We’re no strangers to video games as escapism during the pandemic, especially the games that bring friends together online with simple-yet-deep gameplay. That very premise catapulted Among Us, a quietly launched indie game from 2018, to the top of 2020’s charts and headlines.
After only one week, 2021 has already started as a… rollicking year, which has led me to the unusual step of highlighting a new, free multiplayer card game on Windows, Mac, and Linux that we might not otherwise cover at Ars Technica: Nerts! One reason is that it’s currently the “best new game” of 2021—admittedly a silly designation only seven days into the year, but I’m counting it.
You may have already stumbled upon Nerts! as a child, perhaps calling it Pounce or Racing Demon, as it’s a modified version of solitaire for larger groups of players—a fact that the game’s developers at Zachtronics freely admit (and perhaps plays into the game’s free-as-in-beer price). The below video tells the story, though you’ll want to read my context to better parse it.
Up to six players can compete in Nerts!, and everyone gets their own deck of 52 cards. The cards are arranged in a solitaire-like fashion, with four placed as opening “stacks,” 13 in a special “Nerts pile,” and the rest as a draw deck. Like in solitaire, your stacks can be built as descending numerical counts (K-Q-J-10-9 and so on) with alternating red-black colors, and ace cards go into their own dumping ground, for the sake of extracting cards from your stacks (in ascending numerical order with a matching suit).
The first catch: this is multiplayer, so the middle of the screen is a shared pool of aces. As soon as someone drops, say, an ace of spades, anyone with a two of spades can toss theirs into the center to reduce their deck.
Additionally, since each player only gets four stacks to work with, instead of solitaire’s standard seven-stack count, you can put any card into an empty spot, not just a king.
Most importantly, you score more points by getting rid of every single card from your Nerts pile: two points per removal, as opposed to one point per card moved to the aces pool. (If you don’t win a round, you lose points for every card left in your Nerts pile.) First to 100 points wins. All this means your path to victory is about managing that weird pile of 13 cards within both your limited series of stacks and a crazy-busy fray of shared aces.
High tick rate for solitaire shenanigans
This game landed on our radar because of its pedigree. Zachtronics, a game studio from the Seattle area, is better known for deliriously complicated games like SpaceChem, Infinifactory, and Exapunks. Turns out, those developers sometimes play simpler games to cleanse their design palates while developing games, usually in a shared office with physical cards. The 2020 pandemic changed that, so the studio decided to code its own virtual version to keep the office tradition alive—then cleaned the app up for public consumption and surprise-launched it on Steam on Tuesday of this week.
The result is a few levels above “barebones,” which means the free game lacks a clear tutorial and a built-in matchmaking menu, but this is still pretty robust. For starters, a hotfix landed one day after the game’s launch to add an “invite to lobby” shortcut URL for Steam that works even if someone isn’t on your friends list, which you can easily drop in a Discord or Slack channel to bring new players into your sessions. Additionally, Zachtronics’ netcode is quite good here, since it tracks every player’s mouse cursor at an apparent 30Hz tick rate—which means you can playfully put your mouse cursor into your foes’ card fields as a form of communication or taunting (or, if you’re nicer, use your mouse cursor to help struggling friends by pointing at ideal moves).
This package feels like “get what you pay for” in certain obvious ways, like a 15-second theme song that plays at the beginning of every session with no option to disable as of press time. At first, I was annoyed by this forced pause, but I’ve grown to appreciate the cheesy, overlong jingle as part of the Nerts! ritual. The rougher stuff comes from sessions with fewer than four players, where players can more easily draw themselves into a “no moves left” solitaire corner. Nerts! tries to help with this by automatically shuffling each player’s “draw-three” deck after a certain interval of time, which can get useful cards into your arsenal when you’re stuck, but the developers have already hinted at rules changes in an upcoming patch for lower player counts.
Ultimately, Zachtronics’ free version of the battle-solitaire classic is already better than what you’ll find in free Web browser game portals (and we feel strongly about day-one Linux and Mac support around these parts). Nerts! offers a lovely mix of card-shuffling activity for heightened focus and pause-to-reflect downtime for voice-chat silliness—the exact kind of social gaming brain activation I’ve been hungry for in a world with fewer board game nights with friends. It’s a wonderful gift of accessible card-battling gaming, and you shouldn’t hesitate to download and try it even in its launch state, even before more potential patches come to this free game—but definitely try to play with a sweet-spot fray of four players total (even though it’s fun in the wild five- to six-player version and totally fine with two or three).
Listing image by Zachtronics