Back when I played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and all of the amazing expansions for the game, I ended up devoting quite a lot of time to the sub-game within that title, the card versus card battle game known as GWENT. The Witcher 3 is brilliant in that the game requires you to journey around the world and battle various characters to try and get powerful cards to add to your deck. There is even a major tournament event that is part of the core game. It’s all completely optional of course, but I know quite a few people, like myself, who put quite a lot of time into GWENT whenever we were not hunting monsters.
So, it was inevitable that developers CD Projekt Red would release a standalone version of GWENT a few years later. That game was well-received and earned 4 GiN Gems out of 5 in our review. Personally, I enjoyed GWENT to a point, but the emphasis on obtaining loot boxes through microtransactions to try and unlock better cards was a little too much like paying to win for me. In online matches, it was obvious that those who would win a lot had invested real money into obtaining a bunch of special cards.
Then the developers released Thronebreaker, which was a single player adventure game where you fight a bunch of GWENT battles as part of the overall plot of the game. Thronebreaker eliminated the microtransactions, but added the requirement of gathering wood, gold and soldiers in order to create new cards for your deck. At least you were not spending real money, but you still did not have the ability to just put together a deck that you really wanted to play with, at least not without doing a bunch of leg work outside of playing GWENT itself. I reviewed Thronebreaker myself, and it earned a respectable 3.5 GiN Gems, but both it and the standalone GWENT title kind of missed the mark for me.
Full disclosure, two other reviewers here at GiN reviewed Thronebreaker when it came out on other platforms, and both of them awarded it higher scores than me. So, my opinion may not be in the majority, but I think that what gamers really want from GWENT is the ability to put together a deck of their choice (without microtransactions or any in-game gathering) and then be able to play that deck against the computer as a standalone game or maybe as part of some adventure. That is basically what I was doing with my late-game Witcher 3 save. I had gathered all the cards at that point and just used that save to go into Witcher 3 so I could roam around and play GWENT, modify my deck and try new strategies. And it was a lot of fun.
For whatever reason, the developers don’t want to provide that kind of experience. My guess is that if they simply let us build the decks we want, that we wouldn’t buy any of those microtransactions. But you would think they would let us at least do that as part of a single player game. And that is what I thought that the Rogue Mage single player expansion would do. Judging from the comments on Steam, a lot of others thought the same thing. That is not what we got at all, but Rogue Mage is pretty fun to play nonetheless.
There is the sparsest of stories in Rogue Mage, although most of that just provides a loose framework to string all of the GWENT battles together. You will be moving along a gameboard and stopping at designated spots on the board in order to participate in an event or fight, with the goal of getting to a boss to fight at the far side.
Most of the event stops along the way will be battles, but there are also adventure choices (basically a narrative choice where you might get an advantage or a curse for your deck) and places of power where you can recharge your mana in-game resource or modify your cards. If you die in battle, you are transported back to your home base. In that case, the run fails, but you are welcome to try again without penalty. You also earn experience for every run, which can earn you rewards and powers that can make you moderately more powerful on subsequent runs.
Rogue Mage is not a pure GWENT game. It’s stripped down with an emphasis on quicker games played in single rounds (and not the best out of three). There are only two rows for cards, melee and ranged, so no artillery row either. Also, there does not seem to be much of a difference between the two rows. You can pretty much deploy any card to any row, other than a very few specific ones that are restricted, or which produce slightly different effects depending on which row you plop them down on.
You are also limited to one of four starting decks for each run, and only one at the start of the game. As you earn more experience you can unlock all four of the decks, although I don’t think the subsequent decks are any more powerful. In fact, all four of the desks that you can start a run with are fairly weak. They have a few synergistic powers, but whoever built them could have done a much better job. The really terrible thing about Rogue Mage is that you can’t modify your starting decks at all! Yes, there are events in the game where you can make some swaps, and you can add a random card (with a choice of three) after every winning battle. But that makes putting together a killer deck more or less random. Believe me, I came up with a much better starting lineup that would only require a few swap outs, but the game won’t let me deploy like that, unless I get really, really lucky on a run. And that is frustrating for someone who really knows the system.
I have no idea why the developers would restrict players from modifying their decks. If we could, then Rogue Mage would be a far better game. But I do have an idea why they would not allow this. You tend to fight the same collection of enemies as you adventure, randomly selected from a pool. To balance the game, I believe that the developers needed to know what the enemies would have in their hands and what the player could (within reason) bring to the fight. Otherwise, it would be too easy for someone who knows the mechanics of GWENT to build an overpowered deck. I know I would.
That is really unfair, but players are given one big advantage over the computer. Your character can cast spells, with one spell cast every turn. The spells cost mana, but you start with 75 out of 100 (if you have the right artifact equipped). Spells are reasonably priced, so a direct damage spell might cost three mana while one that adds Vitality to three cards might cost six. You can regenerate some mana by visiting shrines on the board, and if you click the arch-mage option you get 20 mana before each battle (it’s basically like an easy mode).
Being able to cast spells is a nice perk, but the computer also gets a bigger than expected advantage in that it always gets to make the last move in every game. So, no coin flipping and no back and forth. Players always have to make the first move and the computer goes last. And the computer seems programmed to almost cheat by holding back its most powerful card for the final move, which you can’t counter. Basically, if you are not ahead in the final turn by at least 30 points, there is a good chance that the computer will cast a meteor storm or toss some OP monster down that buffs his side or summons 10 other cards. And you will lose. It’s pretty frustrating when you have fought a good game, kept a few points ahead of your computer opponent the entire time and generally out-played them, only to get cheat killed at the very end because the computer always gets the last move. It’s a terrible feature of this game, and it will happen to anyone who plays. I guarantee it.
Despite Rogue Mage not being what I expected and having a few questionable design elements (especially letting the computer ALWAYS go last) I still had some fun with it. It probably, oddly enough, will appeal more to casual or new GWENT players as opposed to hardcore fans, but is also good if you are looking for a few quick battles in a GWENT-like environment. And for under $10, you really can’t beat the price.
The GWENT: Rogue Mage Single-Player Expansion earns a respectable 3.5 GiN Gems.