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Published on June 5th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen


Board Games & Word Problems

“Jane spent $42 for shoes.  This was $14 less than twice what she spent for a blouse.  How much was the blouse?”

Ahhh, word problems. Whether you’ve gone through school recently or it’s been a while, everyone is familiar with this feature of the math classroom. Word problems are ubiquitous because they reflect real life in some manner. Even though you would never be in a situation where you’d know that the price of your shoes is equal to (2x-14) the price of your blouse, the addition of a framing reference in the problem helps students learn how to convert real world situations into algebraic formula. Word problems give students metaphors they can relate to in order to help them understand the problem they are being asked to solve.

Why do we need metaphors for math problems anyways though? Can’t we just give students a list of algebra problems and have them solve as many as they can in a certain time limit? I guess we could do that, (I can feel the teachers who are reading this cringe at the thought) but story problems do have some great advantages over rote calculation.

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  1. It’s something atypical. In a well written story problem you can’t just pick out the numbers and crunch them into tidy solution. You have to read, analyze and interpret the story to properly figure out what the problem wants you to solve. There is an extra layer of puzzle that you have to wade through before you even get to the “real” puzzle.
  2. It allows for an easy entrance point. Anyone who can read the story can at least use their critical thinking skills to approach the problem. Whether or not they will come up with the right solution is probably based on their knowledge of the specific skill being tested, but theoretically you don’t need to understand math jargon to know what is being asked of you.
  3. It is more engaging to solve a well crafted story problem than it is to just look at numbers and calculate them. When faced with a compelling reason to be doing algebra, suddenly it feels like less of a chore and you might even discover yourself having fun.
  4. It encourages people to approach the problem from their own perspective. By letting the student critically evaluate the scenario, you’re allowing them room to think creatively and apply solutions in ways you may not have expected.

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Board game designers face a lot of the same challenges that math instructors face in schools. We have this cool little mechanical puzzle that we think is really neat- but how do you get others to also think it’s really neat? Some people will be compelled to the game just for an opportunity to engage in puzzles of any kind. But for most people, a compelling story will be what really engages them in the work, and without a story there isn’t much reason to be involved.

Stories for board games don’t have to be especially deep, but most games currently on the market could use a bit more depth. I previously wrote about what makes a better story, or theme, in board games. I look forward to continuing this discussion here as well. How important is a story to you while you play? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

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About the Author

Luke Turpeinen

was raised by lava wolves deep in the Vesuvian sulfur jungles. He played board games with his family often. The discovery of games like Risk led him to the 1993 TSR classic Dragon Strike which fueled a life long love of games. Luke tends to like games that have high production values, quick-to-learn rules and hard-to-master strategies. Current Favorite Game: Argent: the Consortium.

One Response to Board Games & Word Problems

  1. Joe Pilkus says:

    While I haven’t thought about the “ubiquitous” word problem for several decades, until my daughter started school. As a game designer and developer I find the story is important to capture the imagination of the players. I’m an old role-player (okay, I’m still a role-player), and while I move fluidly from the hex-and-counter war game genre to a game dripping with theme (Arkham Horror) to one that has been described as paper thin (Troyes), I find the story must be compelling…or at least easy enough for me to invent my own story.

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