On parents, children, and a newborn book of mathematical games.

So my third book comes out today. (It’s the one in the middle.)

It has been hailed as “huge,” “massive,” “huge,” “hefty,” and “it’s huge.” Also, it “reveals where the fun has been lurking all along” (per my science hero Sean Carroll), is “enormously beautiful” (per my teaching hero Patrick Honner), and works “like a pill pocket for math” (per my creative hero Allie Brosh). My pals at The Aperiodical just published a lovely review, and excerpts will be coming soon at Ars Technica, FiveThirtyEight’s The Riddler, and Alex’s Bellos puzzle column at The Guardian. It’s absurd luck that I get to make these things for a living, and I’m inexpressibly grateful to you all for playing along.

The book contains pencil-and-paper games (easier than chess, more interesting than tic-tac-toe), but I chose to end it with a story about a computer game.

Here’s that story.

Before she died, my mother always enforced an ironclad rule of “educational computer games only.” (Math Blaster, yes. Madden NFL ’97, no.) Then, after her death, the adults in my life gave me all kinds of indulgences, among them a decidedly non-educational computer game: NHL 2002.

My favorite feature was Season Mode. Pick a team, then play all 82 games, plus the playoffs. (To speed things up, you could have the computer simulate some games.) Season mode even let you trade players according to a simplistic algorithm: Every player was scored from 1 to 100, and opposing teams would consent to any trade that was roughly fair—say, a 67 for a 66, or an 82 for an 84.

That bit of wiggle room was crucial. It meant you could string together dozens of minor upgrades—68 to 70 to 71 to 73 to 74—and, with enough patience, eventually exchange a benchwarmer for an all-star. It was slow. It was rote. It amounted to toggling through endless menus. But it worked.

So what did I do with my prized game? I spent a few hours turning the Boston Bruins into an unbeatable juggernaut, then simulated season after season, watching them smash records and win strings of championships, the greatest dynasty in sports history. I never played a game myself. I just presided fondly over this rigged universe, like a Greek god playing favorites. The league was a puzzle, and I had solved it.

Looking back, my mother needn’t have worried about non-educational games. Her son could turn even the most pleasurable and frivolous of them into a spreadsheet.

In three books and almost a decade of blogging, I believe that story is the first time I’ve mentioned my mother’s death. I guess I’ve been hiding the ball. Writing jokes, without noting how joke-writing became my way of coping; talking about teachers’ need for compassion, without mentioning my model for compassion; trying to convey how I see the world, without reference to the single event that shaped me most.

But I digress. New book. Out today. Big. Yellow. Best thing I’ve ever written, and I know I say that every time, but honestly, it’s because I’m getting better as I go.

My daughter Casey was just a newborn when my last book came out. Now she’s an irrepressible almost-three. For her, seeing the new book is almost as exciting as getting to sit in the forward-facing car seat. Every time it comes into view, she screams, “Dada book! Dada book!”

It’ll be a while before we can play the games together. I can wait. I find that, somehow, games like these connect parent and child – even across a gap of years.

15 thoughts on “On parents, children, and a newborn book of mathematical games.

  1. I was privileged to test some of these games. I played a number of them with my grandson, 12 now, younger then. We REALLY enjoyed playing them together. Pencil and paper games are the best. I bought sets of dice and tokens to use for some of the games. Really looking forward to my book!

  2. I so look forward to playing the games in your book with my family. Building memories. <3

  3. Ben, wonderful post today. Congratulations. The many books I ordered are starting to be delivered today. So exciting. Your mom is looking down and is in awe. All of us are.

  4. Just received my copy today. Amazing book and love the quality of the pages and great drawings. Have already learned and played 3 games with my son (age 9) and he’s equally enthralled.

  5. Hi Ben! So very exciting! Looking forward to getting it (I ordered it awhile ago…) …. Congrats to you on another job well done! 👍😁 Jeanne

  6. I am so glad I pre-ordered the book. I can’t wait to try the games with my six year old grandson Walter. He loves math. Right after plantsVS zombies and SpongeBob

  7. What a gem of a book! We play tested some of the games as a way to enrich our homeschool. The kids loved them and insisted that we had to pre-order the book. It arrived today, and we discovered that you’ve credited one of them as a play-tester – the kid is over-the-moon excited to see his name in print. That was very kind of you! We’ll be spending our school day tomorrow playing Math Games With Bad Drawings all day long, I think.

  8. ooooo I want this book and I need a grandchild to play the games with. My son got married last Saturday after delaying two years because covid. Hope hope hope!

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