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The Gwent standalone stands tall

If the closed beta is anything to go by, Gwent has recaptured the magic of the minigame from 2015's The Witcher 3 that everyone got a little obsessed with.

Confession time: I sank a lot of hours into The Witcher 3 last year. We're talking triple digits. I feel like that was justified by the sheer breadth of developer CD Projekt Red's sprawling fantasy adventure. What was perhaps less excusable was how I spent a good chunk of those hours. Instead of dungeon-delving and monster-slaying, I rode around the gorgeous landscape looking for people who wanted to play cards.

Toward the end, I could practically smell new opponents lurking in dingy pubs or market stalls. I was playing The Witcher 3, but really, it was just a vehicle for Gwent -- a card game invented purely as a throwaway minigame. Still, I tracked down every NPC, I collected every card, I honed my Gwent deck into a finely crafted instrument of ludic destruction.

And then CD Projekt Red announced it'd be making a full, standalone version of Gwent.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Follow the rules

After spending a few hours (OK, more than a few) in the closed beta, CD Projekt Red has built on the very simple rules from The Witcher 3 to make a game that stands on its own and, amazingly, still feels like Gwent.

Gwent is simple enough to play. You and your opponent take turns playing one card from your deck at a time. Every card can either increase the total strength on your side of the board or reduce the strength on your opponent's side. Highest strength at the end of a round wins. If you pass, you can't play any more cards that round. First player to win two rounds wins the match. That's it.

The problem with Gwent in The Witcher 3 was that it was a breakable game. You could tweak and customise your deck to the point where nothing else stands a chance. Not really conducive to an online multiplayer experience.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Gwent gets more complex when you factor in things like weather effects that reduce the strength of units, cards that will outright destroy enemy forces or cards than bring back things that had previously died. It's these details, that complexity, that lets Gwent stand on its own two legs. The greatly expanded number of cards means you need to be keeping track of a dozen extra things, looking for opportunities and openings to clinch rounds and ways to force your opponent to play from behind. Then there are the new deckbuilding options.

Deckbuilding is back, but now it's winning (or buying) Hearthstone-style boosters to fill out your collection. There are four factions you can build decks for, each with their own play styles and tricks.

You've got Skellige (viking-style clansmen damage their own dudes and bring back dead units), Northern Kingdoms (classic knights who like to come out in force), Scoia'tael (Elves. Do not play tricksy elves) and Monsters (who swarm the board like nobody's business and mess around with the weather). The Nilfgaardian Empire haven't appeared just yet, but based on my previous "beat everyone so badly it's not even funny" deck, it might be a good thing until the balance is right.

It's been given a full makeover, with new cards, animation and art. While it can feel a touch unresponsive due to laggy controls (and possibly more graphically intensive than it needs to be), it looks gorgeous.

Gwent will have five playable factions.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

This little piggy Gwent to market

Again, based on my experiences with the closed beta, it looks like Gwent will follow a very similar structure to Hearthstone, the gold standard of digital card games.

Like Hearthstone, Gwent will be free to play. Unlike Hearthstone, Gwent will be on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC (as opposed to PC, Mac, iOS and Android). Buy or win "kegs" -- essentially booster packs of random cards -- to flesh out your collection. There's also a crafting system, where you can trade collected resources for specific cards. Use those to build your decks and take the fight to strangers on the internet.

There are a few questions, like whether it will get the critical mass of players required to keep new cards flooding in, whether the curve is too steep for newcomers, and even when it'll be officially released, but based on the beta, Gwent is shaping up to be everything I wanted from a standalone version of the game. And it's really nice not to need to find a tavern in The Witcher 3 when I want a game.