Fight or Kite: The Witcher card game GWENT checks off a lot of the right boxes – but too many of the wrong ones


Continuing on my journey to digital card game bliss, I chose to try out a game I had mentally filed as one of the top contenders in the genre: GWENT. It’s a sharp contrast to my previous column about Ascension, a slow-paced decking building game. In fact, in a Fight or Kite column several years ago, I recommended it as a highly regarded alternative to Hearthstone. I even went so far as to suggest it “should be your first look for a solid digital card game.”

Admittedly, I was but a young, naive columnist in those days of yore. I had merely played a few hands during my playthrough of The Witcher 3. I had little idea of what I was truly recommending at the time. Having now played through several matches of GWENT, browsed through card after card after card, and tried to understand how in the world these reward tracks work, I can say that this game is… not the epic and best-in-class game I thought it once was.

Back then, I was blinded by the flashy animations, the gorgeous artwork and UI, and the link to an amazing IP. I let all of that ritzy glamour trick me – but no longer. I have been to the discard pile and seen the game for what it truly is. This is a game that is well-designed, visually fantastic, and utterly frustrating to play. It’s one that I can see players becoming highly invested in and really enjoying, but you’ve got some work to get there, and I don’t think I’m one of those players.

GWENT is akin to Magic The Gathering: Your deck is built to duel

From a high level, Gwent falls into the same sub-genre of card games as MTG. Players build a deck typically made up of around 30 cards and take that into a duel with another player. The format here is a best two-out-of-three rounds system. The matches are always duels, one vs. one.

The introductory tutorial does a fairly solid job of explaining all the rules to you as a new player. I always appreciate that a lot. However, there is just no way for it to give you enough info to really feel knowledgeable. There are simply too many cards and ways they can interact.

There are a ton of card types, effects, and abilities, but let me boil them down into two basic card categories: heroes and spells. The heroes all have a power value that functions as both their health and their victory points. So when you play a hero on the board, you gain their power as VP. If they take damage or you heal them (or boost them, giving them more power than they started with), then your VP will rise or fall respectively. Heroes can have all kinds of benefits and interactions too, including deployment actions, interactions depending on other cards being played, and even effects such as attacking another card every turn.

The spell cards are single-use in that you play them to gain their effect immediately and then discard. They don’t provide any VP. There’s probably another category of cards that are put them into play on the board to gain various benefits or effects but without any VP, similar to spells, but they don’t have to occur immediately. I believe they’re called alchemy cards, but it doesn’t really matter.

In simplest terms, to play a match you draw up a hand of 10 cards to begin the first round, and each subsequent round you draw three more cards. With the exception of cards played that allow you to draw or gain another card, you don’t draw any additional cards between rounds or turns. Your turn within a round always consists of playing a single card and potentially using your faction ability, so you need to be very tactical in what cards you play and when you play them. Since drawing up is minimal compared to the starting hand, it’s also important to know when to give up (or hope your opponent will) each round.

I mentioned the factions earlier but didn’t expand on them much. As you likely guessed, each faction will tend to lean toward a particular playstyle. The Skellige appear to be like Vikings, so they have a lot of direct attacks. The Nilfgaard are kind of sneaky nobles, so they have some trickery.

However, in addition to the focus of the faction deck, there are also a number of faction skills that you can choose from. Think of it as a hero ability. You’re allowed to build only a single one into your deck, but it tends to help focus the rest of your deck. For example, the Skellige have a faction skill that will summon and deal a single point of damage to a monster in the enemies play area. This pairs well with the bloodthirst abilities, which trigger when multiple cards on the opponents play area are damage. Another can spawn rain which does some damage but can sync with some other cards that do extra damage and such when rain is in play.

Now, outside of a match, you can also build your deck, but that’s a whole column on its own, so let’s just say that it’s as much a part of playing the game as playing a match is.

A few different game modes are available, but offline play isn’t one of them

All GWENT matches resolve basically as discussed above, but there are some weekly and season modes that appear to come and go. I haven’t gotten into those modes much, so I can’t speak to them other than to say they adjust the rules of the standard mode slightly.

Draft mode appears to be made to address the balancing issue that would come from a newer player like me who simply doesn’t have the quality or breadth of cards that others do. In it, you go through a series of rounds drafting cards until you have a full deck presumably of equal quality to other players competing in the mode. The issue is that you still need understand basically all the cards in the game and how they can interact with one another to draft a competitive deck.

GWENT does include a training mode for playing games against a computer opponent; otherwise, once you’ve reached level 25, you can play against other players. I don’t really understand that restriction, but sure. It’s a place for testing your deck without stressing over a real match. This is why I don’t understand the game not allowing offline play – it even has a mode for playing against AI, but it won’t let you play offline. I mentioned what a lifesaver that mode was for me in Ascension when I was stuck on a plane, so the lack of this option is a big deal for me.

Questing and advancement play a large role as well

Like many MMOs and not-so-massively titles, GWENT includes a series of dailies and other quests for you to complete. They play similar to those in MultiVersus and similar games: Win a number of matches or play so many games as one faction or another. I’m a fan overall of the concept; it gives you a minor goal to achieve to keep you from feeling overwhelmed by the grind ahead of you.

An interesting feature of GWENT is its faction advancement tracks. As you play with a certain faction, you’ll earn keys and rewards that you can spend to gain some cards and other benefits. Again, it’s another nice feature that provides new players with small goals that are achievable.

Reward tracks, card packs, lock boxes, and cosmetics fill out the monetization scheme

We have all the usual suspects at play in GWENT when it comes to monetization; it is a free-to-play game, after all. However, in a CCG like this, it feels somewhat more in your face than in many other games. It’s even a bit pay-to-win since you can buy some premium currency to help you upgrade your cards, although you can also earn some of that currency through play (I think or maybe just from the standard battle pass).

One interesting bit is that since GWENT is a few years old now, there have actually been a number of expansions. It seems to me that most of them involve new cards and mechanics that tie into those, but there’s also a single player campaign as an expansion. Quite strange. While I haven’t played it, it looks similar to the campaigns in HEROish in that you can move from point to point on a visual map encountering enemies along the way to launch matches.

Final thoughts and frustrations

After all that, on paper even I would think that GWENT was a game I’d be highly motivated and into. But in practice and through play, it just isn’t. It pains me to say it because there are so many cool features and smart moves you can make during play that will score you the win. Yet there’s just so much of the other stuff – so many different types of cards and moves and ways they can interact with each other. Sure, maybe once you basically know them all, you’ll be in your element, but it’s a big hurdle to get to that point.

That isn’t to say I didn’t have a few good matches that were close. In those that I won, pulling out a victory was pretty fun. Even in some of the losses I could appreciate how the cards fell.

But then there were other matches where I just have no clue what happened. One example was a match that came down to the third round. My opponent and I were both down to a near minimal hand with his faction ability burned. I played my power, and with my last couple of turns I was winning 20-something points to about 4.

My hand was empty, but my rival had two cards left. I knew it would be close depending on what was left in those two cards. Suddenly, cards were flying all around the screen, my cards were getting wacked, his empowered, and finally when the dust had settled, I lost, 40ish to 4. What? Not only did I lose, but I got smoked?! With two cards?! I had a full on ragequit at that moment. There’s no satisfaction or growth in a loss like that.

So I do think it’s a good game, just not for me. I may come to find that none of these games is for me – I don’t know. I can absolutely see how people could enjoy and really dig into the depths of the cards and how they work together so well. It’s not so different from playing PvP in any MMO. If you want to be really competitive and successful, you have to know not only your skills and abilities but also those of the other classes you are facing.

I’m just not sure I have it in me to commit the immense amount of time it’s going to take me to get there in this game. When I consider the the number of duels I’ll need to play through that leave me completely and utterly frustrated, I suspect it’s just too great a challenge for me, for now. Perhaps if and when I get around to playing MTG I’ll find myself crying over the same aspects as those in GWENT. For the rest of you, though, perhaps it’s worth a look. The game is free, after all, and available on Steam as well as iOS and Android.

Every other week, Massively OP’s Sam Kash delivers Fight or Kite, our trip through the state of PvP across the MMORPG industry. Whether he’s sitting in a queue or rolling with the zerg, Sam’s all about the adrenaline rush of a good battle. Because when you boil it down, the whole reason we PvP (other than to pwn noobs) is to have fun fighting a new and unpredictable enemy!
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