When it first appeared in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Gwent, a card-collecting mini-game similar to Final Fantasy VIII‘s Triple Triad, seemed designed only to distract. But whether in response to the swelling success of other digital card games or because CD Projekt Red realized that it had stumbled upon a rough sort of gold beneath a casual exterior, the Warsaw-based publisher and developer kept hammering away at Gwent. Years later, the studio’s enthusiastic persistence has yielded Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, a spin-off of a spin-off that improbably couples the lighthearted but surprisingly complex mechanics of the free-to-play multiplayer Gwent: The Witcher Card Game with the dark, moral storytelling of Wild Hunt.
At its core, Gwent is a heads-up battle between two players, who fight by placing cards before them in either a Melee row (closer to one’s opponent) or a Ranged one (closer to oneself). Up to eight cards can be placed in each row, the majority of which have a Strength value. Players take turns laying down one card at a time until either passing, confident that their cumulative Strength is higher than their opponent’s (or definitively lower), or until running out of cards. There’s an extra wrinkle, however, in that a standard game of Gwent is a best-of-three affair. After a single battle, all played cards—save those with the Resilience ability—are discarded, and, after drawing a few new cards, players must continue with whatever they’ve got left in their hand. This secondary layer offers a deeper tactical experience, one that extends from the current round’s action to the overall metagame, forcing players to strike a balance between baiting, bluffing, and blitzing foes.
Thronebreaker‘s cards feel like a tactical stand-in for the army units they represent and not just an irritating and superfluous novelty, as in Baten Kaitos, which treated battle as if it were a game of gin rummy. Apart from the fact that combat is resolved by placing cards into rows as opposed to moving units across a map, there’s little difference between Thronebreaker and similarly hand-drawn, resource-gathering, unit-upgrading games like Heroes of Might and Magic and The Banner Saga. If anything, Thronebreaker offers a deeper strategic experience, given the distinct feel of these custom-crafted battles, with their special victory conditions and unique cards.
In fact, nearly a quarter of the encounters in Thronebreaker—stealing a page from the Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers series—are treated literally as puzzles in which players are given a specific scenario and set of cards, then tasked to manipulate the board to somehow eke out a win. The developers at CD Projekt Red have creatively, painstakingly found ways to represent each scenario, leaving it to players to work out the combos that will allow them to, for example, stealthily one-hit a bridge-guarding she-troll, remove pestilence-carrying corpses from the battlefield, or reassemble a rock golem. In this way, combat is elevated beyond theorycrafting.
While it makes sense for logic puzzles, expressed here in card form, to have specific answers, Thronebreaker sometimes reduces difficult moral decisions to solvable states. The game insists, over and over again, that you’re only ever choosing “one evil in favor of another,” as when the player has to figure out an appropriate punishment for refugees who, understandably desperate or not, have nonetheless broken the law and xenophobically slaughtered innocents. But in rewarding some choices with overpowered cards, like Eyck or Black Rayla, the game’s pretty clear about what’s “right” or “wrong.”
On the other hand, those choices that don’t have obvious rewards connected to them are as powerful and uncomfortable as anything found in Wild Hunt. There’s no satisfactory outcome to the Weeping Willow encounter, in which players stumble upon a massive tree to which their countrymen have been tied, left to be devoured by flesh-eating insects. It’s clearly a trap, but knowing as much doesn’t make it any easier to walk away from those soldiers.
Such encounters also prove how Thronebreaker‘s writing works in unison with the game’s beautiful hand-drawn visuals to communicate the full scope of this world’s horrors. It’s a rare case in which telling is just as, if not more, effective than showing: “His face was a stew of seared flesh and pus-filled boils, and he reeked of burnt meat.” In context, that’s far more than just a raw description, just as Thronebreaker, over the course of its lengthy campaign, consistently conjures up more than just the technical nature of Gwent.