Doubled, squared, cubed: a math game for kids or anyone

The number that must not be named

Doubled, squared, cubed is a great math game to play with kids or anyone interested in math.  It is a talking game, requiring no pieces or physical objects, played by a group of two or more people at almost any level of mathematical difficulty, while sitting, walking, boating or whatever.  We play it in our family (two kids, ages 7 and 11) when we are sitting around a table or when walking somewhere or when traveling by train.  I fondly recall playing the game with my brothers and sisters in my own childhood.

The game proceeds by first agreeing on an allowed number range.  For youngsters, perhaps one wants to allow the integers from 0 to 100, inclusive, but one will want to have negative numbers soon enough, and of course much more sophisticated play is possible. Eventually, one lessens or even abandons the restriction altogether. The first player offers a number, and each subsequent player in turn offers a mathematical operation, which is to be applied to the current number, which must not be mentioned explicitly.  The resulting number must be in the allowed number range.

The goal of the game is successfully to keep track of the number as it changes, and to offer an operation that makes sense with that number, while staying within the range of allowed numbers.  The point is to have some style, to offer an operation that proves that you know what the number is, without stating the number explicitly.  Perhaps your operation makes the new number a nice round number, or perhaps your operation can seldom be legally applied, and so applying it indicates that you know it is allowed to do so.  You must offer only operations that you yourself can compute, and which do not rely on hidden information (for example, “times the number of grapes I ate at breakfast” is not really permissible).

A losing move is one that doesn’t make sense or that results in a number outside the allowed range. In this case, the game can continue without that person, and the last person left wins.  It is not allowed to offer an operation that can always be applied, such as “times zero” or “minus itself“, or which can always be applied immediately after the previous operation, such as saying “times two” right after someone said, “cut in half”.  But in truth, the main point is to have some fun, rather than to win. Part of the game is surely simply to talk about new mathematical operations, and we usually take time out to discuss or explain any mathematical issue that may come up.  So this is an enjoyable way for the kids to encounter new mathematical ideas.

Let me simply illustrate a typical progression of the game, as it might be played in my family:

Hypatia: one

Barbara: doubled

Horatio: squared

Joel: cubed

Hypatia: plus 36

Barbara: square root

Horatio: divided by 5

Joel: times 50

Hypatia: minus 100

Barbara: times 6 billion

Horatio: plus 99

Joel: divided by 11

Hypatia: plus 1

Barbara: to the power of two

Horatio: minus 99

Joel: times itself 6 billion times

Hypatia: minus one

Barbara: divided by ten thousand

Horatio: plus 50

Joel: plus half of itself

Hypatia: plus 25

Barbara: minus 99

Horatio: cube root

Joel: next prime number above

Hypatia: ten’s complement

Barbara: second square number above

Horatio: reverse the digits

Joel: plus 3 more than six squared

Hypatia: minus 100

and so on!

As the kids get older, we gradually incorporate more sophisticated elements into the game, and take a little time out to explain to young Hypatia, for example, what it means to cube a number, to take a number to the power two, or what a prime number is.  I remember playing the game with my math-savvy siblings when I was a kid, and the running number was sometimes something like $\sqrt{29}$ or $2+3i$, and a correspondingly full range of numbers and operations. It is fine to let the youngest drop out after a while, and continue with the older kids with more sophisticated operations; the youngsters will rejoin in the next round.  In my childhood, we had a “challenge” rule, used when someone suspects that someone else doesn’t know the number: when challenged, the person should say the number; if incorrect, they are out, and otherwise the challenger is out.

Last weekend, I played the game with Horatio and Hypatia as we walked through Central Park to the Natural History Museum, and they conspired in whispering tones to mess me up, until finally I lost track of the number and they won…

One thought on “Doubled, squared, cubed: a math game for kids or anyone

  1. The game is very fun and interesting. But it seems we need a “referee” with a “calculator” for special cases like the following imaginary situation:

    A summer midnight when I, my sister (Arefeh, a painter), my mother (Atefeh, an animal rights activist) and my father (Hasan, a dramatist) are in a picnic at Caspian sea shore I tell them: “OK. Now it is time for a game. lets play doubled, squared, cubed. The playground is the closed interval [0,1000] and I am the first player. My number is pi.” The game begins. After a few minutes suddenly a comet appears in the sky and mommy says: “Oh! What a beauty comet in this beauty night! Everybody make a wish!” and we try to think about our best wishes. After that all of us forget the number but the game continues just by saying math operators. In this situation even the “challenge” rule cannot help us because everybody thinks that at least one of the others knows the true number and so none of the players want to begin a challenge. Here when all data in system is deleted by a comet the referee can ask the true number from each one of the players privately. If there are more than one player who know the true number the game continues by them and if there is a unique player who knows the true number he/she is winner and if none of the players know the true number the game ends by the referee as winner! At any condition the game cannot be played in infinite steps.

    Unfortunately the above situation is totally imaginary in my family because my sister, mother and father don’t like mathematics (but I like their interests too much). In such night the dialogues probably will be like these:

    Me: OK. Now it is time for a mathematical game…

    Sister: Ali Pleeease! Do you want a portrait? “Mathematician in the sea shore”. I am sure it will be a master work!

    Mother: Oh! Mathematics? Was Descartes’s shameful behavior with poor animals based on his mathematics? Are you working on his theory?!!!

    Father: Ali, The night is not for math games it is for writing! Just look at the moon in the sea. I want to write a piece about a mathematician who becomes a poet after a great discovery! Do you think it is so surreal?

    I wish you a merry life.

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