt by weather had been toned down to the point where it could only be used effectively in a few archetypes. In the current meta, running weather cards is much lower tempo and requires more commitment and setup, thus creating a more dynamic and interactive game.
Agility Changes (May-October 2017)
Throughout Gwent’s beta (though primarily during the Open Beta), CDPR has gradually shifted the majority of units from being row-locked to being placeable on any row, or agile. Much of this shift is in line with the weather change. As the game moved away from weather affecting both sides of the board, the idea of creating a deck to play around your own weathers disappeared. Now, the vast majority of units in the game, including all gold units, can be placed on any of the three rows.
This change has somewhat divided the Gwent community, with some supporting the idea of more agile cards as it increases player options, and others opposing the idea as it contradicts the flavor of the game. CDPR has teased the introduction of a new mechanic that would require the majority of cards to be agile, though we currently have no additional information regarding this mechanic. It has been speculated that cards will be altered to have preferred rows, in which they may get a minor power boost for being played on a specific row, or may have entirely different abilities depending upon which row they occupy. No matter the change, CDPR appears to be taking steps to give players more meaningful choices for unit placement.
Gold Immunity Change (September 2017)
The immunity of gold units to practically all effects has been a staple of Gwent since The Witcher 3. However, the September patch completely changed that, making gold units much more vulnerable to a swath of damage effects. The change was aimed at punishing playstyles that favored big, untouchable gold finishers, and making the game less draw-dependent on gold cards – particularly in round 3. While the change initially split the community, most players have since accepted the change. CDPR seems to be in favor of keeping some minor elements of gold immunity in place, since new cards such as Eskel and Artefact Compression were changed after their initial reveal to be unable to target golds. However, some balancing is still required to compensate for this change, as large golds such as Hjalmar and Bloody Baron are no longer seeing much play as they make for easy Scorch targets, and cards like Yennefer: The Conjurer and Triss: Butterfly Spell tend to be removed too easily to be viable. Some aspects of these gold cards need to be buffed a bit to compensate for their vulnerability. Once these changes are fully implemented, the removal of total gold immunity will certainly be healthy for the game’s future, representing less dependence on drawing gold cards and a larger design space with more card interactions.
Introduction of Gwent Masters (September 2017)
While the pro scene of Gwent technically began with the Gwent Challenger back in May, Gwent Masters, the official esports series for Gwent, was not officially announced until August. The fact that CDPR has already pushed for the introduction of a pro scene in the game’s beta signals that they plan to be heavily invested in the game for years to come, which is good news for professional and casual Gwent players alike. Along with this announcement came the introduction of the first Pro Ladder in September. The Pro Ladder allows for a unique laddering experience for the top Gwent players in which factional diversity is incentivized, as a player’s total score is the sum of the scores of their four best factions. The Pro Ladder has over 10,000 players in just its first season, though currently only the top 200 players are eligible to gain Crown Points and qualify for events. This highlights possibly the greatest issue with Gwent Masters at this time, which is the small tournament size: the Challenger, Open, and GwentSlam tournaments each had only eight participants. By the time Gwent leaves beta, CDPR will hopefully consider hosting larger tournaments, or perhaps online tournaments for those who do not have the capability to travel to competitions.
Mahakam Ale Festival (September-October 2017)
The Mahakam Ale Festival represented the first seasonal event for Gwent, and featured three different singleplayer levels. Each of these levels manipulated the game rules in some manner to create a drastically different game of Gwent, offering an alternative to the ladder grind and a glimpse of what is to come, as these seasonal events are expected to occur regularly. Perhaps the most interesting of the three levels was “Battle of the Bards”, a puzzle-type level in which the player is tasked to move several units on the board to the ranged row, by using a few specialized cards. CDPR has mentioned that more of these puzzles can be anticipated in the future, both in seasonal events and the singleplayer campaigns. The Ale Festival represents a small taste of what can be expected from Thronebreaker, and offers a glimpse into the possible gamemodes that can become a reality for Gwent, both in singleplayer and multiplayer formats.
Over the past year, CDPR has pushed several large gameplay changes that have at times concerned portions of the Gwent community, but which have generally had positive impacts on the game after their implementation. While concepts such as the faction passive and gold immunity may have added some unique flavor to Gwent, their presence represented a decreased design space that would hinder the game down the line. The fact that CDPR is showing initiative in changing these important aspects early in the game’s development is encouraging. On the other hand, many players who play Gwent casually have expressed discomfort with seeing a completely different game after each major update. Gwent hasn’t had its official release yet, which means that CDPR still has the opportunity to make a few more of these major gameplay modifications before Gwent’s playerbase expands, after which new players may be put off by more extensive changes.
And Gwent still does have some game mechanics that need fixing. The coinflip issue is the most controversial: the player who goes first is always at some disadvantage, since they must keep up with the second player’s tempo or risk going down in card advantage. There is no easy, intuitive solution to this, but, at the very least, a solution for tournaments and high-level competition must be implemented soon. The current meta also has heavy reliance on gold cards like Woodland Spirit and Rainfarn, making many matchups very draw-dependent. In some cases, the outcome of a match is practically decided before the game even begins, due to the outcome of the coinflip and players’ starting hands. Fortunately, these are both game-balancing issues that CDPR can hopefully resolve with a bit more playtesting.
Besides potential game mechanics changes, there will also be much more content in Gwent’s future. The biggest addition will be Thronebreaker and the other subsequent singleplayer campaigns; CDPR has stated that there will eventually be at least one campaign per faction. Thronebreaker alone is estimated to have at least 10 to 15 hours of content, including plenty of side-quests and puzzles to vary the Gwent experience. CDPR will also be regularly introducing seasonal events, including two more by the end of the year. Other additions include a technical overhaul, new leaders, new factions, and new multiplayer gamemodes. For the time being, the most important addition to Gwent is simply the introduction of new cards. A larger card pool will alleviate the predictable gameplay and stale metas that Gwent currently faces. With the introduction of the singleplayer campaigns and new gamemodes, Gwent will soon be a much more diverse game, appealing to a wider audience while still retaining its core base.
Ultimately, as far as Gwent has come over the past year, there is just as much to expect around the corner. With plenty of new cards, gamemodes, and upgrades coming to the game, Gwent will be sure to last for many years to come.