Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a complete reimagining of Gwent, the in-fiction collectible card game from CD Projekt Red’s legendary series of Witcher role-playing games. It’s a fully functional, 30-plus-hour isometric RPG powered by cards. Not only is it an excellent narrative experience in its own right, but it also proves out the flexibility and nuance of an exceptional CCG. Several hours in, I felt like I was learning magic tricks.
It’s pretty easy for me to bounce off of a collectible card game. That was true of Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, the free-to-play and stand-alone version, which entered open beta last year. Traditionally, the game asks each player to create a field with three rows of cards on their side of the table. Many of the game’s different strategies emerged from playing cards on different rows. It made sense to me at first, but as the number of cards available to build decks expanded, my head began to swim.
Gwent has its own tutorial of sorts, one that teaches the basics well enough. But once I headed online against real-world opponents, I got blown away. The fact of the matter is that high-level play in Gwent requires strategies and gambits that can take several rounds to pull off. Add to that the game’s bluffing aspect, and it was a pretty tough nut for me to crack.
In April, CD Projekt announced a complete retooling of the free-to-play game. Among other things, that effort will reduce the number of rows from three to two, drastically changing the game’s meta layer. I’m still not sure if Gwent will ultimately become less complex, but from what I’ve seen so far in Thronebreaker, I can tell you it sure makes the game a lot easier to learn.
Thronebreaker is, in effect, a spinoff product that uses Gwent as the mechanical underpinning of an isometric RPG. Players roam around a gorgeous cel-shaded world gathering resources, including gold as well as recruits for their war party. The game is also fully voice-acted, including an opinionated narrator. In motion, it feels like a mashup of a high-fantasy audio book and a Japanese-style RPG.
Storyline aside, at its core, Thronebreaker desperately wants to teach you how to play Gwent. To accomplish that goal, it hides tiny lessons inside delicious pieces of narrative cheese; puzzles and challenges scattered all over the map.
Most of my time, at least in the early game, has been spent on smaller, single-round battles and proscribed puzzles. Instead of going up against a traditional AI opponent in a full three-round game of Gwent, I’m going up against a small set of cards that portray a particular monster or physical encounter.
Early on, I played cards to dodge boulders raining down from a landslide. Later, my party was chasing bandits through a farmer’s field. To stop them, I had to use my collection of cards to deal them damage every round, pushing them back with a flurry of small blows, before they ran off the edge of the table. Another puzzle later asked me to reduce three powerful cards, each one representing a different monster, to just one hit point each on the same round. The challenge came in anticipating how each monster would evolve each round, and determining the correct order in which to play the cards at my disposal in order to precisely counter those evolutions in the shortest amount of time.
Where Thronebreaker truly excels, however, is by giving the player permission to fail. Challenges can be run again and again until you get them right. None of them are required, per se, but all of them have the ability to teach you a skill or a gambit that you’ll be able to use in the larger, full-scale Gwent battles down the line. There’s even an easy mode, where battles can be skipped entirely, for those who are just showing up for the game’s lore.
When I first encountered Gwent, both in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, learning to play the game felt like work. But Thronebreaker fully breaks its systems down into bite-sized portions and succeeds at making each one interesting in its own right. So far just about every puzzle, every challenge has been a delight. Thronebreaker feels playful, and succeeds at making learning Gwent an enjoyable experience.
After spending a few days with Thronebreaker, I feel like I understand the game for the first time. I now see Gwent as a CCG that requires dynamic play, where you simply can’t rely on stunt decks or a single strategy to win. Your tactics require a kind of elasticity, and the game itself deserves my respect.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales will be available exclusively at GOG.com on Oct. 23 for $29.99. When live, it will also include a multiplayer mode. Versions for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are expected on Dec. 4.