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LONG BLOG

Free-to-Play: Gwent (beta)

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For this month's blogger's wanted, I wanted to write something about a game which I've been playing these past few months, Gwent.

For those of us who didn't play the Witcher 3, Gwent is played in 3 rounds. Each player takes turn playing cards, trying to get the highest points total on their side of the board until one player passes. The other player can continue playing cards, if they wish, and the round is over once both players pass. Strategically, you want to win a round with enough resources left to be able to win again, so card advantage (equalling or beating your opponent with fewer cards) is very important. Knowing when to pass and when to play is key to winning. Players build decks using one of 5 factions: Monsters, Nilfgaard, Northern Realms, Scoia'tael and Skellige, alongside a selection of neutral cards. Each faction has its own identity and unique mechanics.

 

One of the biggest challenges Gwent has faced is transitioning a minigame in a single-player RPG into a fully-fledged multiplayer card game. There are a lot of changes - card strength now doubles as health, so players can interact with the other side of the board to kill off units, boost their own, and more. Cards are more complex and more balanced, with a greater focus on abilities and synergy than it's minigame counterpart.



Gwent in the Witcher 3

As a card game, Gwent is pretty good. Because each player plays a single card per turn, Gwent hits the right spot when it comes to pacing - fast enough that games can be completed in a reasonable amount of time, but long enough to facilitate genuine strategy. Like most card games, it's a test of mental arithmetic more than anything else. And the artwork is fantastic.

Gwent also manages to feel unique in a field increasingly crowded by derivative clones. It's impossible to talk CCGs right now without mentioning Hearthstone, and it's to Gwent's credit that it plays completely differently. The 3 round structure emphasises a style of decision making that encourages foresight - you won't win by aggressively flooding the board or by drawing games out, which is good because neither of those decks are fun to play against in Hearthstone. Here, thinning (reducing the number of cards in your deck to maximise draws) is very important because there are very few draw cards, so the 3 cards each player draws between rounds are crucial.

I have to admit I don't care much for Arena mode. It's pretty much the same draft mode you'd see in other games, but it doesn't work so well in Gwent because without faction limitations. It ends up being too random and I personally don't enjoy it, but it doesn't detract from other modes.


Though Gold Rush is fun.

As a free to play game, Gwent is pretty generous. The player earns 100 ore (enough currency to buy a pack) for their first 6 rounds won, which means you earn a 'keg' (5 card pack) in four to five <5 minute games. When you add daily quests, you'll easily get one or two packs per session. There are also ranked rewards for ranking up, and for the highest rank achieved at the end of each ranked season.

 

One thing I really like about the kegs is that the player gets to pick the rare drop from a selection of three. That means you're less likely to get duplicates, which deconstruct to a fraction of their value.

Because each deck can only have 4 gold cards and 6 silver cards, most decks cost around the same to craft, and as things stand the collection is still quite small. So you don't run into situations where you lose because your opponent simply had access to better cards than you. Combined with the generous rewards, this makes for a free-to-play experience which doesn't twist the player's arm or exist to feed fresh meat to whales. I've only bought the starter pack, which was under £4, and I have a pretty large collection. I feel comfortable leaving the game for days, weeks, even months, without feeling like I've fallen behind, and I don't think newcomers need to spend on more than the starter pack to catch up. And I don't think I've ever been able to say that about a free-to-play game, or at least a free-to-play CCG before.

While Gwent, as a free-to-play card game, has the right foundations, the challenges the game faces are many. The first being that it needs several quality-of-life improvements. The UI needs to be streamlined and provide better information on things like card history (who played what, where, and what it did). The connection issues really do kill the game at times and getting Gwent onto smartphones is going to prove very difficult: there's just too much to fit on a phone screen. Either the game will end up undermining its great artwork, or will end up hiding important information behind menus and taps (further exasperating the bad UI issues), or both. It's worth remembering that Gwent is still in beta, but when you're taking money from people, it's hard to use 'it's in beta' as an excuse for a product which, at times, is not up to standards.

The disastrous midwinter update was a huge blow to the fledgling game. While the update added a lot of new and interesting cards, it also emphasised cards which 'create' from a random pool of options. Given that Gwent was pretty much marketed as an anti-Hearthstone, and the lack of high-variance random elements was one of the game's biggest drawing points to disillusioned former Hearthsone players, the release of cards like the Runestones and Black Blood weren't just bad for the game: they felt like a betrayal of its core principles. But CDPR are learning. In the months since winter, many of the changes have either been adjusted or rolled back. The latest update (which rolls out today or tomorrow) has de-emphasised create cards, as well as problematic cards like Wardancer (notable because it could be played for free, without costing a card or a turn, between rounds). Major updates are now more measured, even if that means more time between content. CDPR learned that getting it right first time is imperative, and it's refreshing to hear them talk about it honestly in an era of PR speak and empty platitudes. The devs really do have a connection with the fans that comes from genuinely caring about them and their experience.

The variance of random cards like Runestones is too high, and it never feels good to lose because your opponent highrolled a perfect answer.

Though it's not just Hearthstone that CDPR need to be worried about. There's another competitor on the horizon. Valve's Artifact seems like it could very well end up being the biggest threat to Hearthstone's dominance. If Valve have proven anything, it's that they do 2 things better than anyone else: free-to-play economies and esports. And, the more I hear about Artifact, the more interesting it sounds. It seems genuinely unique and with Valve backing it I can't see it not being impactful. I think CDPR need to at least get version 1.0, with its numerous fixes and improvements, as well as long-promised single-player expansion Thronebreaker out before Artifact starts making waves or they could very well end up fighting for third place. But, regardless of competitors, Gwent is still a fun experience with a solid foundation and a lot of potential.

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About Saladorone of us since 6:33 PM on 08.18.2016

I swear I will one day shut up about Bioware.