Editor's note: After two years in beta, Gwent is now a standalone game. It released alongside Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, a single-player game with Gwent mechanics. While the Gwent and Thronebreaker are connected, they are separate applications, and we have reviewed them separately. You can read or watch our full Thronebreaker review or read on for our full Gwent review.
In The Witcher 3, Gwent was an enjoyable but arduous side activity, only rewarding for those patient enough to scour the open world in search of more powerful playing cards. If you weren't inclined to do that, you'd miss out on much of what made Gwent a unique take on collectible card games. Gwent, now a free, standalone multiplayer game, gives you the room and resources to really enjoy it. Its rules are shaken up to provide an even playing field for veterans and newcomers alike, and it establishes a deeply rewarding loop that encourages you to stick with whichever of its various factions interest you most.
Gwent's fundamentals haven't changed much since The Witcher 3. You're still restricted to playing one card per turn, with the goal of attaining a higher power value than your opponent in each of three total rounds. Each card has an individual power value attached, and your total score will increase the more cards you commit to each round. If you feel as though you're outmatched or similarly far enough ahead in any one round, you can choose to pass and save your current hand for the next. Given that your ability to draw new cards is limited, having more cards in your hand gives you a tangible advantage. Gwent rewards calculated restraint, which makes knowing when to fold and when to go all in an important part of its strategy.
The big differences lie in the structure of the board. Previously Gwent featured three rows, one for each type of unit. That's been reduced to just two now--melee and ranged--and you're free to choose either for your units. Certain units will have abilities that you can only activate when spawned on a certain row, while other units that deal damage to enemies will have their range limited to one or two rows ahead of them. With fewer limitations on card placement, you're able to play Gwent with more fluidity. Experimentation with row-specific abilities and how they link up with cards already in play affects the board in significant ways during a single turn. These new rules keep rounds unpredictable at times and let the tide of the skirmish shift frequently. Having to decide between a big play or holding back for subsequent rounds makes for an engaging test of strategy, with no single approach being best in all scenarios.
The flexibility doesn't help the stagnant pace of matches, though, where each player turn feels far more drawn out than it should. Given the limited number of actions you can take a turn, it's frustrating to watch an opponent stall on playing a single card. Gwent could also benefit from more helpful visual feedback on card abilities and triggers, as I often found myself fumbling a play by placing a card into the wrong row simply because I missed a single word of text on the card itself. Boards should ideally give you more contextual information to work with when you select a card, so that you're not stuck reading each card repeatedly to make sure you're making the right play.
Cards are segmented into five different Factions, each of which requires a distinct strategy to play effectively. The noble Northern Realms specialize in cards with abilities like Deploy (which are triggered when you play a card) and Order (which you manually activate after meeting certain conditions). Monsters, conversely, enjoy strategies laden with Deathwishes that unleash often devastating chains of events when certain creatures die and head to the graveyard. You'll have a starting deck for each Faction when you initially begin Gwent which helps in familiarizing you with each of their differences. But it's also important to experiment with and figure out which Faction speaks to your style of play, and you'll have to decide where to invest your rewards from wins as you go.
Reward trees sprawl out on parchment maps, with one for each Faction and sub-trees for each of their respective Captain characters. Nodes on these maps can be unlocked with Reward Points, which you'll earn frequently by completing challenges in-game. These can be as easy as playing a certain number of cards during a match, or as complicated as eliminating a large number of enemy cards in a single turn. Unlocking nodes rewards you in multiple ways, including small gifts of in-game currencies and big bundles of card packs called Kegs. Each map rewards you with respect to the Faction it belongs to, incentivizing you to spend points on the Factions you play most. It emphasizes the need to experiment with different factions and settle on your favorites beforehand, as the influx of Reward Points slows down after clearing many of the easier challenges.
In-game currencies are plentiful in Gwent, and each serves familiar purposes. There's one that acts as the standard fare for purchasing new card packs, another that helps in the crafting of new cards, and a third that can be used to spruce up existing cards into shinier, animated versions of themselves. Gwent rewards you well for match wins (and additionally for matches where your opponent congratulates you, which is a nice touch) which makes progression towards your next card pack feel balanced. Combined with currency rewards you'll get from reward trees, I found it easy to amass a large amount of each resource in a handful of hours. Gwent is generous with how it rewards the time you invest in it, giving you the means to build up a formidable collection of cards before tempting you to spend real money on it.
Gwent clearly learns from other digital collectible card games that have carved their niche out of the market, but its play style offers up an entirely different type of challenge.
That's not to say that time will eventually come, unless you're planning to keep up with the shifting metagame that CCGs generally employ to keep things fresh. Gwent's in-game store gives you many options for purchasing bundles of resources and some alluring starter packs that reward you with a generous number of Kegs to open.
Gwent clearly learns from other digital collectible card games that have carved their niche out of the market, but its play style offers up an entirely different type of challenge. It's one that requires some investment, and hard decisions on which Faction you'd like to invest in, but Gwent also respects your time by rewarding you for nearly every action in a match, tempting you to play just one more. Its matches could use some fine-tuning in their pacing and presentation, but Gwent is otherwise a refreshingly new take on card games that establishes itself firmly outside of the simple side activity it was in The Witcher 3.