The Mahakam Ale Festival went live in CD Projekt Red's collectible card game just over a week ago. Intended to coincide with Oktoberfest, the holiday event brought with it not just some tweaks to old cards but also completely new game mode.
In addition to the normal array of buffs and nerfs, the "Agile" update released with the Festival made it so that a number of different cards could be played on multiple rows rather than just one.
When it first started, Gwent was very diligent about making sure certain units could only be played in the melee, ranged, or artillery rows respectively as a way of emphasising medieval war strategies the game borrowed from.
In time, however, the game has slowly downplayed the significance of these different rows, and by liberating 40 different units the game has further weakened the mechanic, allegedly in the service of new cards and game mechanics to be released in the coming months.
The recent update's more meaty contribution has instead been a series of new The Mahakam Ale Festival-based Challenges. Prior to the game's single-player campaign called Thronebreaker to be released sometime in 2018, new Gwent players have had the benefit of "Challenges" to help on-board and familiarise them with the game's rules by facing specific AI opponents.
While previous Challenges were straightforward matches against particular characters drawn from the Witcher games, the Mahakam Ale Festival ones have been fundamentally different. Instead of playing your preferred decks against set opponents, the new Challenges make you play a match under new and different rule sets.
In "Trial of the Glasses" for instance, you play against Skellige's King Bran in a competition steeped in booze. Tankards of ale can be played that will buff the cards on either side of them each subsequent turn, while "bad" ale can be played on opponent's rows to harm enemy units in a similar fashion. Then there's "Battle of the Bards," a mode which pits Dandelion against a rival bard as both attempt to accrue more fans than the other.
They do this by trying to move units from the melee row to the ranged row, but unlike the other challenges you start in the middle of the match and have only a handful of possible moves as options. As a result, it's closer to solving a classic chess problem than anything else Gwent has done previously.
Rummage through the Gwent forums and sub-Reddit, and you'll find plenty of people frustrated with these new challenges, cursing the developers in one line before begging other players for help in the next.
That's in part because while the first set of Mahakam Ale Festival Challenges put you and the computer opponent on equal footing, a set of "expert" ones stack the odds heavily in the latter's favour, either by giving them extra cards or more powerful ones. And so you end up with threads like this one.
In this regard, the final expert Challenge is particularly vexing. Playing as the drunk sell-sword Odrin against the troll, Trololo (who you might remember from The Witcher 3 as the lone member of the Royal Redanian Army who you buy paint and supplies for because of how much you pity him). Trololo has a card that's both Resilient, meaning it will stay on the board at its current power level in subsequent rounds, and can consume enemy cards at regular intervals of three turns.
It's thus a ridiculously powerful card that can near impossible to deal with if you get into the wrong rhythm. Winning the match is much less about beating Trololo than solving the complex problem CD Projekt Red has constructed (you can either hit a pattern so that the trolls card is getting the worst buffs possible or cheese the AI).
In this way the Mahakam Ale Festival Challenges promote more complex thinking about the game by stretching players' imaginations and forcing them to analyse situations they might not normally find themselves in. One of the hardest things about being really good at Gwent is knowing how to adapt to new situations.
After playing hundreds of matches, you're likely to know what the optimal strategy is in the a lot of situations, but it's the occasional outlier that can still be your undoing, especially since one misplaced card can be the difference between a positive or negative win rate in a collectible card game like Gwent.
They're similar to Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, the infamous player's self-titled book that, rather than drawn out discussions of chess theory, is instead filled with chess puzzles.
Each page gives the reader a new situation with the pieces and board arranged in such a way that the optimal solution, either checkmating the opponent or avoiding checkmate, illustrate how to read the game and apply basic principles.
Chess problems date back millennia and are something of the original single-player campaign for one of the world's oldest board games.
In his Poems and Problems, the writer Vladimir Nabokov said, "Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterise all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity." He was so enamoured with their simplicity and elegance that he went on to create a few of his own, setting them alongside to his poetry in the hopes the two might cross-pollinate and expose one another's artistry.
It's easy to appreciate a wonderful play in Gwent (who doesn't love a perfectly executed scorch?) but for many amateur players the intricacies of game, including how you sequence cards and try to bait out opponents, aren't always easy to see.
The Mahakam Ale Festival Challenges are for this reason an beautiful way to introduce players to a different side of the game that's not driven by pure obsession with the competitive meta and which new decks have the most up-votes.