Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Mathscades’s Board… and the Objectives of this Game Design

Okay, y’all. I’ve played this thing by myself a dozen times… and I’ve gotten through my second playtest sessions with real life players. It is something like a game, now. I am tuning and experimenting with a half dozen different things concurrently, so here are a few notes in a rapid-fire, disjointed fashion:

  • We have a board! The board was nowhere in my faintest imaginings when we started, but it is here now for several reasons. I want fewer accidents with people fumbling with the dice. I want to communicate clearly to the players what I want them to achieve… and I want objectives laid out clearly as an aid to their problem solving. All of this seems to be working.
  • My son did not like the changes I have made to get this far. He prefers the more freeform iterations of the game. The way I have set it up now… things require a little more thought than before and there are fewer opportunities for “chintzy” solutions. The game has slowed down somewhat and it has become more of a brain burner. So while my son does not like it as much… he’ll still play it and he is doing the things I want him to do from an educational standpoint.
  • Adults seem to get immersed in the problem solving. They are not asking for a second play… but they do try to think creatively and rack up a lot of points. They are not kicking the table over or giving me negative signals out of frustration… but there is room for improvement here.
  • Order of operations is the one aspect of this game that engenders the most conflict and argument. When rules are actually written down, I expect I will have to explain this in excruciating detail… and I’ll still have to settle confusion about it at the table. I’m pretty sure I want to fight this battle, though. I am not inclined to hand players an unlimited supply of parentheses for this thing– at least one other game has done that and I really dislike it.
  • I have some spaces marked “optional” on the board. I get questions about these during play, so I expect these will have to be factored out. The precise combination of expressions and their point values will have to be refined through testing… but the basic premise of the game seems to have settled down at this point.
  • I’m using Illuminati money to track points now. My son has asked me for things that it can be spent on. We’ll probably experiment with allowing players to buy more dice and/or increase the size of their dice. For the most part, though, keeping everyone using the same dice pool and keeping those dice as plain old six-siders just seems to work! (As much as I like the polyhedrals, they just don’t seem to add enough to the game to merit their inclusion as of yet.)
  • I have considered making this into a cooperative type game… but the way it stands now, there is no punishment for “crapping out” or “turtling.” The pressure of the other players triggering the end game condition is what’s holding things together. If I switch to a coop, I’ll have to add in a way to lose points or accrue penalties… and that just isn’t consistent with today’s zeitgeist.
  • And as far as the actual board design goes… I think I just realized that every player needs their own number track. When their points are still not nailed down, yet… they place the points beside the target number. When they end their turn without crapping out… they move the money onto the board. This seems like the easiest way to keep up with everything.

The rules have evolved into this now:

You throw six dice and from them, you try to make your target number. You make your target number by filling in dice on the board to create an expression that evaluates to it. Each correct expression that meets a target number scores a number of points as specified in the expression box. Your target number starts at one and goes up by one each time you make it– players may track this on the number track. If you use all of your dice in a throw to make target numbers, then you can reroll them all and keep going– but if you can’t make the next target number from that throw, you lose all the numbers and points you made that turn. The first person to 10 wins scores their points and ends the game. Whoever has the most points at this time wins the game.

Advanced Mathscade: Using all of the dice to create legal expressions for target numbers is called a Mathscade. When you reroll all of your dice, you will score double points with those dice! If you make a second Mathscade, then you score triple points for the next round. And so on….

This is fairly easy to explain in person, but writing iron clad rules with examples will take some work! I need to do some more testing before I do that, but it will of course have to be done before I can have the game blind tested.

A note about this game:

It’s a little early for designer’s notes, but if I ever get outside playtesters… I want them to know what I am trying to go for here so that they can make better contributions toward helping me achieve that end.

It’s a common thing for classically trained musicians to literally be afraid of composition and improvisation. They may be extremely proficient with their instruments, but they are just plain terrified of even noodling around over a twelve bar blues progression. This exact same thing is something that parallels a lot of peoples’ math education. Some people are highly trained calculators and manipulators that can crunch through problems that are already set up to have nice tidy answers… but they have no concept of the kind of creativity that is required in real life math, science, and engineering. It is my hope that this game will provide a painless arena for developing those kinds of thinking skills.

Another aspect of what I’m trying to impart is a greater degree of comfort with numbers in general. People tend not to master mental arithmetic anymore… and a great many teachers encourage this by arguing that everyone will have calculators whenever they need them. Taken to an extreme, this can lead an entire generation that is unable to check their answers because they cannot see at a glance that things got off track somewhere. They can punch numbers in on calculators… but they are functionally innumerate!

So yes, while it’s pretty obvious that I’m trying to provide an interesting way for kids to practice their times tables… it’s at least as important to me that they develop their ability to recognize patterns in numbers at a glance. About 80% of high school math is training the “recognition factor” and isn’t really problem solving at all. (To do well on the SAT, for instance… you need to recognize 3-4-5 and 5-12-13 triangles at a glance even when they’ve been obfuscated by a trivial transformation.) So the point of this game is to strengthen a child’s command of numbers in general so that they recognize number relationships at a glance while rapidly experimenting with various permutations of integers on the board. The ideal is that at some point they will develop a sort of number smell: “I can use up all of these digits this time… if only… aha!” The ability to combine a hunch with common sense and brute force is a key component to problem solving in general… and that’s what I want to develop here.

Lofty goals for a game that started out as an alternative to going through yet another set of flashcards…. Regardless of how well it works for all of this, this is at least what I have in mind.

5 responses to “Mathscades’s Board… and the Objectives of this Game Design

  1. Douglas Cole January 20, 2014 at 8:30 am

    Consider 10-siders, since that gets you the full 1-10 number set used in “real” math?

  2. morrisonmp January 20, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    It’s a really cool concept. I wonder though – you mention that adults got into the problem-solving but didn’t necessarily want to play again. Do you think that’s a function of it being “Math” or something deeper? I was reading a blog post… somewhere… the other day about just this concept and I wish I could remember the link for you. But it effectively examined games that were perfectly fine in terms of “playability” but the concept just didn’t get there.

    What about keeping the base gameplay but adding a layer on top that creates a “scenario” of some sort?

    • jeffro January 20, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      First… I’m generalizing from a very small sample size. Second… educational games are necessarily going to favor didactic elements over raw enjoyment. Third… things can still stand to be cleaned up… with whatever gameability that can be salvaged getting teased out in the process. And finally… which way I handle all of this is going to hinge on who emerges as the final target audience.

      By default, the standard for judging the game comes down to whether or not it’s more fun than trudging through the flash cards again. And there are limits to what I can do with this outside of radically changing the premise and the constraints. [Excuses, excuses…! Heh.]

      But getting that “I’d like to try that again” effect… that sure would be nice. I know Commands & Colors: Ancients nails it. Hmm… some sort of world or character or narrative side effects could do something for this. The Candy Crush and Bubble Blaster type games that my wife plays have a little of that, but they’re still pretty abstract. Here’s my best guess. It’s the cascading awesomeness that is what’s fun about those games… and what’s so attractive about what I’m kicking around. I think I need to experiment with that some more and make sure it’s present and working.

  3. Pingback: The “Learning Game Design” Online Course from Lewis Pulsipher | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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