Thursday, May 26, 2016

My Top Ten Favourite Math Games and Puzzles

I'm a firm believer that Math games and puzzles offer an excellent opportunity for practising Math. I sometimes wonder if kids these days are at a disadvantage because they don't play board games to the same extent as we did growing up. As an example, when playing Monopoly, if I landed on Northumberland Avenue and want to buy it for £160 then I need to use number sense to figure how to do this (three fifties and a ten?, a hundred and three twenties?, two hundreds and get two twenties back?) Today, there is a version of Monopoly where all transactions are done via swiping a credit card!

I often present at Math Nights in various schools throughout our Board and one of the things I do is show parents games and puzzles that I play with my own kids. In doing so, I also let them know how these games help a learner develop mathematically.

So here are my top ten favourite games and puzzles:

10) Swish. Fantastic for developing spatial reasoning. This pack of transparent cards has a variety of markings on. The goal is to pair up cards but this will require reflections, rotations and translations.

9) Darts Having a dartboard in my bedroom, and playing countless games with my brothers did wonders for my mental arithmetic. Still one of my proudest achievements is when I checked out on a 170 (treble 20, treble 20, bull). Admittedly, might not be the best thing to have in a classroom for a variety of health and safety reasons...

8) Pentago A twist on Connect 4. Players take turns placing black and white marbles on a playing board. After each go, they can turn one of the quadrants 90°. The goal is to get 5 in a row. Easy to learn, not so easy to master!

7) Tantrix Can be played solo with others. The basic idea is to place hexagonal tiles together so that you form a continuous loop of one colour. The puzzles increase in complexity as you add more tiles. Great for spatial reasoning and developing persistence.

6) Pass the Pigs Great for practicing mental arithmetic with numbers up to 100. Throw two pigs and how they land will determine the number of points you get. Now decide if you should (piggy) bank these points or continue rolling. However, if the pigs fall in a certain way, you lose all your points.

5) Kanoodle Another spatial reasoning puzzle that is available in three different versions. In the Kanoodle Genius version, you have to arrange the seven pieces into either a hexagon or a tetrahedron. A puzzle booklet provides you with starting positions for some of the pieces: it's up to you to work out where the others go. I have seen students spend their whole indoor recess on these puzzles.

4) City of Zombies A cooperative game in which you either all win or all lose. Zombies are attacking you and the only way to destroy them is through Math! Combine the numbers on three dice using a variety of operations to kill as many zombies as you can. Great for mental arithmetic especially with junior students. Only downside is that I've not seen it being sold in the usual toy shops in Canada so you'll have to have it shipped from the U.K.

3) Shut the Box I have played this so many times with my own children and it has done wonders for their mental arithmetic and their ability to decompose numbers. Throw two dice, add them and then knock down the tiles (1 to 9) that add to that total. So if you throw a 1 and a 5, you could knock down the 6, or the 1 and 5, or the 2 and 4, or the 1, 2 and 3. Continue throwing the dice and knocking down totals until you get to a point where you cannot knock down any combination of tiles to match the dice total. The tiles you have left are your total. Now it's the turn of the other player who needs to get a lower final score than yours. When I play this with my kids, we usually play first to three games wins. Once, I started by throwing a double 1 (so knocked down the 2 tile) then threw another double one which meant I ended up with the worst possible score!

2) Farkle A dice game with some similarities to Yahtzee. The rules (found here) might look a bit confusing to begin with but are easily understood once you start playing. Really good for mental arithmetic involving larger numbers (that you might find in junior grades) and also strategising. 

1) Cribbage Controversial? Maybe I've been influenced by happy memories of playing this in various pubs and in tents whilst wild camping in the Scottish highlands. But for me, cribbage is bursting with Math: decomposing numbers, mental math, combinations, probability. And there is something very satisfying about pegging your score.

Now I know that many of you are probably thinking something along the lines of "How can you leave out Yahtzee?" or "No Blokus? What's wrong with you!" Even as I write this, I'm debating whether I should have included Pandemic, a cooperative board game in which either all players win (by discovering four cures) or all players die from a pandemic. 

Also, I recently bought Prime Climb which is a great for practicing mental arithmetic as well as learning (in a game situation) about prime and composite numbers.

And I'm sure some of you will even point to the Game of Life as being a board game where players will have to use their math skills. So for all of you who disagree with my top ten, let me know what yours is!


  1. Our parent council is trying to organize math night at my son's school. (YRDSB). Can you pass me contact info please, interested is speaker to talk to parents about how math is being taught.

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