The Witcher’s ‘Gwent: Rogue Mage’ Is a Fine Card Game and a Terrible Roguelite

Gwent: Rogue Mage is a game that never asks its players to make difficult, or even interesting decisions in a genre defined by them

GwentThe Witcher’s in-universe card game, is good at what it does. In fact, it is so good at what it does that players of The Witcher 3 all but demanded a stand-alone Gwent game, with all of the additional cards and complexity that desire suggests. This want was rewarded with Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, a fully featured free-to-play competitive Gwent game. Gwent: The Witcher Card Game also received a critically lauded, commercially ignored single-player expansion, Thronebreaker, which ended the main game’s foray into the single-player space. Now, Gwent: Rogue Mage fills that void with a stand-alone roguelite deckbuilding variant on the popular card game. It, like the development of the first Witchers the game focuses on, is an interesting and worthwhile experiment. It is also a failure, which manages to be so much less than the sum of its parts.
Gwent: Rogue Mage follows in the footsteps of most of the rogue-lite deckbuilders of the last 10 years, and adopts the same node-based structure made popular by Faster Than Light and Slay the Spire. The game board consists of battles, elite enemy battles, random events, and points for restoring your character’s spellcasting energy. It is a competent version of this style of overworld design. The game follows the wizards Alvur and Lyannis, who are attempting to develop the world’s first Witchers. The framing device is totally fine. It is also boring.
The game’s card-battling is, similarly, competent. Gwent is still a good game! It is an extremely pared down version of the “summon monsters to hit other monsters and reduce your opponent’s health bar” genre of which the most popular CCGs are all a part of. Instead of having health and attack, or defense and attack, or any other combination of words that mean “amount of blood in your body” and “amount of blood that you can extract from another character’s body,” every Gwent card has a single value, representing whatever you want it to at any given moment. Unlike most CCGs, there is not an enemy health-bar to whittle down, just a flat Win-Loss based on who has the most cumulative card value. Cards have the standard smattering of CCG effect triggers, on-summon effects, on-kill effects, activated abilities, effects that trigger when another character is summoned, effects that trigger every turn, the standard list goes on.

Three cards float in the air while mountains loom in the background.

However, the simplicity of Gwent interferes with Rogue Mage’s rogue-lite structure, because it does not lead to interesting decisions. Each run is made up of around 16-20 nodes, depending on which of the many paths you take across the map. To pull an example from a run I just started, following the top-most path will put you in seven standard battles, one elite battle (which you can use to upgrade your deck’s signature card), four events, two treasures, three places of power, and then the final boss. If you lose any of those battles, your run is over.
You begin each run with 75 energy for casting spells, the majority of which cost three or six energy, and every game is 10 turns long. Assuming that you don’t get any events which restore energy, three places of power will give you 60 additional energy for a total of 135 energy for spellcasting over the course of a run. For reasons that I will not explain for the sake of not saying math at you, energy and points can, by default, have a net 1:2 exchange rate, meaning that you have around 270 extra points over the course of a run. Across nine battles, that gives you an average of 30 free points, with a max of 66, regardless of how your deck is built. Most of those battles won’t ask you to spend more than 12. The fact that after only a few runs I can so precisely plot out the exact number of resources I am likely to have with the default deck, is a bad sign. The fact that these resources are enough to win most runs, is a worse sign.
It is not just that these fights are readily solvable problems, it is that sometimes they do not even provide problems to solve. The standard starting deck contains three spells: one which boosts your unit by three points, one that damages an enemy unit by three points, and one that creates and summons a random card. Removing three points from an enemy and giving your own units three points are, functionally, the same thing, unless you are trying to destroy or protect a card with a specific effect, or attempting to set up a deathblow ability. This isn’t an interesting decision on its own because it requires specific cards to be in play to actually matter. Damaging and buffing are the exact same thing for the majority of cards. Some fights, your enemies won’t play a card that makes this decision significant in any meaningful way.

A screenshot of a map, on which tokens have been laid symbolizing in-game encounters.

This lack of meaningful decision-making extends to the game’s artifacts, which are objects that provide you bonuses over the course of your run. Some of these bonuses take the form of additional spell cards which, like units, can only be played once on a given turn and have no energy cost, or passive bonuses like each of your units being summoned with 2 armor. These artifacts take up space on your board, which could lead to interesting decisions but doesn’t. You don’t get enough artifacts over the course of a run to make this a difficult question. More artifacts are always better, and artifacts, so far, are all similarly useful. Take the aforementioned armor artifact as an example, two armor over 10 turns lets you, without fail, negate 20 points of damage during a given fight. This is a really useful perk, with no downsides. Another artifact halves the energy cost of all your spells, this is also extremely useful and has no downsides. You may be starting to notice a pattern.
The only meaningful decisions in Gwent: Rogue Mage come down to how you build your deck, and on that front it is mostly competent. However, every other part of the game undercuts these decisions. The more energy you have, the more artifacts you have, the less that your actual deck matters. Given that the both of those factors are readily quantifiable and easily predicted, you can very quickly determine your run’s most optimal path from turn one.
As a card game, Gwent remains excellent. As a roguelite which pushes its players to make difficult, meaningful decisions, it is a failure.

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