It’s the boring days of the last weeks before summer vacation and my son was bored. Coincidentally, I just got the book Math games with bad drawings by Ben Orlin, full of simple yet challenging games – and the mathematical ideas behind these games and why they are important. It’s the kind of book I’ve been looking for in vain for years and while reading it I wanted to try almost all the games mentioned. So my son was screwed.
Take the quantum hangman, a corny version of the normal hangman. You take two words (of the same length) to mind at the same time. If the other person chooses a letter that is not in any of these words, you put a dash next to the gallows as usual. If the letter is in at least one of the words, enter it in all the places where this letter appears. If at some point two different letters land in the same place, the wave function “collapses” and the other has to choose which letter to keep. For example, one of the words is chosen and the letters of the other word are removed after all – and the corresponding dashes drawn from the gallows. After that, the game continues as a normal Hangman.
An example: I chose summer and strip as words. My son started with the e, it gave _ _ _ e _. He then tried the n and it became the base of the gallows. Then he asked for the o, resulting in _ o _ e _. Then he asked for the r, which came twice, but twice from another word: _ ore r. He asked for the t and I pointed out that it would be in the same place as the o, so “the wave function collapsed” and he now had to choose: did he want the t or the o? He chose the t, making the guessable word comical and I still drew dashes on the gallows for the letters o and e and my son had to keep playing from _ tr _ _. By the way, he still won.
We tried another set of games from the book. My son regularly moaned that he didn’t understand the rules, but he won most of the time. He chuckled that he thought it was a very good book.
On the cover of the book, Orlin announces 75 1/4 games and my son wondered which game is only explained in quarter. I explained (a little too enthusiastically) that it is more complicated. Orlin counts a game that has its own chapter for 1 game, variants count for 1/4, and variants very similar to the original only count for 1/57. So there are secretly more than 75 games we can try. My son mumbled something about who invented all these games – and what kind of people they would be.
I read him the story of John Scarne, an inventor who invented the Teeko game in 1937 and who believed his game would become as important as chess or checkers. He was so convinced of his success that he named his son Teeko. Scarne said of this, “If my father had invented checkers, I’d be proud to be called checkers.” Poor Teeko (and since my son did well that I didn’t invent a great game). Orlin explains very clearly why the Teeko game was not a success: it is a meaningless combination of elements from other games.
Orlin’s stories about games might be even more fun than playing them yourself. But I also have a list of about 31 27/57 games that I absolutely want to try. Bring on that summer vacation.
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