Games that require math skills but don't beat you over the head w/them
September 16, 2020 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for video games that require math skills, especially ones where a player could conceivably need to learn a bit of math in order to be more successful at the game, but that are not blatantly "educational" - one litmus test I'm thinking of is whether a kid would just start playing the game if you gave it to them, and they wouldn't roll their eyes and complain that it looks like something their teacher would give them. A few examples inside.

The one game that springs to mind is SimCity. It's super fun in general, but if you have some budgeting/planning skills, you'll be better at the game. Examples of what I'm not looking for include Number Munchers (for the older crowd) and Sushi Monster (for the younger crowd) - they are actually kind of fun, but they sort of beat you over the head that they're trying to teach you math.

Final note, in case it's relevant: I'm a professional test prep instructor, so I spend a lot of my time trying to teach adults math. The level of math skills of some of my students upon entering my class leaves something to be desired, even though my students are on the whole a bright bunch. I feel like video games are a nice (insidious, but in a positive sense?) way to teach math skills early. Plus I have some time on my hands, so I'm thinking about programming a game, and I want to do a survey of the competitive landscape before I dive in.
posted by rjacobs to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Logical journey of the Zoombinis is my first thought, but it's old enough now I'm not sure that you can find/ play it. Loved it as a kid though. Plus it's more logic than traditional math, technically.
posted by stillnocturnal at 10:18 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

Cities: Skylines is a SimCity type game that is more modern and pretty popular.

Pretty much any RTS or MOBA game (Starcraft, League of Legends) is going to have some of this -- as you have various resource counters ticking up and various costs for spending things. Basic arithmetic (I have 1200 minerals, how many buildings can I build) and a sort of intuition for stocks, flows, and rates (I am getting 3 gold every second, how long until I have enough gold to buy X) seem important..
posted by vogon_poet at 10:22 AM on September 16

Kerbal Space Program. You can use the in-game tools to estimate fuel/weight/thrust/etc costs needed for various maneuvers and orbits, but if you don't want to trial-and-error or over-design your rockets, you need to dig into the math a bit. There are add-ons/mods you can download to do the calculations for you.

Any game that benefits from optimization. I think of MMOs, here, in terms of what your DPS or heal skill rotations should be to maximize the utility your mana/whatever provides. Or what quests/raids/etc you should do with a limited amount of playtime (could do systems of equations for experience, gold, rare drops, etc)
posted by curious nu at 10:24 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

Stardew Valley. It's incredibly amenable to optimization, and also completely age appropriate for anyone old enough to play.

Also traditional roguelikes (e. g. Nethack, DCSS) have lots of math and understanding the systems is key to winning. Plus they are mostly all free and can be played on virtually any platform, DCSS shines here with easy online play in a browser.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:58 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

Oxygen Not Included is an adorable base building game that's like HVAC with logic gates and rockets. I had to quit it because I spent almost as many hours playing it as I did working over the course of a year. (I mean, pandemic and all, but still I'm talking 2000+ hours.) It's a very spreadsheet-able game, the more you explore the supply chain math the better your outcome.

The game Shenzhen I/O might run afoul of your not being beaten over the head requirement. I had so much fun with it, even though it's basically the same as the job I do in real life. Check out the other things by Zachtronics too, there might be one there that hits the sweet spot.

RE the last part of your post: Any game that has a quest for three of something (for example) but the crafting recipe is for 1 of that thing has me reaching for the scratch paper without even thinking. I suppose one could fill a game full of things like that on purpose.
posted by Horkus at 11:23 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Slay the Spire is a deckbuilding game that requires the player to calculate how much damage you can deal and how much you can receive every turn. It's no more than basic arithmetic but being lazy about it is probably the top 1 run killer.
posted by simmering octagon at 11:48 AM on September 16

While not strictly a computer game: Cribbage -- throwing your hand and doing the count for pegging (not *that* kind of pegging) requires math skills. There are some well-done app versions that require you to count your hand yourself.
posted by chiefthe at 12:27 PM on September 16

Dicey Dungeons has you doing a lot of simple arithmetic.

Lots of modern board games have you weighing different actions to score "victory points" which involves a lot of abstract thinking with numbers, and sometimes graph theory -- Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, etc.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:38 PM on September 16

A lot of my mental math skills came from playing tabletop wargames in middle school — lots of thinking on the fly about what values to expect from rolling different combinations of dice, and lots of adding up hit points or damage or modifiers of different kinds. I'm not sure what the computer game equivalent of that would be. (I assume all computer RPGs do the math for you?) But it might still be a useful data point.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:53 PM on September 16

My son wrote a bunch of python scripts to do orbital calculations for Kerbal Space Program.
posted by rikschell at 4:52 PM on September 16

A lot of the games listed above *can* involve a lot of math, but mostly at a deeper or optimized level. (I've played many of the recommendee games and love them, and whilst I'm an engineer and taking computer science degree for fun, I don't "math it" unless absolutely necessary. A lot of those can totally avoid a lick of math if someone isn't keen.)

Honestly, I find board and card games more likely to integrate math smoothly. You want basic addition and subtraction? Magic Arena or Hearthstone (there are a few other digital card games, of course. The genre relies on basic math though.) Slay the Spire is fantastic for it. The mental math is simple but it gets a lot of brain reps in. Miniature wargames are amazing for doing addition and subtraction in the 1-30 range, lol. Board games teach loads of different discrete math topics, depending on what you're looking for.

Kerbal is fantastic for more complex skills, beyond mental math and going into geometry. I love it, but it can hit you over the head with math a bit.
posted by aggyface at 7:02 PM on September 16

posted by LiverOdor at 10:18 PM on September 17

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