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When is math too much math?

7 replies [Last post]
Joined: 03/20/2016

Hi all,

I have a design I'm working on with a 'futures' mechanic in a resource collection/trading game. The basic idea is to buy low sell high and you can see what going to happen in the next few round based on 'future' cards which have random resource values.

The initial game was a little dry and I also had a Powergrid-esk supply of resources which combined with the future card was waaayyyy too much math.

The game is still going to contain some math (you will buy X then Y and convert Y to A kind of thing..) but I need to draw a line, so I was wondering how much math is too much math?

Also does anyone know any games you have found to be too much math?

Corsaire's picture
Joined: 06/27/2013

I'm personally fine with a bunch of math. But if I play a mathy game with others who aren't, they dont have a chance.

Kingdom Builders is like that.

The scale of numbers is a factor, too. If people are adding two digit numbers in their head every turn, that's probably going to limit the audience. Two or three sums under ten is probably fine.

On the other hand, look at Monopoly (hate it or tolerate it) you add the dice every turn and have to make change, too. There's a clue there, that number tolerance is related to how tangible and familar the math elements are. If there are fiddly bits and not all in your head, I think it's better.

BHFuturist's picture
Joined: 11/01/2008
Math in Board Games

The best and worst answer to this questions is that it is almost entirely based on how much math your target audience is willing to do. Running playtests with your target should quickly let you know if they think it is too much or just right.

There is math in everything and all board games are theoretically mathematically solvable but this math is obfuscated by components, assigning value to player actions, resource management/manipulation, positive/negative values to board or area control, and so much more!

The main thing that is hard to account for within this math game is the unpredictability of player choices. However, finding and exploiting the dominant strategies in all board games is just a matter of doing this type of "closed" math (Math that is not directly evident to the players in the form of numbers). The type of math we are talking about here is what I will call "open" math, where the numbers and type of math problems are found within the rules and gameplay.

Board games (especially games that are new to the player) take up a lot of room in our short term memory. This means that mathematical operations can only be as heavy as is age appropriate for your target audience if they don't need to remember the numbers after they do the math. One of the dangers in having too much "open" math hinges on usability of the information. If a player can do some math and use that information right away without needed to remember it.

I find that the vast majority of casual board gamers don't like very much "open" math unless there is a visual way to track the totals. This can be things like score tracks and most normal ways of tracking resources. Doing math for end game scoring does not seem to bother anyone because it is normally a one-time event and most players are interested in the totals (unless they per-calculated and know that they will lose). This makes it important to find ways of visually representing the math with components if at all posible.

Tracking resources with cubes is a great example of this "open/closed" math/memory issue and shows a way to make it easy for gamers. You could have the players just remember the number of resources they have and do addition and subtraction each time they gain or spend a resource... but that sort of math/memory exercise is not "fun" and is beyond the capabilities of most people while playing a game.

In your case having a visual way to track the fluctuations in the market might lessen the math workload or at least the memory load. It might also be good to try and move as much math to when it is not the player's turn (in what would otherwise be downtime in the game). That could make it more manageable as they have more time to focus on just the math. I am not sure either will work as I don't fully understand how your game plays or how the information about the market fluctuations is used by the players or whether or not it is hidden information to just that one player or something that all players can know.

One good way to judge or compare the level of math in your game is to look at games that people refer to as "gateway" games. These games will have an "acceptable" level of math for such general audiences. (if you are aiming for a wider general/casual gamer target audience)

If you are targeting Euro gamers or the more hard core gamers in the board game community I don't think the level of math matters all that much as many of those players are already doing quite a bit of "closed" math.

Sorry for the rambling wall of text. I hope that something in this rant is helpful to you in some way.


Yort Watson
Yort Watson's picture
Joined: 11/12/2017
I tested a fellow's

I tested a fellow's prototype, where he actually broke out a calculator to determine the depreciation on items. Way too much math. Think of a way to streamline things, so that the game basically does the math, and the players can concentrate on their strategy. Q:What is something worth? A:How much are players willing to pay for it? I know that's easy to say, but without seeing what you are doing, it is a hard call.

let-off studios
let-off studios's picture
Joined: 02/07/2011
Math Brainz

BHFuturist wrote:
One of the dangers in having too much "open" math hinges on usability of the information...This makes it important to find ways of visually representing the math with components if at all posible.

Tracking resources with cubes is a great example of this "open/closed" math/memory issue and shows a way to make it easy for gamers.

These are great points to remember. Well done, BHFuturist!

I've found that math becomes less onerous to someone if there's a link between doing the math, and achieving their objectives. Activities like counting pips on dice or counting and collecting paper money become part of the fun of the game due to a thematic and/or success connection. There's also the nebulous concept of "elegance" that's worth mentioning here.

I also prefer small bits of math at a time, as opposed to a massive lump all at once. Adding to a score after completing a successful action, or at specific markers like "end of a round" are more easily digestible. If it takes significant calculations to even begin a round, then you're likely in a training exercise instead of a game (unless you're playing The Campaign for North Africa). To me, that doesn't seem fun, although it can be useful or some kind of teachable moment.

Games that add to player scores a little bit throughout the game help promote player engagement as well as a measure of success for oneself and their opponents. The noted exception of adding everything up at the end of the game is a "work-around" for a big-ass pile of math that no one wants to do, so I tend to avoid that kind of mechanic. I'd prefer to "trickle" it in there, so it's not overwhelming and/or substituting for a climax or dramatic moment that would otherwise be thematically engaging.

Joined: 03/20/2016
Great responses! I guess I

Great responses! I guess I was referring to "open" math rather than the more subtle 'trade off' math which most games inherently have.

BHFuturist, great point about memory, the idea currently would require some memory of what you paid for the goods (in order to sell at a higher price) but I think will be ok with what else is going on in the game, still in the idealization of the second prototype so we will see.

Also @Yort Watson agreed! If you need a calculator....too much math!

Thanks for the responses, really helped!

lewpuls's picture
Joined: 04/04/2009

I discussed managing frustration in games in a very long (6,000+ words) blog post in 2013

Part of that discussion is about arithmetic in games.

Joined: 03/20/2016
Awesome, will give it a read!

Awesome, will give it a read!

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