Tom Jolly is perhaps best known as the creator of Wiz-War (reviewed way back in TGR #1) and, more recently, the miniatures-less miniatures system called Diskwars. During a recent reprint of Wiz-War expansions, Jolly used up the extra space he had on the card sheets to produce a new game, available exclusively from him directly. Programmerís Nightmare is very much what weíve come to expect from Tom Jolly- a chaotic beer Ďní pretzels game with simple base rules and wild cards to shake things up.
Published on a shoestring, youíll find no frills like, say, a box- just a Ziploc, a deck of cards, and an uncut sheet of counters. Players get a hand of four cards and take turns playing cards to the table, jointly creating an enormous computer program. Each card represents an instruction in that program.
Cards are always arranged in a straight line, but can be added at either end of that line (this requires a lot of table space, but you can just as easily distort the line into a snake or multiple columns). Each card is marked with a playerís ďbitĒ when played. The program keeps growing until someone plays a RUN card, causing the program to execute. A marker moves down the line from card to card. As it hits a card, each player with a bit on that card chooses whether or not to execute the cardís instruction.
Instructions arenít real computer commands but actions which have a range of effects. There are cards that add, remove, or move bits around; modify values on cards; alter the card sequence; affect playersí life totals; and so on. Each player starts with ten life points and wins by reaching twenty points, but loses at zero. Victory is also achieved by creating a loop containing only your own bits.
Once the program starts running, it only stops if it his a BREAK instruction embedded in the program (if one exists) or if someone plays a BREAK card. This is the gameís greatest weakness. Possession of a BREAK is based on the luck of the draw. If nobody has one, an uneventful program would run forever without ending the game. An easy fix is to allow each player to initiate a cardless BREAK, but at the cost of two life points.
Like Wiz-War, Programmerís Nightmare has a high randomness quotient. The best way to win is to draw great cards. That said, thereís a surprising amount of room for strategy in how an action gets carried out. Your INCREMENT card lets you permanently increase a number printed on any card. Do you increase the amount of damage your ZAP does to an opponent, or increase the amount of life a different card gives to you? Perhaps you should increase the value on your DELETE, letting you remove a bit from any 2 cards instead of one. The wide variety of cards allow for many sneaky ways to modify a running program to gain the advantage.
A second version of the game plays out a bit differently. Instead of dealing each player a hand of cards, a program is dealt up to the table. Players take turns claiming cards by marking them with a bit until each playerís limited bit supply is empty. Then the program runs forever until someone wins. If a stalemate occurs, you just start over. This variation gives the first player an advantage (rotating this position over subsequent games evens that out nicely) but otherwise eliminates the luck of the draw. Instead of opportunistically adding the best cards of your hand to the program, this version emphasizes long-term planning in the claiming of instruction cards. Players need to foresee how the program will shake out when it runs and then claim the cards which will give them the edge.
Programmerís Nightmare is certainly not a game to take seriously. Rule ambiguities (and there are a few of them) should be resolved quickly in the most sensible way. If youíre arguing, youíre missing the point here. The record-keeping can get a bit fiddly with bits, points, and card swapping for a beer & pretzels game, but thatís merely a quibble. This isnít something Iíll play often, but its unique theme, low price and surprisingly good gameplay make Programmerís Nightmare a keeper.