Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Witcher 3: An Analysis of Tactics and Strategy in Gwent

Let's talk Gwent!

If you've been playing The Witcher 3, you almost certainly know what Gwent is: the collectible card game that can be played with many AI characters in the game world. It's like Pazaak in the two Knights of the Old Republic games, only more so.

I thought it might be fun to share a few ideas about the tactics and strategies for playing Gwent that have made me, part-way through Velen, a moderately successful player. These are things I've found helpful, but I'd like to hear what approaches have worked for you.

Note: I'll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but if you haven't played The Witcher 3 at all yet there may be some minor spoilers. Nothing that would ruin the game for you, but still, spoilers, so why not play TW3 first? It's a really good game.


Gwent consists of two parts: acquiring cards for four different deck types, and playing games of Gwent with NPCs.

One of the Gwent guides floating around the web says that if you want to do well at Gwent, you must embrace it as a lifestyle. Your Geralt will be wandering the world, plaintively begging everyone in sight: "Gwent! Gwent? Gweeeeeeeeent!"

This is accurate.

Winning at Gwent, especially in the higher levels, requires you to acquire as many cards as possible, in any way possible. You'll do this in two ways:

1. Buy cards from merchants. Start in White Orchard: buy every single card you see. Do as many quests and defeat as many opponents as you have to to earn the money to buy every card before leaving White Orchard. (Also play one nobleman in your next stop before moving on.) Later on, there'll be some cards you don't need to buy, such as the weak Poor Fucking Infantry for the Northern Realms deck. But most of the time, if you see a card, you'll want to buy it.

2. Win cards by defeating AI opponents. Many merchants and blacksmiths/armorers will play Gwent with you, and when you beat them (if you can!), you will gain one of their cards. (Note that which card you get is random, so in the later game you may want to save before playing -- if you don't need or like the card you win, you can try playing again for a different card.) Additionally, there are a couple of quests that involve playing particular NPCs. If you can defeat them, you'll score some really powerful cards... but they are tough opponents.

Once you've acquired at least one complete deck -- at least 22 numeric cards -- you're ready to start taking on NPCs. Here's how to play.


There are four different kinds of decks you can build and play in Gwent. The four deck types are:

  • Northern Realms
  • Nilfgaardian Empire
  • Scoia'tael
  • Monsters

I'll talk more about the styles of the different deck types later on in the Tactics and Strategy sections. For now, just note that you'll be building and improving all four of these decks all the time -- firstly to get each deck up to a full playable strength of 22+ Unit and Hero cards, and then to strengthen each deck by replacing weak cards with better ones after the full 22+ card count is achieved. (I say "22+" rather than "22" for reasons explained further on. Gwent is just like that.)

Cards in each deck type consist of "Unit cards" that have a numeric strength and possibly a special power; "Hero cards" that have a numeric strength and are immune to certain special effects; "Special cards" that apply various effects; and "Leader cards" that have one-time special effects of their own. Finally, each deck has a factional perk that can be applied. Knowing when, why, and how to use each of these cards and effects and powers and perks is what winning at Gwent is all about.

Before a game starts, both players choose a deck (if they have more than one complete deck type), select which cards to include in that deck and which Leader type to use, randomly draw ten cards from their deck, and optionally replace up to two of the cards they drew with randomly-selected cards from that deck.

To play Gwent, the two players take turns choosing cards to play onto the field, with whomever gets the first turn decided randomly (except for the Scoia'tael who play first as their factional perk). Unit and Hero cards, and some special cards, are played onto one of three rows: Close Combat, Ranged Combat, and Siege Combat. Each player has these three rows (for six rows total). All Unit and Hero cards are marked with which row they can be played onto. (Many Scoia'tael cards, and some Monster cards, can be played onto one of several possible rows.) Special cards go either onto the side of one's three rows, or into a side area if they affect multiple rows.

So "playing Gwent" is mostly choosing which cards in your hand you want to play to the field. Whoever has the most points at the end of each round (except for a Nilfgaardian factional perk) wins that round. And the winner of a game is the winner of two rounds out of three.

Before I get into the details of tactics and strategy in Gwent, let's review the kinds of cards available.


Unit cards are the most basic and common cards in Gwent. They consist of a character or creature type and have a numeric value ranging from 0 to 10.

Some Unit cards also have special powers. Because certain decks tend to emphasize Unit cards with particular special powers, I'll describe those in the Tactics section.

Hero cards are similar to Unit cards in that they have numeric values (shown on the card inside a black-and-gold sunburst circle), and possibly a special power. But they are immune to special effects as noted below, so you must be aware of this when playing Special cards.


These cards, which can be used by any deck and don't count toward the 22+ number of Unit and Hero cards required for a full deck, deserve particular attention because they play such an enormous role in Gwent tactics.

  • Biting Frost: sets all Close Combat Unit card values to 1
  • Impenetrable Fog: sets all Ranged Combat Unit card values to 1
  • Torrential Rain: sets all Siege Combat Unit card values to 1
  • Clear Weather: removes any/all weather cards and effects from all rows
  • Commander's Horn: doubles the value of all Unit cards on that row
  • Decoy: immediately put one of your Unit cards back into your playable hand
  • Scorch: immediately moves the highest-valued Unit card(s) anywhere on the board into the owner's discard pile

Note that these effects, positive and negative, apply only to Unit cards. Again, these effects do nothing at all to Hero cards, good or bad, so you'll need to keep that in mind when you play your Special cards.


Unit Powers

Before discussing tactics for particular decks, let's first consider the special powers that many of the Unit cards can have. These are important for tactical play applying to all of the decks.

Agile: Mostly a Scoia'tael power, this allows a card to be played in either of two rows (usually Close and Ranged Combat). Having numerous such cards in your hand allows you to recover (somewhat) during the same round if your opponent played a weather Special card or Scorched some of your units.

Spy: When you play the Spy card, it's actually played onto your opponent's side of the field, giving your opponent whatever numeric points that card has... but for that price, two cards randomly selected from your deck are added to your hand. These extra cards can be the difference between losing a round and winning it. Note, though, that unlike other Unit cards, the most powerful Spy card is actually the one with the lowest numeric value, since playing it into your opponent's field adds the least to your opponent's total score.

I recently had the choice, after defeating a merchant a couple of times (after restoring from a save just to see what would happen), of taking either a 3-point Muster card or a 9-point Spy card. I took the Muster. Why in the world would I do that? Because giving my opponent 9 points in return for two cards is just too much. Other players may think the special powers of two extra cards will outweigh giving my opponent 9 points. I'm not convinced of that, in part because those 9 points could become 18 points if they play a Commander's Horn on that row. (On the other end of the scale, there is a Spy card worth 0 points. That is as good as it gets. :))

Another note on playing Spy cards is that they are most valuable at either the very start of a round (to give you extra cards early for tactical advantage in that round), or at the very end of Round 1 or 2 that you've lost (because giving your opponent more points in that round costs you nothing, but it puts two extra cards in your hand for the next round).

Morale: This power adds 1 to the value of other Unit cards in the same row.

This may not seem like much, but what's interesting about this power is that it ignores weather effects! If you have four Siege Combat cards reduced to 1 by Torrential Rain, your total value for that row becomes a measly 4 points. But if you play a Kaedweni Siege Engineer card with the Morale power on that row, it still adds one to each other Unit card so that your total for that row becomes 8. This isn't much, but it may be just enough. (Also, multiple Morale cards on the same row stack... and the +1 they add can be doubled by a Commander's Horn card.)

Tight Bond: For each similar card with the Tight Bond special power on a row, the basic point value of each card is added to each card.

(Note: it would be easier to say that "Tight Bond doubles the value of all similar Unit cards on that row," which is what the game itself says, but that's not accurate. Having three Tight Bond cards of basic value 4 does not double their basic value twice for a total of 48 -- it only adds 4 to each card twice for a total value of 36. That's still a nice effect, but it's not "doubling" as advertised.)

Here's an example of Tight Bond in action. Play one Impera Brigade Guard (Close Combat) with a value of 3, and you get 3 points. Play a second Impera Brigade Guard with the Tight Bond power, and the initial value of three is added to both cards -- they're now both worth 6, for a total of 12 points. Play a third Impera Brigade Guard, and the face value of all three cards is added to all three cards -- each of the three cards is now worth 9 for a total of 27 points. Add yet a fourth Impera Brigade Guard, and all four cards are now worth 12 points, for a total of 48 points! Now play a Commander's Horn on that row for a total of 96 points... from just five cards.

Obviously this can be a devastating punch, but there are a couple of factors to be aware of if you want to use it. One: having two Tight Bond cards can be useful, but the real value is in having at least three. It will take you a while to find that many similar Tight Bond cards. Two: these are still Unit cards, so the doubling effect makes them highly vulnerable to an applicable weather card (reducing all values to 1) and to the Scorch card (which would almost certainly remove every one of your "doubled" cards). To reduce these vulnerabilities, play these cards last in a round or after you've already been Scorched, and play your Commander's Horn (if you have one) after playing all your Tight Bond cards; also, try to get a Clear Weather card into your hand... just in case.

Muster: When you play one Unit card with the Muster power, you may immediately play every similar Muster card from your entire deck.

Did you catch that? "From your entire deck," not just the cards in your hand.

If you have one Muster card in your hand with a value of 3, and five other similar cards in your deck, when you play your one Muster card it pulls every other similar Muster card onto the playing field for a total of not 3, but 18 points -- in a single turn. Making this (or Tight Bond units) your core tactic is not something you can do when you first start playing Gwent, because you will need to find enough similar Muster (or Tight Bond) cards to make playing them all in one round numerically valuable. But once you've got several of them, this is very nearly a Win Button for a round of Gwent.

Important strategic note: having Muster cards in your deck is the one time when you want to put more than 22 cards into your deck. Remember that additional Muster cards are pulled from your full deck, not just from your current hand. So the strategic penalty for having more than 22 cards in a deck (because you might get some low-value cards in your initial draw of 10 cards) is reduced as long as those "extra" cards have the Muster special power.

Medic: Medic cards, when played, immediately allow you to choose one Unit card (not Hero or Special cards!) from your discard pile and play it immediately.

This can be an extremely powerful ability. Not only do you get the points from the Medic card (if any), as well as the points from the recovered card of your choice, but you get the special powers of the recovered card as well. This can be very powerful if you restore a Tight Bond card with a related Tight Bond card already on the playing field. Interestingly, you can also restore a Spy card previously played onto your field by your opponent, although the point value of that Spy goes into your opponent's total for that round. This means that playing a Medic power potentially gives you the equivalent of putting two extra cards in your hand for no cost other than a turn.

Even if you don't restore a Spy card, however, an important tactical note for playing a Medic card is to do so early in a round, preferably as your first card -- this maximizes your tactical options in that round. (Important point, though: do not play a Medic card if you have no discards, or no Unit cards in your discard pile! Hero cards and Special cards can't be restored by a Medic. I learned this lesson the hard way.)

Row-Specific Scorch: Another special power is a limited version of Scorch that at least one Unit card and a couple of Leader cards have. This power destroys the highest-value card(s) in one of the opponent's rows (such as Close Combat) if the combined value of those cards is 10 or more.

Finally, there are also a few Unit cards that can be added to any deck. These are mostly old friends of Geralt, such as Zoltan Chivay and Vesemir.

Deck-based Tactics

Now that we've looked closely at the Unit, Hero, and Special cards, let's (finally!) get to tactics in Gwent.

Each of the four deck types has Unit cards that are particular to it. So each deck type needs particular tactics to be successful -- you want to know and use the strengths of your deck against the probable weaknesses of your opponent's deck. I'll discuss tactics for each of the four deck types from the perspective of playing that kind of deck against any NPC. In the Strategy section, I'll talk about how to play against certain deck types.

Northern Realms

This will be your first complete deck, so you'll be using it for a long time. While your Leader card, King Foltest, has several powers, what I found most effective was his ability to function as a Commander's Horn for the Siege Combat row. It can be devastating to lure an opponent into spending cards to reduce your Close Combat and Ranged Combat rows, only to smack them down by doubling 20+ points on the Siege Combat row to over 40 or 50 points by playing your Foltest power. Alternately, if you think you've already got enough actual Commander's Horns in your deck, choosing Foltest's special Clear Weather power when building this deck can win a round for you that otherwise seemed lost.

Generally speaking, Northern Realms is about straight-up beating your opponent quickly with higher-numbered unit cards. There aren't many hero cards for Northern Realms (at least that I've seen), so it's vital that you find and collect Commander's Horn cards. I keep three in my Northern Realms deck; that way I almost always get at least one in every game, and sometimes get two. Note that depending on a Commander's Horn tactic makes you vulnerable to losing a lot of points if your opponent plays a Scorch card -- if you have three 6-point cards that you've doubled to three 12-point cards, you will instantly lose 36 points if Scorched! So it's almost always best for Northern Realms to play low-valued Unit cards first, let your opponent knock out one or two "high" cards, and then double your highest-valued row with a Commander's Horn as your last move for a round.

The three negative weather effect cards are less useful to Northern Realms (and Monster) decks because, while they reduce your opponent's score, they frequently also reduce your score. The only weather card I keep (if any) is a Clear Weather card, specifically because I expect to have a lot of points in one row at a time thanks to a Commander's Horn.

Because the Northern Realms factional perk is to get one extra card after winning a round, your goal should usually be to try to win the first round. Letting your opponent win a round so that you have more cards for a later round -- a typically Nilfgaardian tactic -- makes the Northern Realms factional perk worthless. So a Northern Realms player normally throws a round only if clearly necessary, or if you're pretty sure the later round is a guaranteed win no matter what.

Nilfgaardian Empire

Will Rogers is credited with saying, "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock." That is a perfect description of Gwent as played with a Nilfgaard deck. In fact, I would not be surprised if I learned that the deck for Nilfgaard was the main reason why Gwent was invented for The Witcher 3. It is a fantastic representation of how the Nilfgaardian Empire's culture is represented in the world of The Witcher.

A complete Nilfgaard deck (and playable hand) will probably have several Spy cards, several Medic cards, and several Hero cards. Crucially, the factional perk of the Nilfgaard deck is that the Nilfgaard player (assuming both players aren't using the Nilfgaard deck) wins all rounds that end in a tie. Combine those features and the Nilfgaard player has a clear tactical goal: make your opponent use up every single one of their numeric (Unit and Hero) cards by the end of the second round. As long as you win either of the first or second rounds, and all of your opponents Unit and Hero cards have been played by the end of the second round, you will automatically win the last round as a 0-0 tie.

See? Nilfgaard. Sneaky bastards.

(This sounds funny, but just wait until they do it to you several times, as numerous NPCs have to me. You will long for the day when you have a complete Nilfgaard deck of your own.)

Achieving this tactic usually means playing one round with mostly regular Unit and Hero cards (that don't have special powers) to try to lure your opponent into spending as many of their numeric cards as possible. It's even OK to let them win that round, even by some ludicrous amount, giving them the points of every Spy card you have in exchange for two more cards in your hand, plus a few of your own regular Unit cards for your discard pile. Because next round, you will have something like 12 cards to their 6, plus discards that you can add to your hand with Medic cards. Now play your remaining Unit cards, and Medic cards if necessary, to try to get your opponent to play their last remaining numeric cards. Not only will you win this round, you'll take the third and final round as well as a 0-0 tie, even if you have no numeric cards of your own left to play.

Because Nilfgaard depends on getting a large number of cards, rather than on high-valued cards, a round for Nilfgaard is usually less susceptible to being Scorched. That's also why you'll probably want to keep a Scorch card yourself to really give your opponent a bad day. Weather cards may also work for Nilfgaard for the same reason, but I prefer Commander's Horn as its effect is more certain.

Nilfgaard also has some sneaky tricks related to their Leader cards, such as canceling the Leader ability of the other player, but I'll give you a detailed example in the Strategy section.


The great advantage of Scoia'tael in Gwent matches the nature of Scoia'tael in the world of The Witcher: they're nimble. Elves and Dwarves know they're outnumbered, so they rely on being highly maneuverable to survive.

Most of the Unit cards in a Scoia'tael deck will have the Agile power: many cards can be played in either the Close Combat or Ranged Combat row. The Scoia'tael deck also has more Medic units than any other deck, which maximizes the number of Agile cards that you can play. Finally, they also have some Muster units, so they can also have larger-than-normal decks.

The most advantageous tactic for you when you play a Scoia'tael deck is thus flexibility -- being able switch within a round to building a high numeric value on a different row or rows than where you started. This emphasis makes the weather effect Special cards most useful for the Scoia'tael deck.

Suppose you start building on the Close Combat row. Your opponent does the same. You can go for several turns, encouraging your opponent to think it's safe to play more cards there, even with a Commander's Horn, because hey, you're playing there, too. Then you hit them with a Biting Frost Weather card, and all non-Hero Close Combat cards are only worth 1 point. Suddenly they have only five points to your three or four... but where they have only one or two (or no) Ranged Combat cards, you've still got four or five Agile cards you can play on that row. Blam. And when you use your Medic cards in Round 2 or 3 to get some of your discards back, you can once again flow your cards to match the opponent's strongest row (discouraging them from playing a weather card against you). Double-blam.

The Scoia'tael deck isn't as sneaky as the Nilfgaard deck. But it does share with Nilfgaard a certain tactical style of luring one's opponent into committing to a big score on one row, then making that score meaningless.


Playing the Monsters deck is about one thing: pure, raw, brutal power. Where the Nilfgaard and Scoia'tael decks offer many opportunities for tactical improvisation, the Monsters deck is about overwhelming the opponent with numbers as quickly as possible.

(Note: I don't have a full Monsters deck myself yet, so the following is just what I've observed from playing against those decks.)

The main special power of Unit cards in the Monsters deck is the Muster power. These are usually not high-value cards, but that's not their purpose -- they win from sheer numbers. So even when you've finally got your own Monsters deck, you're probably not going to be able to win right away. You need more Muster cards.

Once you've built your Monsters deck up to 25, 28, 30 cards, with a couple good-sized packs of Muster units, you can be nigh unstoppable. Even if you double the value of a row full of Muster Unit cards with a Commander's Horn, each doubled card will still be low enough in value to be safe from the Scorch card. Bad weather can really hurt you, though, so putting one or two Clear Weather cards in your deck should be a smart strategy when playing a Monsters deck.

Speaking of strategies....


As you've seen from the above analysis of Gwent tactics, each of the four deck types has a different "flavor" due to the most common special power of the unit cards they have, as well as to their leader's special power and their factional perk. Northern Realms tends to favor straightforward army force, especially siege engines; the Nilfgaardian deck emphasizes devious, clever play to outlast opponents; the Scoia'tael cards can be used in different ways to adapt to one's opponent; and the Monster deck is geared toward overwhelming opponents.

Strategy in Gwent is thus about two things: maximizing the strengths of your chosen deck while planning to minimize the strengths of the opponent decks you expect to face. You accomplish these goals by choosing which cards to include in each deck (once you have more than 22 unit/hero cards to choose from), and by deciding which kind of deck to use against a particular opponent (once you have more than one full deck type). So let's talk about deck-building, Leader cards, and how to pick a deck to use against particular opponents.

Northern Realms

Northern Realms is, let's admit it, sort of boring as an opponent. There's nothing all that special about them; you just have to score more points than they do. They will emphasize their siege engines, plus one of the King Foltest Leader card abilities is to play a Commander's Horn on the Siege Combat row, which is like them having an extra Commander's Horn card for the kind of Unit cards they prefer. So it doesn't hurt to have a Torrential Rain card in your deck, or even two. Keeping a Scorch card ready is also great fun when they've doubled the value of several high-value cards -- those Temerian rebels just never learn their lesson.

Finally, when you can, consider playing a Monster deck against an opponent playing a Northern Realms deck. Since your advantage in overpowering numbers is the same kind of power -- only more so -- than the Northern Realms player depends on, you can usually outnumber him through your Muster cards.

Nilfgaardian Empire

Playing against a Nilfgaard opponent -- which you will do frequently in the larger cities of Velen -- can be incredibly frustrating. Just when you think you've got them dead to rights, with 60-80 points on your side, they will smile and let you have that round... because you've burned up most of your Unit cards to try to beat them in that round, which they never even planned on winning. They they will add to their pile of cards by throwing multiple Spies at you, draining the rest of your Unit cards to try to keep up with them in Round 2, which you probably won't be able to do. And then they'll take Round 3 by default because you're out of cards.

To beat a Nilfgaard opponent... play a Nilfgaard deck yourself. If you can't do that, try to have several Medic cards (by playing a Scoia'tael deck if you can). Also be sure to get at least one Decoy Special card in your hand. When your devious opponent drops a Spy Unit card on you in the first or second round, use Decoy on that card to put it in your hand, then play it right back against them to add to your own total number of cards. And then hope you're lucky, because you'll need it.


An opponent playing a Scoia'tael deck can be almost as frustrating as a Nilfgaardian because the tricky devils won't stand still for a solid hit. They'll let you spend your strength swatting them down in one row, then they'll use their Agile special powers to swarm their next cards to a different row to take the round. They're possibly the most well-rounded of all the factional decks. They can be beaten, but you'll have to either crush them (and protect your high cards from bad weather and pray they don't Scorch you), or out-sneaky them with Nilfgaardian cunning.

One NPC player in particular has an excellent Scoia'tael deck, and was basically unbeatable to me when I used a very good Northern Realms deck. My solution was to switch to a pretty good Nilfgaardian deck and use every tactical advantage I had, including the ability to count. In particular, the last round was the clincher. I'd given him the first round to try to get him to burn through his cards, but he hadn't cooperated. Midway through the second round, I was trying to wear him out again, more successfully, but it was costing me a lot of cards. He had four cards, while I had only three. I was only slightly ahead of him in total points, so it felt like somebody was about to bust things wide open at the end of the second round.

It was my turn. The factional perk I'd selected for Emperor Emreis was to be able to peek at three of my opponent's cards. I used that perk now. In addition to one card I couldn't see, he had one regular (although Agile) unit for 5 points, plus a Torrential Rain, plus a Scorch. That Scorch freaked me out, but then I realized that my cards, on the board and in my hand, were all pretty low-to-middling value -- nothing higher than a 6. If he had two unit cards that totaled up to 11 points, I could match that. After my peek, he played his card: a 6. Ouch. He now had four cards worth 6 on the board, and he was about to add the one I'd peeked at that was worth 5. I now had one unit card remaining, which was worth 5 points, plus a Commander's Horn I was saving for the right moment, plus a worthless Decoy because I couldn't afford to remove any of my cards from the board this round.

I played my 5. He played his 5. We now both had two cards left: him with his Torrential Rain and Scorch, and me with my Commander's Horn and (useless) Decoy. It was my turn, leading by just a couple of points... and I realized that if I played my next card correctly, I would win both the round and the game.

Here's why. On the board, he had a Close Combat row with three 6-point units and a Ranged Combat row with another 6-point unit, for a total of four 6-point cards on the table. Meanwhile, I had most of my cards in Close Combat for a total of 22 points on that row, but only three cards worth 6 points on the whole table. In my Ranged combat row I had two cards: one Unit card worth 1 point, and a Hero card worth 10 points. Finally, in my Siege Combat row, I had one card worth exactly 0 points (it had a Medic ability I'd used previously in the round).

What did this mean? It meant he'd chosen well as a Scoia'tael going up against a Northern Realms player, because his Torrential Rain card would be good against them. But I wasn't playing a Northern Realms deck any more, and his siege engine-confounding Torrential Rain card would do precisely diddly-squat against my 0-point Siege Expert.

Now I had a choice. My Commander's Horn card wouldn't do any good on my 0-point Siege Combat row. On my Ranged Combat row, it would add just a single point (to a 1-point Unit card plus a 10-point Hero card that couldn't be doubled). If I played Commander's Horn on my Close Combat row, it would double my score there to 44 points, and I would win the game, right? Wrong. If I'd played my Commander's Horn on that row, it would have doubled each of my three 6-point cards to be worth 12 points each... and then my opponent would have Scorched them. I'd have lost 18 points, the round, and the game.

So I doubled my single 1-point Ranged Combat card. And after forlornly playing his worthless Torrential Rain card, my opponent conceded the round. He had calculated, just as I had, that if he'd played his last card, the Scorch, he would have lost four 6-point cards to my three. So he surrendered the second round to me, with both of us out of Unit and Hero cards. And so for the third round, because we both had scores of 0, I won because of the Nilfgaardian factional perk that tied rounds go to the Nilfgaardian player.

So even a very powerful Scoia'tael deck can be beaten. But you have to have a good deck that counters Scoia'tael strengths, and you have to use every advantage and consider consequences before playing what might look like an obvious winning move.

Being lucky in your draw helps, too. :)


Finally, playing against a strong Monsters deck is incredibly frustrating due to their Muster power. They might appear weak in any turn, but in any turn they can easily add 15 or more points to their score. And because each card is low-value, you'd only hurt yourself by playing a Scorch against them. You might try keeping some weather Special cards, but those consume slots that could hold high-value Unit cards and Commander's Horns, and there's no guarantee your weather card would hurt a Monsters row but not you.

Once again, my experience has been that the solution to a strong Monsters deck is not trying to use brute force against them -- they'll almost always win in a head-to-head challenge of raw numeric power -- but to outmaneuver them. A good Scoia'tael deck might do this... but a good Nilfgaardian deck is a better bet.

The toughest Gwent fight I've had so far, in playing most of the NPC Gwent players in Velen, was against a Monsters deck player in Novigrad. Every time I played my otherwise strong Northern Realms deck against him, he would smoke me. Five times in a row (no reloads), he did this to me. How? Because he had not one, not two, but three different super-Muster combinations. Even if I somehow won one round, he would win the other two, every single time.

In one of our contests, I used all five of my siege engines and my Foltest's Commander's Horn for Siege Combat special power (plus other cards) to score over 100 points in that round. He used multiple Musters to score over 120 points.

But I finally beat him. Yes, with a Nilfgaardian Empire deck... but only by the absolute thinnest of margins.

I got lucky with the draw, and pulled several Spy and Medic cards. He obliterated me in the first round, as usual, but this time I was counting on that and used several Spy cards to add to my hand for the next round. In the second round, I used those extra cards plus my Medic cards to win, reserving three very special cards for the third round. Obviously he was saving his last big Muster for the final and deciding round.

We started the third round, and sure enough, he played his third big Muster, piling a bunch of cards on the table, followed by a Commander's Horn in one row. Ultimately he wound up with 54 points, a third-round score that would normally have me chewing my hair and pounding on the desktop in frustration. In fact, at this point, as he concluded his game by standing on his 54 points, I was convinced that he'd won again. But I had four cards left: three Impera Brigade Guards worth 3 measly points each and a Commander's Horn.

One Impera Brigade Guard: 3 points.

Two Impera Brigade Guards: 12 points.

Three Impera Brigade Guards: 27 points.

One Commander's Horn on that row: 54 points.

The Nilfgaardian factional perk wins ties.


Best. Win. Ever. :)

So again, it can be done. Even a horrendously strong deck can eventually be beaten. But again, it takes thoughtful deck selection strategy, appropriate multi-round tactics, and a healthy dollop of luck.


Obviously I've been really enjoying Gwent. I've never been one for collectible card games; I'll never be a player of Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering. Those are against real people. :)

But I think I do see the allure of these games: that by building a strong enough deck, with the right cards, and getting lucky when needed, it is possible to defeat strong opponents in a contest of skill. Even against AI players (if they're mostly pretty good, as some NPC players are in The Witcher 3), that makes a person feel pretty darn clever.

I haven't yet entered the Big Stakes Tournament Gwent-playing quest in The Witcher 3. I'm a bit nervous about that. I think I need more and better cards first.

So if you'll excuse me, I think I know where there are still a few cards to be picked up....

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Utopias in Games

Wow. It's been a while since I've had something to say here, hasn't it? Let's fix that.

Today I'd like to talk about utopias in games. This was sparked by comments from Paul Neurath about the upcoming game Underworld Ascendant, the long-awaited successor to the two Ultima Underworld games by Looking Glass Studios.

Why Utopias?

Neurath began his update #13 to the Kickstarter project for Underworld Ascendant by discussing Sir Cabirus's broken dream in Ultima Underworld. This was followed by some personal notes on utopias:

I've always had a fascination with utopias. How in fiction, as in world history, utopias seem to inevitably fall from their lofty goals, like Icarus flying too close to the sun. The all-too-brief shining moment when Greek democracy blossomed, then swiftly collapsed. In Tolkien's fiction, the short-lived attempt by Balin to reestablish a dwarven colony in Moria. There are myriad stories of utopias fallen. Yet that seems not to discourage each new generation from trying.
Either way, there seems to be a universal appeal to stories about those striving to build a grand society. We are fascinated by their hubris. Of their trying to rewrite established rules of how communities function to forge something new. We root for them to succeed, while knowing they are ultimately doomed.

It's possible to trace this notion through several of the games from Looking Glass and its descendants.

The Lineage of Utopias in Games

The original Ultima Underworld, as mentioned, was explicitly set in the debris of Sir Cabirus's beliefs. Here the idea of a utopia is for the most part treated un-ironically -- it was a noble idea that just didn't work. Was it impossible, given the nature of the inhabitants of the Stygian Abyss and the loss of Sir Cabirus? The game doesn't express an opinion on that question, leaving players free to decide that for themselves.

In System Shock, SHODAN played the role of a twisted Sir Cabirus in the days before constructing a idealized society. Fortunately for humanity, the annoying Hacker persisted in interfering with her plans. Wouldn't it be interesting to see what a world might look like in which SHODAN, like Andrew Ryan, actually succeeded in achieving her dream, only to see it lost as the imperfections of the remaining human elements in her cybernetic paradise began to assert themselves?

Thief: The Dark Project was not obviously utopian, although with some effort a case might be made that the Hammerites harbored some such dreams. Thief 2: The Metal Age, on the other hand, returned to the utopian notion with Father Karras seeking to extend his mechanical peace to all the inhabitants of The City. This was somewhat less overtly a utopian dream, but I think it's fair to say that Karras himself fit the basic model of a ruthless utopianist.

In System Shock 2, SHODAN would try again to bring all of existence within the matrix of her will, establishing a perfect chorus of machines... but this time her dreams were countered by the opposing dream of her biological "children" to form a harmony of their own. Intriguingly, the Many might indeed have been able to achieve a truly functional utopian society through the close linkage of minds. But it's also clear that the cost for this bliss would have been the elimination of human individuality and the freedom to cooperate by choice. The Many's utopia could have worked for a while, but been short-lived when faced with a survival crisis from an inability to allow the creativity of individual minds to flourish. In fact, perhaps that inability to adapt to an external reality is exactly what happened in System Shock 2.

Deus Ex was perhaps the strongest exploration yet of the utopian dream in game form. Beyond the gameplay (although its structure did contribute to the theme) and the story references (including a "character" called Icarus), Deus Ex posed an easily-asked but difficult-to-answer question familiar to the cyberpunk genre: when sensing machines are everywhere, and humans begin to join themselves directly to that world (not unlike the harmony of the Many), is that the path to a utopian security? Or the road to an Orwellian nightmare in which human liberty is lost forever? When you, the player, after playing through the implications of the options, finally must make a choice between the utopia of an ordered security and the chaotic inequalities of freedom, which will you choose? Part of the greatness of Deus Ex is that, despite their personal beliefs, the developers play absolutely fair with that question, dramatizing the consequences of both paths but refusing to tell the player which road to take.

The BioShock games were increasingly overt in their representation of utopias gone to seed. It wasn't until the ending of the final BioShock game that we could see the central belief exposed: all utopias, whether underground, underwater, or under the sky, are similar in that they all collapse under the weight of human frailty.

(Curiously, the Looking Glass homages made by Arkane, Arx Fatalis and Dishonored, have little to no element of utopianism to them. Their settings are broken places, but not from anyone's grand dream of forced equal peace -- they're just broken. It'll be interesting to see whether the next game from either of the branches of Arkane rediscover the utopian theme, or if they will continue to do without it.)

Why the Utopian Theme?

If more than one game has sought to explore this idea, that's because it's a fabulous idea for the theme of a game that means to offer a world to explore that is more than just facades and murder-mechanics.

Choosing a utopian society as the thematic framework for a game instantly helps define the world of the game. It implies that there will be artistic choices to make about the visual representation of such a world. It suggests social structures that exist in that world and how they regard each other. And it can inspire specific conversations that the player's character can have with people in the world that help gradually reveal its story to the player.

And in a truly deep game, the player, through words and deeds, is able to assert some level of informed influence over the course of that utopia. As Paul Neurath put it in Update #13:

The player finds themselves in a central role, choosing how they fit into an experiment of a utopia that is being torn ragged. Do they pick up the frayed threads of Cabirus’ dream and try to knit things back together? Do they nudge the Abyss back towards an apparently inevitable state of chaos? Or follow some other path?

With the power to drive story and setting and characters and even mechanics that a utopian theme offers, maybe the real question is why more game developers don't use it.

The Original Utopia

Of course you can't talk seriously about the idea of a Utopia without referencing the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More. The second part of his work described a place that we today would consider somewhat, though not entirely, communistic, with many liberties given up by the people in order to maintain a forced but perfectly fair state of equality. What's not clear is whether More considered this to be a desirable and widely achievable state of social organization, or if it was intended as a satirical criticism of people voluntarily choosing to cede their freedoms to a powerful state.

The latter view seems to be supported by the very title: Utopia, roughly meaning "no-place." But whether that's no-place because no one has seriously tried to achieve it, or no-place because human nature makes it impossible to maintain over any meaningful size and time span, remains unclear to this day.

To have written a book like this at all sets Thomas More apart from the typical idealist. It's conceivable that he possessed enough of the cynicism of the experienced observer of humanity to poke a stick at its occasional certainty that perfect fairness can be achieved in this life. On the other hand, to be a serious thinker implies some amount of idealism -- why write a serious work that you know will irritate some people if it doesn't matter? This seriousness could have impelled More to describe an ideal state of being, even if it is not possible to fully attain such a state.

Utopia and Underworld Ascendant

So which of those interpretations should Underworld Ascendant realize? The idealistic, optimistic view of a utopian society in which people willingly give up personal interests in favor of a powerful central government that makes sure everyone's basic needs are equally met? Or the practical, skeptical view of utopias as systems of human organization that are inherently doomed to failure beyond any trivial size because people are flawed and fallible beings by nature?

Interestingly, 2016 will mark the 500th anniversary of the first printing (in Latin) of Utopia.

That would be a fine time to release a game that explicitly takes on the idea of a Utopia. In particular it would be very satisfying to release a game that -- as More's book did -- shows the theory and implementation of this idea, and then leaves it to the player to decide whether the concept of a utopian paradise is a good and achievable vision for a fairly ordered society, or an impossibly flawed and dangerous belief that leads inexorably to oppression and misery and ruin.

Can OtherSide do that?

Will the developers of Underworld Ascendant choose a side on this old question, deciding for players what the right answer is to the question Sir Thomas More asked five hundred years ago?

Or is it possible for them to construct a world that, like its other emergent behaviors generated through the interactions of systems, will allow the player to make a real choice -- to successfully help a utopia succeed (if only for a while), or to bring it crashing back to reality?

Can a game allow players to discover through play something meaningful about the utopian dream?