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Gwent: The Most Postmodern Card Game Out There?

Marek Kępa
Gwint computer game, photo: promotional materials
Gwent computer game, photo: promotional materials

Once just a tasty detail in the fantasy Witcher Saga by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, now, the Gwent card game has evolved, through the stage of a mini-game within the Sapkowski-inspired role-playing video game The Witcher 3, into a full-on game in its own right. Its online version is currently being tested by Polish game developer CD PROJEKT RED.

Now & again

Gwint computer game, photo: promotional materials
Gwent computer game, photo: promotional materials

Occasionally the Witcher would sit and watch them play, which he did this time. He still couldn’t grasp the complex rules of this dwarven game but was marvelling at the meticulously crafted cards and their pictures. Compared to the cards used by men, the dwarven ones were true masterpieces.

This passage from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s 1996 novel Baptism of Fire (as translated by the editor) refers to Gwent, a card game played in the book’s fantasy world. The story is part of a celebrated series about Geralt of Rivia, otherwise known as the Witcher, a monster hunter with supernatural powers. Sapkowski’s hero and the Slavic-flavoured, medieval-like world he invented were the basis for the hit role-playing video game series The Witcher, developed by Poland’s CD PROJEKT RED. The Witcher 3, released in 2015, lets you play a round of Gwent now and again. A smaller game within a bigger one isn’t anything uncommon in the world of video games – yet Gwent became particularly popular. Due to popular demand (expressed in many e-mails to the developers, etc.) the so-called ‘mini-game,’ dubbed one of the best in history by the Guardian, has been turned into a video game in its own right, well… almost. It’s currently being beta tested and polished before release.

Despicable monsters vs. noble commanders

Gwint comupter game, photo: promotional materials
Gwent computer game, photo: promotional materials

The Gwent mini-game features a large number of cards you can collect throughout your Witcher adventure as well as a concrete set of rules which allow for various playstyles on the desktop battlefield. It’s a game for two in which each player’s half of the battlefield is divided into three rows meant for specific cards: melee fighters, shooters and war machines. In order to secure victory, you need to win two of three rounds. It isn’t exactly similar to the game imagined by Sapkowski, a bridge-like affair where bidding is a vital part, but that never seemed to be an issue to the computer version’s enthusiasts.

The upcoming Gwent is basically a more developed, online version of the computer mini-game featuring familiar graphics and mechanics. But, compared to its direct predecessor, it is much prettier and bigger, big enough to be a stand-alone title. Quite a cool one at that – if you’re into Magic: The Gathering-like entertainment. In Gwent, you control an army of one of five factions: Nilfgaard, Monsters, Skellige, Northern Realms and Scoia’tael. Each of them has their special advantage, for instance, the despicable Monsters can eat one their own to gain strength, whereas the Northern Realms have noble commanders of outstanding courage. Apart from leading your forces to battle, the game also lets you cast spells, ambush your enemies or commit espionage. Its easy to grasp, yet not-so-easy to master, mechanics, allow for varied tactics, e.g. giving a single round away to ultimately win the whole battle. According to its creators – and this is a real treat – it will be available for free. You can compete against anybody on the web who’s signed in, either just for fun or gain ranking points. Also, a single player mode is available, boasting a storyline referencing The Witcher series.

Real but immaterial, fictional yet existing

Gwint computer game, photo: promotional materials
Gwent computer game, photo: promotional materials

The current, beta test version has met with the approval of gamers, who praise its dynamics and the expansion of the mini-game, e.g by introducing new cards. As to the exact release date of the full game – it isn’t known yet. Nevertheless, it’s already apparent that we’re dealing with what’s possibly the most postmodern card game to date, given its radical intertextuality and some other features. Let’s take one more quick look at the facts. A non-existent card game was described by Sapkowski in his book. Later the book’s world along with the card game become part of CD PROJEKT RED’s video game. Afterwards, the game within the parent game emancipates itself and becomes a game in its own right. And begins to exist as a real, playable title, not just a literary description. Oh, and to make things even better, it’s digital, available online. So not only is it real, but it’s also immaterial – you can’t touch it. A fictional, yet existing card game with no physical cards… Sounds pretty postmodern indeed.

One should add, however, that CD PROJEKT RED did actually put out cards for Gwent, but not for the stand-alone version. They were added to some of the editions of The Witcher 3 as gadgets. But no worries, this only adds another, real-life dimension to the winding story of this ultimately postmodern card game. A story that is nicely framed: the very first tale about Geralt of Rivia, the 1986 short story The Witcher, features a ruler named Foltest, who make an appearance in the upcoming version of Gwent.

Author: Marek Kępa, Feb 2017

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