Time was running out for Damien Monnier, senior gameplay designer on The Witcher 3. He had been given a weekend to come up with something to replace The Witcher 2’s dice poker minigame. All through Saturday and Sunday, he and a friend had batted around ideas. They knew they wanted to make use of all the characters and monsters in CD Projekt RED’s vast open world but they couldn’t think of a game that tied them together.
Aware that time was running out, late on Sunday evening Monnier did what all good creators do when a deadline looms: he ran a bath.
“'Get back to basics,’” Monnier recalls saying to himself while he soaked. An idea for a card game started to form: “‘You have a number that's higher than the other person's number, then you have things that will affect that number. Some cards double it, some cards lower it, and ultimately the challenge comes from the initial hand. So, it's about managing your initial hand and bluffing'”.
By the time Monnier got out of the bath, he had came up with all the fundamental rules of Gwent, The Witcher 3’s ridiculously popular game within a game.
The next morning, Monnier went to studio director Adam Badowski with two decks of mocked up cards and they played the first games of Gwent. They played one round, then another, and another. The two were hooked by the end of their meeting.
Monnier started making more cards. A lot more cards. They started to play it in the office and the team’s artists began work on making them look like they do now. Not much about the core game changed from its early build, except for two major aspects: Gwent started life as a three-player game and CD Projekt RED made it pay-to-win
“It works the same,” Monnier says, explaining how three-player Gwent works. “You basically play clockwise. All of the effects you play affect everyone.” At times the he tried going higher, to four players, but they could never balance it right; someone always drew too good a hand. The reason the version of Gwent that made its way into The Witcher 3 is only two-player isn’t because the mechanics don’t work, it’s because of how it looks. “Showing two other boards, as well as your board, was a nightmare,” Monnier says. Eventually the team decided to make the game two-player for aesthetic reasons.
The physical version of Gwent gave both players equal chance to win, but when it was implemented in The Witcher 3, the team gave players access to cards and tactics which gave them an unfair advantage. “It's the first time in my career that I agreed to design a pay to win,” Monnier says. “We knew it was going to be single-player only and also it needs to follow the curve where basically, at the end of Wild Hunt, you are the best Witcher, you're awesome, you own everyone. It was the same for Gwent: at the end of Gwent you're the Pokémon master, you collect them all and you're the best at it, the end.” In other words, it didn’t matter if players become overpowered. If they had access to cards and plays that would wipe out the AI it just made them feel more competent.
Letting the player be OP didn’t mean anything goes, though. “There was one card called Piggy Back,” Monnier recalls. “It would allow a monster to jump on another monster and gain its ability, so if one monster was a hero, for example, you could piggy back some cards on it so it would not be affected by the weathers.” The card ruined the game, though. Gwent is normally played with two horizontal rows of cards; Piggy Back added extra rows. “Though it seems like it's just a visual thing, from a gameplay point of view it didn't work.. It needed to be horizontal because the whole row is affected by something good or bad. Anything that made it vertical broke that,” Monnier says.
If you want to play Gwent as a physical card game, you only need to add one rule, Monnier tells me: “You limit the number of hero cards, which are the most powerful cards in the game, to like four hero cards maximum, and then the game suddenly becomes more balanced.”
The Witcher 3’s two expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, will both add new Gwent cards. Monnier was keeping very tight-lipped about what was coming, though he did reveal that “There's a particular card that introduces a new mechanic. We hadn't planned for Gwent becoming so popular, so we thought 'Let's not break the game, but there's room for one mechanic’. I'm not going to tell you which one, but the card is my favourite card in the whole game. It's a character you are introduced to at the beginning of the game, towards the intro, that's all I can say. The others are pretty straightforward: monsters that you meet in the expansion, new characters, different cards.
“That particular card? The cool thing is that players won't know what it does until they play it.”
This interview was conducted at Igromir Russia. Flights and accommodation were paid for by Comic Con Russia.