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Math in games--bad idea

At one of my game design talks at Origins I said that designers should avoid requiring players to do math, because so many younger people are very poor at doing math in their heads. One member of the audience let out odd shrieks of laughter: he just couldn't believe me.

Yet as I have played "D&D Encounters" the past six months, I've seen more and more examples, right down to an (adult-aged) kid counting on fingers to add 17 plus 7, and people often getting wrong answers when doing simple math like this. The older players have no problem, the younger ones often do. Whether this is a consequence of the availability of calculators to the very young, or the way they're taught math, or something else, I don't know, I just know the reality.

(As a comparison: when I was a freshman in college, we had a 8" by 8" by 2" electronic calculator in the physics department. A $3 calculator today can probably do the same thing, though it's not as easy to read. But in 1969 this one cost $1,500. We had to do simple math in our heads.)

Comments

Funny you should mention this...

I am currently working on a card game in which I decided the players would need to do the "simple" math (Adding, subtracting and multiplying). My target audience is teens to adults (16+). The math used by my game is not "complexe", just some basic stuff like multiplying 6 * 8 (48) + 2 = 50!

I'm not sure how people will deal with all the MATH?! ;)

Ridiculous and sad

I think this is all the more reason to include math in games--so that people will be more motivated to learn how to do simple addition and multiplication. Europeans have no problem with this, which is probably why games are so popular here.

While it is important to keep complex calculations to a minimum--after all, we don't want to distract from the game--I also refuse to "dumb down" a game to the point where absolutely no math is required. And I'm not a fan of the so-called "spreadsheet" games by Friedemann Friese and Martin Wallace, either.

Keep in mind audience of your game...

Keep in mind target audience that your game might be played by. The way I see it, you really have two different (though overlapping) audiences, Mass Market game players and Euro/Hobby game players. Mass Market audience is larger and tends to care for less mathematics. While most players of euro/hobby market games (in my experience) dont really care.

But keeping the math "hidden" in any game helps improve enjoyment/playability for many, no one WANTS to sit there calculating (4 * 8) + (2 *10) + 12.3 to find out that they lost to (5 * 7) + (3 * 9) + 15 (If you think about "Mass Market" games like Magic The Gathering, you have a large audience that does not mind calculating various "simple" damage combinations, I have seen situations where people have to calculate 100s to 1000s of points with certain combinations.)

And I guess it might be worth noting that, of all the game designers I know, none of they really worry about the math when it comes to their designs. They just care about a solid design that results in a fun enjoyable game. If during your playtesting people are continually complaining about calculating, refine, refine, refine until those calculations become more abstracted/hidden from the user during play.

jeffinberlin wrote:And I'm

jeffinberlin wrote:
And I'm not a fan of the so-called "spreadsheet" games by Friedemann Friese and Martin Wallace, either.

I'm not familiar with the term "Speadsheet game" can you define of at lest point me to some examples.

How to make math not feel like math

For many game players, math is something computers do for you. There are far more video game players out there than board game players, and in those games where there are a lot of numbers, the game generally does the math for you.

Take Advance Wars. This is a light (low complexity) war game for the Nintendo DS. When you decide to attack an enemy unit with one of yours, the game shows you what percent of the enemie's forces you're going to kill. Somewhere behind that number is a complex algorythm, but players don't have to care what it is.

One way you can make math in board game not feel llike math is to switch from numbers to a system where players can SEE power differences is some physical way. In Gladiators, a game I've been working on, players roll dice with swords on them to attack vs players rolling dice with shields on them. If the attacker has more swords than the defender's shields, the attacker wins. This works very well, as players don't even have to count the dice; they can see at a glance whether they have more-than, equal-to or less-than.

On the other hand, my scoring system has not been working well. Players get one Glory per the amount their attack beats defense. They also get 3 Glory for causing Wounds and 2 Glory if they attacked the front side of the Gladiator (rather than the Rear). This means a typical Wounding attack involves the following math: amount you won by (usually 2) plus 3 (for the Wound) plus 2 (for attacking from the front).
2+3+2=7. Several of my play testers have complained that this is 'too much math'.

Humans instictively understand more than vs less than, or bigger vs smaller, higher vs lower, etc. If you can change any math in your game to some kind of physical scale, you should do so. players will instantly grasp the concept and your learning curve will be much faster.

Spreadsheet Games

I believe that Tom Rosen, from Boardgamenews and now Opinionated Gamers, was the first I heard to coin the term "Spreadsheet Game," to describe perfect-information (i.e. no hidden information) no-luck games where the value of auctions or actions can actually be calculated, although the calculations required are fairly complex (like doing a spreadsheet). Martin Wallace's "Automobile" was one recent example, and Friedemann's "Power Grid: Factory Manager" might also be one of these. Some people really enjoy these types of games (friends Andrea Meyer and Larry Levy seem to), but I find that they often get bogged down by players taking their time to optimize their moves/bids, and it's easy to "lose your place" in your calculations when you are only doing it in your head.

These are the types of games that are definitely too mathy for most gamers, so I do believe there are limits to how much math you can include in a game, if you want mass-market appeal. It's sad, however, if you can't even include simple addition and multiplication occasionally, in order for it to be accessible. In that case, you might as well just design the next Uno or Candyland.

UNO requires Math

If you want to eliminate math, you'll have to scrap UNO if you're playing for points. (50 pts for leftover Wilds, 20 pts for each other non-number card, face value of number cards)

I find math in games to be valuable as a teaching tool. My 6-year old adds well from playing Small World, where he first has to add two single-digit numbers to determine how many tokens he gets, then he needs to add 2+cardboardstack to determine how many guys he needs to conquer a region.

None of my RPG group have troubles using the simple-math-intensive D20 system, I hope it doesn't intimidate others.

Some math in games could be

Some math in games could be eliminated by providing components to make some of the most common calculations. Think multiplication tables, slide-rules, and nomographs. While this will seem a bit silly to those who can easily do the math, others will appreciate them. And cleverly made aids can be neat.

Scoring Track

One thing Eurogames do to help with the math during scoring is to include a "scoring track" around teh edge of the game board. It's much easier than adding everything up in your head, and it's more fun than getting out a pencil and paper--plus each person can do it themselves at the same time as the other players.

Optional Math

You can make the math optional. In many auction games like power grid and Medici, you will need to calculate the exact value of the auctioned material to know your maximum bid. The problem is that is is very hard to calculate, so players who does not bother about math could just attempt to guess what is their maximum bid.

I think games would have simple math. 17 + 7 should be calculatable by most humans. The goal of games is to make player think in ways that they would have not done in real life. Playing board games should make players more intelligent or prevent them from getting stupid. If you dumb down the game, then it lose all these virtues.

There should still be some limits about math. You won't ask players to calculate logarithm for example. Division could be hard if the values are not controlled. For example, divisions that can creates endless numbers = 6.3333...

2+3+2 is no math

Ludomancer wrote:
This means a typical Wounding attack involves the following math: amount you won by (usually 2) plus 3 (for the Wound) plus 2 (for attacking from the front).
2+3+2=7. Several of my play testers have complained that this is 'too much math'.

Did they finished the grammar school?

I *am* lazy and don't like "too much math", but this is plain ridiculous.

Ludomancer wrote:
Humans instictively understand more than vs less than, or bigger vs smaller, higher vs lower, etc. If you can change any math in your game to some kind of physical scale, you should do so. players will instantly grasp the concept and your learning curve will be much faster.

Sometimes you can replace the sum in the formula by maximum or minimum, which means simple comparison and is much easier. I'll try to use it in my next game.

larienna wrote:
You can make the math optional. In many auction games like power grid and Medici, you will need to calculate the exact value of the auctioned material to know your maximum bid. The problem is that is is very hard to calculate, so players who does not bother about math could just attempt to guess what is their maximum bid.

If I recall our discussion about auction correctly, there's no formula for the value, because of complicated interactions with future turns of other players following their own goals, etc. I like auctions when you can't compute the value and have to estimate it instead. This feels like evaluating the position in games like chess or go and uses intuition.

larienna wrote:
I think games would have simple math. 17 + 7 should be calculatable by most humans. The goal of games is to make player think in ways that they would have not done in real life. Playing board games should make players more intelligent or prevent them from getting stupid. If you dumb down the game, then it lose all these virtues.

Agreed.

larienna wrote:
There should still be some limits about math. You won't ask players to calculate logarithm for example. Division could be hard if the values are not controlled. For example, divisions that can creates endless numbers = 6.3333...

IMHO, even division is fine, assuming the result is to be rounded (or better truncated) immediately.

pick an appropriate base unit

On first glance, which is easier?

1 + 1 + 2 + 4 = ?
25 + 25 + 50 + 100 = ?
50 + 50 + 100 + 200 = ?

It's a trick question. On first glance, I'd like to say the first equation is easiest. Why? Because they're the smallest numbers. Yet, my mind tell me that the last equation was pretty easy. I think the key to good Math in games is picking a good base value and trying to form simple Math around it.

In the first equation, '1' is the base value. You mentally double that value, then quadruple the value when doing the Math.

The second equation is similar, except '100' is the base value and you half it, the quarter it when adding 50 and 25.

Now in the third equation, '100' is still the base value, but you only need to half or double the base value when doing the Math. It's hard to explain, but I personally find it easier to look at the third equation and reach the answer of 400 than it is for me to look at the first equation and reach the answer of 8.

It's hard to explain, but if possible, try picking a common value for Math in games. Make deviations from that common value be halves/quarters/doubles and quadruples. Or thirds and triples. Best to avoid odd ball values where possible. That way most people can do quick Math by inspection without having to think too hard.

I will say, that it is not

I will say, that it is not important if you have the first og the third equation. But the seound could be get some in trouble.

Well on the BGDF there was a

Well on the BGDF there was a lovely post recently by Desprez about how to make a "numberless" RPG system.

http://www.bgdf.com/node/5198

There are some great ideas on there but what we found - exactly as Ludomancer said, is that ush umans, we comprehend "this is bigger than this" a lot more instinctively than any kind of higher math.

EG: 3 boxes of stun damage leads to a -1 on all skill checks, 3 further boxes leads to -2. Eventually 9 totally boxes of stun damage leads to 1 box of health damage - this is the system for Shadowrun: basically, there is math that goes into it (all be it not that complicated: 3 x3 = 9) , but we have seen that some gamers get confused at even this!) but this "math" or "numerology" is actually USED in a visual sense. You don't think "well I have 7 boxes left so 9-7=2, therfore 2 more and I get health damage" you simply look at the chart and go "oh no, 2 more!" so we are using numbers and basic mathematical operators, but we are actually using the information completely visually.

Another example: the "pie-slice" pieces in trivial persuit. It is very easy to see that you need a few more slices, but you would never get your fingers out and start minusing number of slices from total number of holes etc.

If you can involve numbers but use them and have them used visually "this mound is greater than this mound" then that marks the makings of a fun game that would not alienate the young inumerate ones.

To me the simplest equation,

To me the simplest equation, that is, the one with the numbers reduced to their minimum values (the first equation) is much easier.

Evidently there are many (generally, younger) people who are more inspired or excited by large numbers than small ones. I've seen this said in so many words in relation to, for example, RPGs, where a +50 sword sounds cooler somehow even if the number system could be reduced so that +1 is the exact functional equivalent.

At my age I will still go for the simplest (lowest) set of numbers, but anytime you look at a pinball machine you'll see that higher numbers are favored.

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