12 Math Games, Puzzles, and Problems for Your Holiday Car Trip

December 21, 2018 at 8:45 am Leave a comment

It doesn’t matter if you’re one of the 102.1 million people traveling by car, one of the 6.7 million people traveling by plane, or one of the 3.7 million people traveling by train, bus, or cruise ship this holiday season — the following collection of games, puzzles, and problems will help to pass the time, and you’ll be there long before anyone asks, “Are we there yet?”


1. Street Sign Bingo

Use the numbers on street signs to create expressions with specific values. For instance, let’s say you see the following sign:

Road Sign

The two numbers on the sign are 12 and 3, from which you could make the following:

12 + 3 = 15

12 – 3 = 9

12 × 3 = 36

12 ÷ 3 = 4

Of course, you could just use the numbers directly as 3 or 12. Or if your passengers know some advanced math, they could use square roots, exponents, and more to create other values.

Can you split the digits within a number and use them separately? Can you concatenate two single-digit numbers to make a double-digit number? That’s for you and your traveling companions to decide.

To play as a competitive game, have each person in the car try to get every value from 1‑20. It’s easiest to keep track if you require that players go in order. To make it a cooperative game, have everyone in the car work collectively to make every value from 1 to 100.

As an alternative, you could use the numbers on license plates instead.

2. Bizz Buzz Bang

Yes, I’ve played this as a drinking game. No, I don’t condone drinking while driving. No, I don’t condone under-age drinking, either. Yes, I condone playing this game with minors while driving. (See what I did there?)

The idea is simple. You pick two single-digit numbers, A and B. Then you and your friends start counting, one number per person. But each time someone gets to a number that contains the digit A or is a multiple of A, she says, “Bizz!” Every time someone gets to a number that contains the digit B or is a multiple of B, she says, “Buzz!” And every time someone gets to a number that meets both criteria, he says, “Bang!”

For example, let’s say A = 2 and B = 3. Then the counting would go like this:

one, bizz, buzz, bizz, five, bang, seven, bizz, buzz, bizz, eleven, bang, buzz, …

When someone makes a mistake, that round ends. Start again, and see if you can beat your record.

You can use whatever numbers you like, or modify the rules in other ways. For instance, what if bizz is for prime numbers and buzz is for numbers of the form 4n + 3? Could be fun!

3. Dollar Nim (or any other variation)

Nim is a math strategy game in which players take turns removing coins from a pile. Different versions of the game are created by adjusting the number of coins that can be removed on each turn, the number of coins in the pile originally, how many piles there are, and whether you win (normal) or lose (misère) by taking the last coin.

A good aspect of Nim is that you don’t actually need coins. To play in the car, players just need to keep track of a running total in their heads.

A version of Nim dubbed 21 Flags was played on Survivor Thailand several years ago. There were 21 flags, and each team could remove 1, 2, or 3 flags on each turn. The team to remove the last flag won. This is a good first version to play in the car, especially for young kids who have never played before. Then mix it up by changing the initial amount and the number that can be removed on each turn.

Our family’s favorite version, Dollar Nim, is played by starting with $1.00 and removing the value of a common coin (quarter, dime, nickel, penny) on each turn. (While discussing this post with my sons, they informed me that they much prefer Euro Nim, which begins with 1€, but then the coin values to be removed are 50c, 20c, 10c, 5c, 2c, and 1c. It’s essentially the same game, but they like the different coin amounts.)


Three-Pile Nim consists of not just one but three piles with 3, 5, and 7 coins, respectively.  On each turn, a player must remove at least one coin, and may remove any number of coins, but all removed coins must be from the same pile.

Finally, Doubling Nim is played as the name implies. On the first turn, a player may remove any number of coins but not the entire pile. On every turn thereafter, a player may remove any number of coins up to double the number taken on the previous turn. For instance, if your opponent removes 7 coins, then you can remove up to 14 coins.

For every version of Nim, there is an optimal strategy. We’ve wasted hours on car trips discussing the strategy for just one variation. Discussing the strategies for all the versions above could occupy the entire drive from Paducah to Flint.

4. Guess My Number

One person picks a number, others ask questions to try to guess the number.

The simplest version is using “greater than” and “less than” questions. Is it greater than 50? Is it less than 175? And so forth. Using this method, the guessers can reduce the number of possibilities by half with each question, so at most, it should take no more than n guesses if 2n > m, where m is the maximum possible number that the picker may choose. For instance, if the picker is required to choose a number less than 100, then n = 7, because 27 = 128 > 100. Truthfully, this version of the game gets boring quickly, but it’s worth playing once or twice, especially if there’s one picker and multiple guessers. And a conversation about the maximum number of guesses need can be a fun, mathy way to spend 15 minutes of your trip.

A more advanced version excludes “greater than” and “less than” questions. Instead, the guessers can ask other mathematical questions like, “Is it a prime number?” or “Do the digits of the number differ by 4?” Those questions imply, of course, that the answer must be yes or no, and that’s typical for these types of guessing games. If you remove that restriction, though, then guessers could ask questions that reveal a little more information, like, “What is the difference between the digits?” or “What is the remainder when the number is divided by 6?” With this variant, it’s often possible to identify the number with two strategic questions.


Here are three puzzles that can lead to hours of conversation — and frustration! — on a car trip. Before you offer one to your crew, though, put forth the disclaimer that anyone who’s heard the puzzle before must remain mum. No reason they should spoil the fun for the rest of you. (The puzzles are presented here without solution, because you’ll know when you get the right answer. You can find the answer to any of them online with a quick search… but don’t do that. You’ll feel much better if you solve it yourself.)

5. Dangerous Crossing

Rickety BridgeFour people come to a river in the middle of the night. There’s a narrow bridge, but it’s old and rickety and can only hold two people at a time. They have just one flashlight and, because it’s night and the bridge is in disrepair, the flashlight must be used when crossing the bridge. Aakash can cross the bridge in 1 minute, Britney in 2 minutes, Cedric in 5 minutes, and Deng in 8 minutes. When two people cross the bridge together, they must travel at the slower person’s pace. And they need to hurry, because zombies are approaching. (Oh, sorry, had I failed to mention the zombie apocalypse?) What is the least amount of time that all four people can cross the bridge?

And how can you be sure that your method is the fastest?

6. Weight of Weights

Marilyn has a simple balance scale and four small weights, each weighing a whole number of grams. With the balance scale and these weights, she is able to determine the weight of any object that weighs between 1 kg and 40 kg. How much does each of the four weights weigh?

7. Product Values

Assign each letter a value equal to its position in the alphabet, i.e., A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, …, Z = 26. Then for any common word, find its product value by multiplying the value of the letters in the word. For instance, the product value of CAT is 60, because 3 × 1 × 20 = 60.

  1. Find as many common English words as you can with a product value of 60.
  2. Find a common English word that has the same product value as your name. (A little tougher.)
  3. Find a common English word with a product value of 3,000,000. (Zoiks!)


8. The Three of Life

This one looks so innocent!

What’s the probability that a randomly chosen number will contain the digit 3?

But spend a little time with it. And prepare for. Mind. Blown.

9. Hip to Be (Almost) Square

No calculators for this one.

There are four positive numbers — 1, 3, 8, and x — such that the product of any two of them is one less than a square number. What is the least possible value of x?

No spreadsheets, either.

10. Hip to Be Square (Roots)

Just some good, old-fashioned algebra and logic to tackle this one.

Which of the following expressions has a greater value?

\sqrt{10} + \sqrt{11}  or  \sqrt{43}


11. Coming and Going

Potentially counterintuitive.

At the holidays, Leo drove to his grandma’s, and the traffic was awful! His average speed was 42 miles per hour. After the holidays, however, he drove home along the same route, and his average speed was 56 miles per hour. What was his average speed for the entire trip?

And, no, your first guess was most likely not correct.

12. The Year in Numbers

A moldy oldie, to be sure, but this puzzle is always a crowd-pleaser for those who haven’t seen it before.

Use the digits of the new year — 2, 0, 1, and 9 — and any mathematical operations to form the integers from 1 to 100. For instance, you can form 1 as follows: 2 × 0 × 9 + 1 = 1.

For an added challenge, add the restriction that you must use the four digits in order.

Bonus: A Book

My sons get sick when they read in the car. That’s why I love the two books Without Words and More Without Words by James Tanton. Literally, there are no words! Each puzzle is presented using a few examples, and then students must follow the same rules to solve a few similar, but more challenging, puzzles.

Without Words

Wherever you’re headed during the holiday break — driving to your relatives’ house, flying to Fort Lauderdale, or just relaxing at home — I hope your holidays are filled with joy, happiness, and lots of math!


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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks is available from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, NCTM, Robert D. Reed Publishers, and other purveyors of exceptional literature.

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