What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. Today I want to take a look at Gwent, the fictional card game from the Witcher universe that was turned into a standalone TCG. I’m going to be talking about the inspiration behind the game, the various different versions of it, and giving my thoughts on the game design behind it. Remember to hit that like button if you want me to break down more games from books, movies, and T.V. shows, and without further ado let’s get started.
The inspiration for Gwent first appeared in the Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, specifically the fifth book “Baptism of Fire”. In the book, the dwarves play a game known as “Barrel”, or “Gwint” in Polish, which is the inspiration for the game of gwent. I haven’t actually read the books yet, but it seems like the game is only briefly mentioned and not very well explained. However, there are some important details mentioned. It’s definitely a card game, and the cards are mentioned to have incredibly detailed drawings of humanoid figures (it’s unclear whether the figures were human or dwarf). It’s also mentioned that the rules are incredibly complicated, but from the brief bits of gameplay that are described it’s clear that it’s a trick-taking game similar to Bridge or Spades. It’s played in pairs, and the pairs take turns making bids. Whoever bids the most has to win a certain number of tricks, while the other pair tries to stop them. While this game is clearly the inspiration for the Gwent that we know and love, it’s very different from either of the other versions, and it seems that very little was taken from this original version.
Gwent first made the jump from fantasy to reality as a minigame within the Witcher 3. In this game Gwent is actually a trading card game that represents a battle between two armies. Both players draw a hand of 10 cards from a 25 card deck, and take turns playing 1 card each turn. The majority of cards are unit cards, and each unit card has a score listed on it. Your total score is equal to the combined value of all of your unit cards. The battlefield is separated into three distinct sections – close combat, ranged, and siege weapons, and for the most part each unit can only be played in one of these sections. Some cards also have special abilities, and there are other cards that affect the battlefield, such as weather cards. Each player chooses one of four different factions to play – Scoia’tael, Nilfgaard, Monsters, and Northern Realms, with the Skellige deck being added later in the Blood and Wine DLC. Each deck has a different mix of abilities, and each player gains a special ability based on which deck they are playing – you always win ties if you play the Nilfgaard deck, for example. Each game of Gwent consists of 3 rounds, and you use the same hand of cards for all 3 rounds. Whoever wins 2 rounds first is the winner.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of trading card games, and II had a blast playing Gwent when I first played The Witcher 3 – to the point where my version of Geralt was basically a hopeless card gamer who fought monsters as a way to feed his Gwent habit. I thought the concept of a trading card game existing in-universe in this epic medieval fantasy world was a bit strange, but in a fun way. It was also a bit strange to see characters we know in the story itself, such as Geralt himself, show up on the cards, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief.
From a game design perspective there are a lot of things I like about Gwent. For one, I really appreciate its uniqueness – in a world where so many TCGs are thinly veiled Magic: The Gathering clones with a small twist, Gwent went in a very different direction. Having three different areas of the battlefield was a unique deck-building challenge – you can get the most points by focusing on a single area, but there are other aspects of the game – like weather cards – that encourage you to spread your forces out. I also really like that the game takes 3 rounds. While a lot of competitive cards games play “best 2 out of 3”, the fact that you use the same hand for all 3 rounds adds a really interesting strategic wrinkle. You can try to be aggressive and win the first two rounds immediately, but that puts you at risk of running out of resources and getting swept in later rounds. You can also try to trick your opponent into expending too much of their resources early on, and come back to win the later rounds. It’s a very simple, fast paced game, but there is still plenty of strategic depth to be found.
However, Gwent’s simplicity is also its biggest problem – in a manner of speaking, and I think it is only able to be as fun as it is because it is a game within a game. From a pure game design perspective, this version of Gwent would not survive as a standalone game, because it has a very limited design space and is very unbalanced. There simply aren’t that many different cards that you can design for this game. In the base game there are only 120 unique cards, and even with duplicates you can only collect around 200 TOTAL. The design space is so restrictive that it would be difficult to fill a single set of cards, much less release multiple expansions. The design is so restrictive that in order to make more cards for the DLC, the designers had to create an entirely new faction – something that was seen as blasphemous within the narrative of the game itself.
The cards that do exist are also very unbalanced. There is no resource system for playing cards, so there is nothing stopping you from playing all of your best cards right away. The gap between the best cards and the worst is INSANE – there are foot soldier cards worth only a single point, right alongside cards like Geralt of Rivia that is worth 15 points AND immune to special abilities. If a player were able to collect multiple copies of all of the best cards, their deck would be completely unbeatable. While the different factions do technically prevent players from putting all the best cards in their decks, most of the really good cards are Neutral, and can actually go in any deck. In reality, the only thing keeping the game remotely balanced is the fact that the supply of cards is VERY limited. Most good cards only have a single copy in the game, and there is no way to get more. While this works fine within a video game where you can strictly control how many copies there are of each card, it would not work at all in the real world.
When CD Projekt Red decided to turn Gwent into a standalone game, they knew that they would have to make some fundamental changes to make the game work. While the minigame had a very limited number of abilities and special cards, the standalone greatly increased the range of what cards were able to do. They also introduced a form of damage, where some units have the ability to reduce the score of an opponent’s units. They added additional deck-building restrictions by requiring that decks have a certain number of Gold, Silver, and Bronze cards, and allowed players to draw cards between rounds.
For the most part, I can understand why these changes were made. CDPR knew that they would have to add additional layers of depth to their game if they wanted it to work as a competitive multiplayer game, or even as an e-sport, and they would need to expand their design space if they wanted to release new expansions without immediately running out of card ideas. However, part of me does feel like the changes made this version of Gwent feel less unique, and brought it more in line with the “standard” TCG design. I actually liked that players generally couldn’t get additional cards beyond the initial 10, at least not without special abilities, and not having cards “attack” each other made the game feel different from your average “attack the opponent until dead” card game.
Gwent has now been out for several years, and the rules have changed significantly. The modern version of the game hardly resembles the version that was released in 2016. Unfortunately, most of these changes continued to chip away at what made Gwent unique as a game. For example, the 3 unique rows of cards was reduced to 2, and the rules were changed so that any card could pretty much be played in any row. Cards that affected specific rows, such as weathers, could now affect any row. This completely eliminates any deck-building tension regarding balancing units for different rows. I do like the fact that certain cards have different abilities in the different rows, but there is so little distinction now between the rows that it makes me wonder if it’s even worth it to have 2 instead of just one at this point. They also removed hero cards from the game, and allowed players to mulligan cards between rounds.
Don’t get me wrong – I still think Gwent is a fun game, but I do think it has lost a lot of its identity at this point. It is no longer the tense, fast-paced game of attrition that it was, and feels a lot closer to a Witcher-themed version of Magic than ever before. While I understand that the game couldn’t continue in the same form it had in the Witcher 3, I do wish it had held on to more of the unique mechanics that it had originally.
That being said, one aspect I do really like is how the more recent versions of Gwent balance their decks. They actually found a solution to the Queen’s problem that I didn’t mention in my original video – card point values. In Gwent your deck basically has a “power budget” that you cannot go beyond. Every card you add to your deck has a cost, and your total cost cannot exceed a maximum value. More powerful cards cost more points, so there is a limit to how many you can put into your deck. I like this system, and while it could never work in a physical CCG, I think it’s a clever way of keeping cards balanced in a digital card game where the computer can do all the work.
Here’s the part of the video where I ask for your opinion – what’s your favorite version of Gwent? Do you think the changes made in the standalone game were worth it? And what fictional game from movies, books or television should I break down next? Let me know in the comments down below. If you enjoyed this video make sure to give it a like, and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.