I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a Gwent fanatic; it would be fair to say that at least 100 hours of my 420+ hour foray into The Witcher 3 was spent on Gwent. So, when CD Projekt Red announced at E3 last year that they were making a standalone Gwent game, I practically punched my friend in the face in excitement. Not only could I play it in-game and in person with the physical card editions – I’m one of those losers who bought the hard copy of the DLC so I could have my own Gwent decks – I could now play it online to my hearts’ content. Despite some stark differences between the original version and the new online edition, the competitive and addictive qualities of the game remain.

The game is about to hit full open Beta status and CD Projekt Red have declared that everyone who has applied to take part should be accepted by the end of the month. Even if you haven’t played TW3 – and you should really be asking yourself why that is – you should apply for the Beta for Gwent. It’s similar in style to Hearthstone and to The Elder Scrolls: Legends card games, in that cards are placed on a virtual “board” and you build your deck through victory and micro-transactions. The base decks are like those found in the original version from TW3, with a few new cards added for sustenance. The major difference between the base game and the online version is that the cards “powers” are extensively more varied and in some cases, are nothing like their original version.

Each card has its own power or unit rating – A Nilfgaardian Daerlan Foot Soldier is worth 8 points, for example – but now cards can come with enhanced powers, such as deal 2 damage to three separate units, or turn gold after two turns so that they can’t be affected by elemental cards such as frost. These extra powers add a new dynamic to the game as it challenges your previous perceptions and skills – I know I certainly felt less like a Gwent aficionado when I switched to the Beta. Playing a real person who is using real-time strategy and tactics to beat you enhances the game’s competitive nature and changes the tone of the game; you have a real person to send “GG” too as opposed to flipping off some random NPC on screen. Without giving away too many of my secrets, I do have my own set routine for winning that works regularly – Love a good tactical pass! – and everyone seems to have their own unique style of playing.

The game isn’t particularly difficult to understand but having played the original game in TW3 does give you an advantage of sorts. I’ve been caught out a few times in my arrogance, however: The commander’s horn card in the original game and in the early stages of the Beta doubled the strength of the row you applied it to; In the newest Beta version, it only adds five points to each card in your selected row. The developers have deliberately altered some of the cards after continuous feedback from Beta players, much to my annoyance; though I do appreciate the challenge it brings to the game as it requires the player to acutely observe their hand as opposed to just winging it with prior knowledge; The developers obviously want to appeal to a much wider audience than previous Witcher fans.

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The cards are beautifully designed, with Hero cards, such as Geralt, having an animated avatar as opposed to a still. The design of the two games is similar in that it it’s a standard board layout with three rows for melee, ranged and siege units respectively. Some cards can be placed on any row though most have a fixed position. You have your unit cards of varying strength and ability which are separated into three more categories: Bronze, Silver and Gold. This correlates to their prowess within the game – Geralt of Rivia is obviously a gold card, being the games’ protagonist – as well as any special powers they have. Gold cards are immune to elemental and special card effects, such as weather cards, potions and the deadly Scorch, which literally burns the highest rated card off the board.

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Silver and Bronze are subject to these special cards, but many Silver and Gold cards have powers that allow them to be effectively reborn onto the board if they are removed by force or by the end of the round. For example: You have played Regis the Vampire, who is a Gold card, so cannot be forcibly removed from the board. At the end of the round, rather than go to the graveyard, Regis – who is in human form on the card – transforms into a vampire who is a higher ranked unit, giving you an extra card on the board, therefore a possible tactical advantage, at the start of the next round. There is a disadvantage to this, however: He also becomes a Silver card and is no longer impervious to the special card effects. Various other cards have this ability, as well as there being an “Adrenaline Rush” card that allows you to secure a card on to the board for the next round.

Ok, now: Take a deep breath. The game is not as complicated as it sounds. Both the Beta and original version come with in-depth tutorials as well as concise descriptions of each card and its particularly effects and uses. Developing your own playing style and understanding certain tactics and strategies will take time, as it usually does when you start a new game. I have encountered a lot of people who gave up on both version of Gwent because committing to one game was difficult enough, never mind tackling TW3 and all its lore, gameplay and excellent swordplay. Others have given up because like many card games, there are a lot of rules and nuances that some find difficult to understand or master. For me, there’s not much to Gwent: The person who has the highest score wins. That’s it. At present, there is no chance of cheating on either version of the game; you win out of skill or sheer luck, depending on your outlook on life.

The cards between the original and Beta game have been edited for balance and to allow for Gwent to flourish on its own outside of the TW3, which it readily achieves. The short matches are addictive and extremely competitive; the art design and voicing of the cards is flawless, with the original voice artists giving it that genuine Witcher universe feel, allowing Geralt’s legacy to continue outside of the trilogy – even if it is just him exclaiming “Grr, I hate portals!” whenever he is used. There is still time to register for the Beta and, of course, play The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, so I suggest you try and do both if you have 400 hours to spare.

GWENT: The Game (Beta) is currently only available for PC and Xbox One, but a full PS4 version will be available upon its official release. PC and Xbox players can play against each other in the current Beta version which will hopefully be extended into the final version of the game. At this time, CD Projekt Red have not made clear if PS4 players can also play against their PC and Xbox One counterparts or whether it will be exclusively PS4 to PS4. Whilst they aim to end the Beta in Spring 2017 or when they have received enough positive feedback to take the game to its next level, CD Projekt Red have not announced if they will wipe or reset the game. However, they have stated that if you have paid for kegs/ other add-ons and the game is wiped post-Beta, you will be refunded any money you have spent. Apply for the closed Beta here: https://www.playgwent.com/en/#signup and keep an eye out for yours truly under the ever-elusive moniker of L. Aitken.

So, how about a round of Gwent?

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