Games That Hide Maths Well

I have to admit I’m a bit of a card- and board-games-aholic. I have a cupboard (and a few extra shelves) full of them. Strangely perhaps for a mathematician, I am very slow to develop strategies and improve at games: with quite a few I ‘see’ how to succeed in them fairly quickly but, otherwise, I don’t think too deeply about them and just enjoy the gameplay (and losing). My other confession to make is that I just don’t really enjoy chess: it takes ages, it’s only two player, there’s no game-based communication and (chess fans will argue with this) it’s always the same. Sorry, but had to get that one off my chest!

However, the point of this post isn’t just to lament how we are losing the tradition of playing family games (compared with say Germany that still awards the coveted ‘Spiel des Jahres’ – game of the year – award every year). There are so many excellent games out there that, if children played them frequently, they would help them develop strategic and mathematical thinking skills.

Perhaps this is a slightly strange blog post for me to write because I don’t have any children (except for the dozens passing through my classroom door every day). But I want to quickly highlight some games that I would recommend people buy to play with their families (Parents are teachers, too!) or that would be successful in a school club. Here in no particular order is my ‘top 5’ (plus one, plus another one). Links are to amazon in case you want to follow any of them up. Images from amazon.

6 nimmt!

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With very simple rules to learn, 6 nimmt! is great for developing a strategy and trying to scupper your opponents. Overall aim is to finish with the fewest negative points against you. This is probably the quickest game of the 5 here. The game rules will be in German, but they are clearly explained on Wikipedia.


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Wizard is a card game where you are trying to win tricks in each round. However, before the round is played out you must predict how many you will win and you are penalised if you are incorrect (over or under). Although this game takes a long while to play out, it is great for thinking about adaptive strategy. Once you have made your prediction, you will need to adapt how you play through the round to make sure you hit your target!


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Another game with very simple rules, Fettnapf combines a bit of mental arithmetic with memory. Both of these develop in you the more often you play. Sadly it seems to be hard to come by in Germany, let alone England now.


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Bohnanza was my very first taste of German card games and it really has a cult following. (The link is to an English edition which includes one of the expansions.) You are a bean farmer, cultivating fields of beans which you can harvest for coins – all played out with just the cards. Another great one for adaptive strategy: changing your plans depending on how the cards turn. There’s also a negotiation stage when you try and make simple trade deals with your opponents and thus it’s great for communication too. Especially when they decline your not very tempting offers!


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This is an auction-style game where you bid for animals with the aim of acquiring complete sets. It’s readily available in Germany but it’s only sold over here with a price hike and no translation. Again the rules in English are around. I love playing it even though I am beyond bad.

Plus one?

Just one choice of a card game playable with a standard deck: cribbage. Probably easier to learn from someone who already knows rather than reading about it, but for me this game has much more variety and interaction than most other ‘standard’ card games.

Plus another one?

This isn’t even a card game: Yahtzee. 5 dice, simple rules, but once again a nice amount of strategy revolving around probability and point-scoring! (Those on a budget can buy some dice and a scorepad – or even print your own.)

Think, Pair, Share

  • Does your school offer any kind of games club? Is there an opportunity to engage more students in a greater variety of games?
  • Which card or board games do you enjoy? Which games do an excellent job of ‘hiding’ mathematical and strategic thinking?

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