“If I were again beginning my studies, I would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics.” —Galileo Galilei, Italian physicist, 16th century CE
There are plenty of board games out there that are specifically educational math games for children. We’ve seen some fantastic examples that kids absolutely love, but they also may leave the adults in the group a little less enthused.
Today we’re looking at board games that involve arithmetic, mathematical operations, or mathematical reasoning. Some of these games may not look like math games to the untrained eye but will get you practicing a variety of mathematical operations while actually having fun.
Board games are a great way to spend quality time with your friends and family. The games we’ve compiled below have the added bonus of painless practice with logic, pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, problem-solving, and visual perception. If you’re looking for an engaging way to help your gaming group (of all ages) practice their math concepts and skills then look no further!
Math Board Games for Younger Children
Kids now are so lucky. When I was young, practicing math meant doing drill worksheets for hours after school every day. It neither instilled a love for math nor particularly helped me with my math skills. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Today, there are countless board games available that have been created specifically to give early learners a fun experience learning and reinforcing important math concepts.
Zeus on the Loose
“For know that no one is free, except Zeus.” —Aeschylus, Greek playwright, 5th century BCE
Playing Time: 15 min.
The king of the gods has fled Mount Olympus and is on-the-run. It’s up to you to grab this mischevious diety and return him to his rightful place. As players discard cards, keep track of the discard total. On multiples of 10, you can grab Zeus and make a break for it! Players can also summon the strength of the other gods, like Apollo, Poseidon, and Hera to bring Zeus into their grasp. These Greek God cards have different abilities, such as changing the value of the discard pile or allowing players to “steal Zeus”.
To play is human. To win, divine.
Zeus on the Loose is a fun and educational board game for players age 8 and up that teaches strategic thinking and addition and subtraction skills. The goal of the game is to be the first player to reach Mount Olympus with Zeus in-hand and become immortal among the gods!
There is a fair amount of strategy in this quick and lighthearted game. Tip for newbies: Have younger children pair up with an adult as a team. This will allow younger kids to get to hold Zeus and practice their math skills while leaving the strategy to the older players and avoiding frustration. If you love Greek mythology and have 15 minutes to spare, give Zeus on the Loose a try!
Math Elements: Strategic thinking, addition and subtraction skills.
Incan Gold (Diamant)
“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.” —Frank Borman
Playing Time: 30 min.
Incan Gold (or Diamant) is a push-your-luck board game that gives players a fun object lesson in probability. In this game, you’ll be playing the part of an Indiana Jones-style relic hunter exploring ancient ruins in the depths of the jungle. You and your expedition team will explore the rooms by flipping over one card at a time, gathering more treasure as you progress. But wait! There are terrifying dangers such as snakes and giant spiders that only get more terrifying the further you go. If you don’t turn back in time, the whole expedition team (and all of the treasure) will be lost.
Will you decide to cut your losses and go back to base camp? Or will you press on, despite the dangers, to get your hands on more loot?
Math Elements: Division with remainders and probability.
“Equations are the lifeblood of applied mathematics and science.” — Thomas L. Saaty, Professor, University of Pittsburg, 20th century
Playing Time: 5-30 min.
Fluxx is one of those games that you either love or hate. It’s built on a system that of pure randomization. Players start the game by drawing a card and playing a card. As cards are played, more rules are added and ending criteria shifts multiple times throughout the game. To win, players need to have a set of specific cards played in front of them called Keepers. The Keepers need to match up with the goal in order to win.
The math version of Fluxx replaces the pop culture Keepers with integers. Players need to flex their math skills in order to build up a set of Keepers that match the equations on the goal card. It will tell you specifically what you need while teaching math terminology and skills throughout the game.
Math Elements: Math terminology, integers, equation matching. Also, it has “math” in the title.
Playing Time: 15 min.
Tsuro is an excellent lightweight game. It’s one of those perfect starter games to get people in the mood for a gaming session. It’s incredibly quick to learn and draws heavily on spatial reasoning. It’s almost meditative to play.
Tsuro is all about paths. Players start in different sections at the edge of the board. Players then take turns placing tiles and following the paths that they build. You’ll quickly run into the “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” mentality, because you’ll eventually run into other players’ sections of the board. Clever players will also be able to corner others and lay traps within their paths. The only real rule is that it has to be connected to your own path. If you run into anyone else or if you run off the edge, you lose.
Spatial Reasoning & Pattern Recognition
You won’t be busting out the calculator for Tsuro but you’ll notice the heavy focus on spatial reasoning, patterns, and multi-step problems. You’ll need to be completely aware of all of the paths forming on the board and how you can insert yourself into each pathway. It helps players think ahead several turns which is a necessary skill in many academic endeavors.
For example, when Bryan was taking the AFOQT (Air Force Officer Qualifying Test) there were actually several sections of the exam that dealt with spatial reasoning and how quickly you can identify and form patterns under stressful situations. Those sections always reminded him of Tsuro.
Math Elements: Multi-step problem solving, spatial reasoning, patterns, graph theory.
Math Board Games for Older Kids
One of the coolest things about board games is their ability to teach without making players feel like they are suffering through an academic lesson in school. As a former substitute teacher for grades K-12, I can honestly say that board games have saved my life.
Growing up, I had a very love-hate relationship with mathematics and was definitely more inclined to the humanities. Therefore, when I got called to sub for a math class and had no idea what I was doing, math board games came to the rescue. The junior high and high school students had a great time, stayed engaged, and also helped each other learn throughout the classes. Phew! I was saved.
Playing Time: 60-90 min.
Stone Age is one of my favorite worker placement games. In Stone Age, players take control of a small group of villagers in the Stone Age. Players need to manage their resources to feed their villagers, grow their population, and build huts for their village. Each player controls how the village grows and what path to victory they’re going to take.
- Do you want to spend the first few rounds making babies and swarm the board? (Remember, you’ll still have to feed your larger population.)
- Do you mitigate the randomness of dice by building tools?
- Do you go for a high agricultural level, so you can ignore hunting/gathering?
- Do you focus on building to trigger an early end game?
- Do you become a powerhouse of trade and collect all of the cards for an end game victory?
There are a lot of options in Stone Age and I have played it enough times that I’ve lost and won with all of those strategies. Even with a ton of playthroughs under my belt, I still manage to try out something new every time I play.
There’s a lot of planning that goes into managing a village. You could say it takes a village… Okay, I’m not sorry for that one.
Management of Resources & Arithmetic
Seriously though, you’ll need to manage all of the food and use some minor arithmetic to obtain resources. Every meeple that is assigned to a position represents a die that you can roll to obtain resources. The total number is divided by the resource value to determine how many resources you’ll receive.
It’s a simple mechanic that allows some of the younger crowd to practice simple division in their head. It also allows the older crowd to feel a little dumb at 3AM after their fourth game of Stone Age in a row. Math can be hard at 3AM.
Tracking and managing resources also require a bit of mathematical skill. You can sometimes gamble on turns by setting workers out to gather resources and then building immediately after. Sometimes it works and sometimes the dice gods hate you.
If you haven’t tried Stone Age I highly recommend it on all accounts. It’s one of my favorites. It’s also great with 3 players.
Math Elements: Resource management, set collection, arithmetic to determine resources and calculate victory points.
Playing Time: 90 min.
I first played Tikal while visiting my cousin in California. He outmaneuvered me in short order but I couldn’t let that be the final word. We must have played 5 times that night and each time I discovered new possibilities to further my exploration goals (and block his). Finally… I won.
In Tikal, players race to uncover the ruins of Tikal and loot all that sweet, sweet treasure. Players will have a limited number of actions and work to uncover the various temples. Players can be highly-strategic and block off certain pathways, leaving them with all of the loot. However, they can also inadvertently lock themselves out of areas.
Multi-Step Problem-Solving & Optimization
This one is a little more abstract in a mathematical sense. It requires players to make decisions on where they’re going to commit resources and workers and which areas make the most sense. By planning ahead and calculating their moves, players will be able to optimize their search through Tikal and identify which spots will have the most amount of victory points available to them.
The high level of strategy required in Tikal is perfect for players who like to optimize all of their moves to try and get the perfect score. There’s always going to be an optimal move/solution to problems and it’ll be up to you to figure out what it is.
Math Elements: Requires mathematical decisions to acquire resources.
Playing Time: 20 min.
Love Letter is one of my favorite quick card games. We’ve taken it out while traveling and met some new friends in airports while playing. We take it out to cafes and bars too. It’s a great travel game that’s very easy to teach and learn, not to mention it’s a lot of fun.
In Love Letter, players must attempt to give their personal love letter to the Princess. Every player has one card in their hand, which represents who currently is holding their love letter. The last player standing or the person with the highest card at the end of a round wins. It’s designed to be quick and played in several rounds, so it’s perfect for fast-paced gameplay.
Deduction, Probability, & Card Counting
A lot of the cards rely on players’ deductive skills and their ability to narrow down the cards that are still in play. There’s always at least one card removed from the deck every round so players will always have the possibility of guessing an incorrect card.
There’s a lot of logic and reasoning built into the rules, which are necessary skills for a lot of higher math proficiencies. It’s also just a really fun game to play that can literally fit into your back pocket.
Math Elements: Logic, deduction, probability and memory components.
Math Board Games for Everyone Else
Math can really be fun for all ages! Educational math games are not just for kids trying to improve their grades in math class. Anyone can benefit from the merits of these challenging and fun games while brushing up on analytical, statistical, and logic-based math skills.
Playing Time: 120 min.
Power Grid is one of the quintessential Eurogames that has hit the board gaming mainstream. Don’t worry though, there’s a reason these newer games are hitting the mainstream. It’s because they’re amazing fun, and highly accessible to newer audiences. You just need to ignore your inner hipster.
Economic Management & Efficiency
Power Grid is all about management. Players must race to connect the most cities to their network of power plants. There are a lot of different aspects to juggle. You’ll need to make the most efficient system and balance all of the resources needed to run your energy network. It’s a game that offers a lot of different options without giving players enough time to complete their vision of perfect energy distribution, so there’s always going to be players clamoring for another round to try a new strategy.
Power Grid basically allows you to manage a miniature economy. You’ll need to bid on resources, think economically when making all decisions, and focus on efficiency of resources. If I had half of the skills needed to play Powergrid when I was younger my bank account would be much much happier…
There’s a reason Power Grid has quickly become a classic and a strategic powerhouse in the board gaming community.
Math Elements: Economic decision-making, multi-step problem-solving related to efficiency and resource management, and auction/bidding.
Playing Time: 40-80 min.
Entering the land of 1001 nights in your caravan, the stars have aligned and fortune has smiled on you. The old sultan has died and control of the city-state of Naqala is without a ruler! Prophecies have foretold of a stranger coming to maneuver the five tribes, invoke the Djinns, and gain control of the legendary land. Will you be the next sultan?
The first time I played Five Tribes I was absolutely blown away by the sheer number of possibilities in this game. There are so many different paths to victory and each one is valid. It’s a little overwhelming the first time you play but it’s so worth it. Five Tribes is one of those games that I can play over and over again, while simultaneously trying a new strategy every time.
Five Tribes uses a Mancala mechanic, in which all of the meeple tokens are picked up and moved across the board by placing one on each intermediary tile. The last meeple to be placed is then activated if it matches a color on the end tile.
Resource Management & Optimization Analysis
To be successful, players will need to plan ahead several turns, manage resources, and calculate not only how many meeples will be needed to reach a spot, but they’ll also need to ensure they’re not creating openings for other players. To add even more numbers and calculations into the mix, there are Djinns that grant special abilities throughout the game, so calculating whether the resources to acquire them are worth the effort is another thing you’ll need to juggle around in your head.
This game was introduced to us by our friend, Lewis, who is a min/max gamer and it’s incredibly challenging (but very rewarding) to play Five Tribes with him. Listening to him talk through his turns was mind-blowing. He’s a highly analytical gamer and every turn he would try and analyze every possibility. Just listening to him talk made me realize I was aiming low with my moves.
Always take another look at the board. Chances are you’re missing something simply because there are so many options to choose from. Like I said earlier, it’s a little overwhelming at first.
Math Elements: Spatial reasoning, resource management, multi-step problem-solving.
Playing Time: 30-45 min.
Sagrada is a gorgeous game. In Sagrada, players use different colored dice to form stain glass windows. Sagrada is an interesting game that has a high replayability value. Each player receives a board with a set pattern on it. Every turn, players will draft dice and attempt to complete the patterns on their boards worth the highest amount of points.
It’s not as simple as putting down the prettiest dice into a pattern. Dice can only be placed in certain locations. Only specific colors and numbers of pips can be placed in any spot. Every die placed will further affect your board, making your initial choices easy but progressively harder as the game continues.
Patterns, Probability, & Statistics
Whenever you deal with dice you always end up dealing with probability and statistics. Dice are inherently mathematical on a very basic level. Players must keep track of the colors of dice and how many are still available. There’s no sense relying on a dice/color combination that has a low probability of showing up.
How you build up the patterns on the board will also drastically affect the outcome of a game. If you start building willy nilly then you may run into some roadblocks during the end game. This game is one of my favorite dice games and will keep you and your family entertained for quite some time.
Math Elements: Multi-step thinking, pattern recognition, logic and deduction, number sense, and probability.
It’s hard to overstate the value of board games when it comes to learning, decision making, problem-solving, and logical reasoning. For this reason, it is not surprising to see more and more games added to academic curricula for students of all ages, at schools all over the world.
People of all ages learn by doing and board games are a great way to teach math in a hands-on and less abstract way. In our experience as teachers, Bryan and I have both seen the incredible power of board games in the classroom, particularly among less-academically-inclined students. With board games, learning truly becomes fun and previous difficulties for some now become interesting challenges, waiting to be explored.
There are many more games we wanted to add to this list such as:
- Sushi Go! Party in which players must often weigh multiple scoring methods and the probable contents of future hands into their immediate decision making.
- SET: The Family Game of Visual Perception, a classic game that imparts the valuable skills of pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and logic.
- Ticket to Ride, a train route-building game that involves multi-step problem-solving and resource management.
- Battle Line, a great option for older kids that offers practice with the mathematical concepts of set collection, deduction, abstract thinking, poker logic, and mathematical proofs.
- Prime Climb in which players are challenged to exercise their skills in primes and operational fluency. It’s a quick and fun way to practice arithmetic and math facts.
…we just simply had to stop somewhere. We’d love to hear about your experiences with math-related board games, both in the classroom and at home. Drop a comment below and let us know what you think!