Posts tagged ‘game’

Don’t Believe the HIPE

Let’s get this party started with a classic word puzzle.

What English word contains four consecutive letters that appear consecutively in the alphabet?

In Mathematical Mind-Benders (AK Peters, 2007), Peter Winkler describes how the puzzle above served as inspiration for a word game.

I and three other high-school juniors at a 1963 National Science Foundation summer program began to fire letter combinations at one another, asking for a word containing that combination… the most deadly combinations were three or four letters, as in GNT, PTC, THAC and HEMU. We named the game after one of our favorite combinations, HIPE.

This seemed like a good game to play with my sons. I explained the game, and then I gave them a simple example to be sure they understood.


They quickly generated a long list of solutions, including:

  • tERm
  • obsERver
  • fishERman
  • buckminstERfullerene

Since that introduction a few weeks ago, the boys and I have played quite a few games. It’s a good activity to pass the time on a long car ride. The following are some of my favorites:


(these two are fun in tandem)

(the game’s namesake is a worthy adversary)


The practice with my sons has made me a better-than-average HIPE player, so when I recently found myself needing to keep my sons busy while I prepared dinner, I offered the following challenge:

Create a HIPE for me that you think is difficult, and I’ll give you a nickel for every second it takes me to solve it.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Eli attacked the problem with gusto. Fifteen minutes later, he announced, “Daddy, I have a HIPE for you,” and presented me with this:


That was three days ago. Sure, I could use More Words or some other website to find the answer, but that’s cheating. Winkler wrote, “Of course, you can find solutions for any of them easily on your computer… But I suggest trying out your brain first.”

The downside to relying on my brain? This is gonna cost me a fortune.

For your reading enjoyment, I’ve created the following HIPEs. They are roughly in order from easy to hard, and as a hint, I’ll tell you that there is a common theme among the words that I used to create them.

  1. MPL
  2. XPR
  3. YMM
  4. MSCR
  5. MPT
  6. ITESI
  7. NSV
  8. RIGON
  9. OEFF
  10. CTAH
  11. THME
  12. SJU
  13. TRAH (bonus points for finding more than one)

Winkler tells the story of how HIPE got him into Harvard. He wrote “The HIPE Story” as the essay on his admissions application, and four years later, he overheard a tutor who served on the admissions committee torturing a colleague with HIPEs and calling them HIPEs.

I can’t promise that HIPEs will get you into college, but hopefully you’ll have a little fun.

April 9, 2015 at 10:17 pm 2 comments

The Game of POP

No one knows how to live a funky life more than Prince:

Life, it ain’t real funky
Unless it’s got that pop

Need a little extra pop in your life? Here’s a game you can play.

Create a game board consisting of n adjacent squares. Here’s a board for n = 10:

POP Board

Still with me? Good.

The rules of POP are rather straightforward.

  1. Players alternate turns, placing either an O or a P in any unoccupied square.
  2. The winner is the first player to spell the word POP in three consecutive squares.

I first learned this game using O’s and S’s and trying to spell SOS, but for young kids, O’s and P’s are much better… the accidental occurrences of POO and POOP add a certain je ne sais quoi. (But not as much as foreign phrases add to a sentence about feces.)

Alex and Eli played this game tonight on the board shown above. After six turns, the game was decided. (As you can see, an accidental POO occurred in squares 6‑8. I mean an accidental occurrence of the word POO, not an actual occurrence of POO itself. If the latter had happened, the game would have ended immediately, and I wouldn’t be writing about it now.) It was Alex’s turn, and he realized that he lost: playing either an O or a P in squares 3‑4 would give Eli the win, and playing either an O or P in squares 9‑10 would just delay the inevitable.

POP - Losing Position

“So, what’re you gonna do?” I asked.

Alex added an O to the third square, shrugged, and handed the pencil to Eli.

POP - Alex's Loss

A coward dies a thousand deaths; the valiant die but once.

In that game, Alex went first and lost. So an immediate question:

  • Will the second player always win when n = 10?

This then leads to follow-up questions:

  • Are there other values of n such that the second player has a winning strategy?
  • Are there any values of n such that the first player has a winning strategy?
  • Are there values of n for which neither player has a winning strategy?

If you’d like to play a game of POP, then head over to The Game of POP spreadsheet on Google Drive, email the link to your friend, and start adding O’s and P’s. Feel free to change the size of the game board, too! Just please be a sweetie — when you finish, clear all your letters, reset the size of the game board to 10 squares, and be sure all the directions are retained at the top of the page.


March 24, 2015 at 7:28 pm 1 comment

Think of a Number

I love to create math games almost as much as I love to play them.

Calculation NationMy favorite professional project was leading the development of Calculation Nation. And my favorite game on the site is neXtu, though other games on the site may promote more sophisticated mathematical thinking.

I have many reasons to love my wife, not least of which is her creation of the game Dollar Nim. While I can’t take credit for the rules, I will take credit for its analysis and its popularization. (What do you call a wife who makes up a game that gets you a publication credit? A keeper!)

DragonboxRecently, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of games for teaching algebra. I’ll give props to the good folks at Dragonbox, which uses a game environment to teach algebra. But I’m not yet convinced that it leads to deep algebraic understanding; even they admit “to transfer to pencil and paper, children must be explained how to rewrite equations line by line.” They also claim that “in-house preliminary tests indicate a very high level of transfer to pencil and paper,” but that’s the fox watching the henhouse.

So I’ve been thinking about games I can play with my sons that will allow them to engage in algebraic thinking. But I don’t want them to know they’re engaging in algebraic thinking. I have two criteria for all math games:

  • The game mechanics depend on mathematics. The math is not tangential to the game; it is the game.
  • Kids don’t realize (or at least they don’t care) that it’s a math game, because it’s fun.

It pains me to write that second criterion, because math is fun. But I know not everyone shares that opinion. So I do my best to disguise any math learning in the game and then, when they least expect it — BOOM! — I drop the bomb and show them what they’ve learned.

So here’s a game I recently devised.

  • Player A chooses a number.
  • Player B chooses two operations for Player A to perform on the number.
  • Player A performs those operations and then tells the result to Player B.
  • Player B then tries to identify Player A’s number.

These rules leave something to be desired, since Player B could simply ask A to “multiply by 1” and then “add 0,” in which case finding A’s number would involve no work whatsoever. To be a stickler, an additional rule could impose that either addition or subtraction can be used exactly once and that no operation can involve either 0 or 1. In a middle school classroom, I suppose I would state such a rule explicitly; for playing this game with my seven-year-old sons, I opted not to.

We played this game three times on the car ride to school yesterday. One game went like this:

  • I thought of a number (14).
  • Eli asked me to add 3 to my number.
  • Alex asked me to multiply by 3.
  • I told them the result: 51.

Eli then guessed that my number was 16. He had subtracted 3, then divided by 3.

“No!” said Alex. “You added 3 first, so you need to subtract 9.”

“Why 9?” Eli asked. “Daddy only added 3.”

“But he multiplied by 3, so if you subtract first, you have to subtract 3 × 3.”

Eli then realized that my number was 14.

He thought for a second. “Oh,” he said. “I should have divided by 3 first, then subtracted.”

Wow, I thought. This is going even better than I hoped.

Though they didn’t use the proper terminology, the boys had a great discussion about “undoing” operations by performing inverse operations in reverse order. In 10 minutes, they taught themselves how to solve a two-step equation:

3x + 3 = 51

Grace Kelemanik once said that she knew she was being effective when she didn’t have to say a word. She’d watch from the back of the room as students carried the conversation and guided one another to correct mathematical thinking.

I will never claim to be half the educator that Grace Kelemanik is. But yesterday morning, I was pretty darn effective.

I’d love to hear about math games you’ve played with kids, whether you invented them or not.

August 15, 2014 at 11:43 pm 4 comments

Improving a Math Game

One Less BoardIt was 7:02 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Alex ran into my bedroom and woke me from an incredible dream — I was speaking to Riemann, Newton, Pascal, and several other dead mathematicians, and they were just about to reveal an odd perfect number.

“Deedy!” he yelled — somehow daddy has been transformed to deedy in my house — and I sat bolt upright.

“What?” I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

“Do you know what 58 × 46 is?”

“I have no idea,” I told him. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, either,” he said. “But it was one of the questions Eli gave me on this morning’s math quiz.”

A few minutes later, he had the answer to that exercise and several others that appeared on the quiz that his brother had created for him.

This is what my twin six-year-olds do. They give each other math quizzes. With two-digit multiplication exercises and slightly more complex combinatorics problems (“How many two-digit numbers don’t have a 3 in them?”). For fun.

So when they recently brought home a math game from school called One Less — in which each player rolls a die and has to place a token on a number that is “one less” — my only thought was, “Really?”

Verbatim, here are the directions to the game:

Each player gets 10 counters. Players take turns rolling a die and placing a counter on a number that is one less than the number rolled. The game ends when one player has placed all 10 counters.

Upon reading the directions, I had one question: RUFKM?

Let’s review.

  1. Kids who perform multi-digit multiplication for fun are asked to do single-digit subtraction for homework.
  2. The game ends when one player uses all his counters. Mind you, no one actually wins — the game just ends.

Well, this will never do.

I opted not to send a note to the teacher about how they need to increase the rigor of their mathematics curriculum. Doing so would just make me that guy.

Instead, I decided to turn a bad game into a good game. So we modified the rules as follows:

On a turn, a player rolls a die and places a coin on a space with a value one less than the number rolled. Players alternate turns. A player earns a point each time she gets three of her coins in a row. Game ends when one player has used all 10 coins. The winner is the player with the most points.

This allowed for all kinds of interesting questions:

  • What’s the maximum possible score in a game?
  • What’s the best arrangement of numbers on the game board?
  • Will the first player always win?
  • How does the game change if points are awarded for two-in-a-row or four-in-a-row?
  • How does the game change if scoring gives 1 point for one-in-a-row, 3 points for two-in-a-row, 6 points for three-in-a-row, 10 points for four-in-a-row, and so on?
  • How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

We determined the answer to the first question (8 points), and we agreed that we didn’t much care to know the answer to the last question. It seems like the first player shouldn’t always win; but he did in all of the games that we played.

As for the best arrangement of the game board, I have no idea. But if you’d like to explore, several game boards are included in the PDF link below.

One Less Game Boards

What modifications have you made to games to improve them or to make them more mathematically robust?

April 15, 2014 at 8:16 pm 1 comment

Two Simple Math Games

In his article “What Is the Name of This Game?” author John Mahoney discussed the mathematics of the following game:

Cards numbered 1-9 are placed face up on a table. Two players alternate picking up one card at a time. The winner is the first player who has exactly three cards with a sum of 15.

You can play this game with nine cards removed from a deck of cards, or you can play online by going to The online version is a one-player game, but it has modifications that use different numbers of cards, different values on the cards, and different required sums.

Can you find the winning strategy for this game? (Hint: The strategy is described in the linked article above.)

Here’s a modification of the game that seems interesting, too.

Use cards with the following numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, 36. The winner is the first player who has exactly three cards with a product of 216.

The optimal strategy for this game is different than the strategy from the original game. Can you find it?

Note: For the original game, there are eight sets of three cards with a sum of 15:

{1, 5, 9}, {1, 6, 8}, {2, 4, 9}, {2, 5, 8},
{2, 6, 7}, {3, 4, 8}, {3, 5, 7}, {4, 5, 6}

For the modification, there are 36 sets of three cards with a product of 216.

Perhaps that fact will help you identify the optimal strategy.

March 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm Leave a comment

Swish, Swash, I Was Doin’ Some Math

I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I know who I want to be. That would be Bill Ritchie, owner and founder of Thinkfun®, a company that makes and markets games and puzzles, including the wildly popular Rush Hour® game.

OSwishur house has recently become addicted to SwishTM, one of Thinkfun’s newest games. Swish is a spatial card game played with transparent cards that can be rotated and flipped to make swishes. Swishes — named after the sound made by a perfect basketball shot going through the net — are made by layering as few as two or as many as 12 cards so that every ball swishes into a hoop of the same color.

For instance, the two cards below can be combined to make a swish. The orange dot on the left card aligns with the orange hoop on the right, and the blue hoop on the left aligns with the blue dot on the right, which forms a double swish when the cards are placed one on top of the other.

Swish - Double

Here’s a more advanced example. These four cards can be layered to make a quadruple swish:


The examples above show the cards in perfect alignment. They just have to be placed one on top of another for the dots and hoops to align. What makes the game fun and challenging is that cards typically aren’t in perfect alignment like this. One or more of the cards will have to be flipped or rotated to make a swish. In addition, the set-up arranges 16 cards in a 4 × 4 grid, so the two complementary cards are rarely next to one another. Consequently, the game uses all three geometric transformations — reflections, rotations, and translations.

Each card contains one hoop and one dot. These two objects are placed in one of 12 regions — each card is divided into an imaginary 4 × 3 grid. Theoretically, it’s possible to make a 12-tuple swish… though I’ve yet to pull off such a feat during a game.

There are a number of interesting math questions that can be asked about the game:

  • Will there always be a swish in any 4 × 4 array of cards?
  • The deck contains 60 cards. Does that account for every possible combination of hoops and dots? [The answer is obviously no, but that leads to some interesting follow-up questions.] How many different cards are possible? Finding the total isn’t as trivial as it sounds, since cards can be rotated or flipped; duplicates need to be removed. Which cards were included in the deck, which ones were excluded, and why?
  • How many different double swishes can be formed by the cards in the deck? How many triple swishes? … How many 12-tuple swishes?

I don’t have answers to all of those questions yet. But I look forward to discussing them (and others) when I introduce Swish to some colleagues at an upcoming math conference!

January 6, 2013 at 6:06 am Leave a comment

Science Word Game for Road Trips

For your next road trip, a fun, family-friendly game… especially if your family tree has a lot of geeky branches.

Couldn’t be simpler:
Combine abbreviations from the periodic table to create a word.

For instance, you could combine the abbreviations for barium and rutherfordium to make BaRf.

Or use chromium, iodine, titanium, carbon, and aluminum to make CrITiCAl.

Or my current favorite — combine titanium, platinum, oxygen, and einsteinium to form TiPtOEs. How fun!

Post your longest words in the comments. (If you choose to write a computer program to find the longest possible word, please don’t spoil everyone else’s fun.)

Uber-geeks will want to use a formula such as

Points = 3 × No. of Letters + 5 × No. of Elements Used

to score the game. And you can if you like; play ten rounds, and highest score wins. But I say just have fun, make words, and impress everyone riding in the car with you!

You might find the following lists helpful.

Single-Letter Abbreviations:
B, C, F, H, I, K, N, O, P, S, U, V, W, Y

Two-Letter Abbreviations, With A Vowel:
Ac, Ag, Al, Am, Ar, As, At, Au, Ba, Be, Bh, Bi, Bk, Br, Ca, Ce, Co, Cu, Er, Es, Eu, Fe, Ga, Ge, He, Ho, In, Ir, La, Li, Lu, Mo, Na, Ne, Ni, No, Os, Pa, Po, Pu, Ra, Re, Ru, Se, Si, Ta, Te, Ti, Xe

Two-Letter Abbreviations, No Vowel:
Cd, , Cf, Cl, Cm, , Cp, Cr, Cs, Db, Ds, Dy, Fm, Fr, Gd, Hf, Hg, Hs, Kr, Lr, Md, Mg, Mn, Mt, Nb, Nd, Np, Pb, Pd, Pm, Pr, Pt, Rb, Rf, Rg, Rh, Rn, Sb, Sc, Sg, Sm, Sn, Sr, Tb, Tc, Th, Tl, Tm, Yb, Zn, Zr

Three-Letter Abbreviations:
Uuh, Uuo, Uup, Uuq, Uus, Uut

Periodic Table

Click Image for Larger Version

October 17, 2012 at 6:45 pm 2 comments

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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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