Maths trumps review

A mathematically-themed version of the classic card game, with several new features


Some of the cards feature famous mathematicians!

On a blustery early spring afternoon, three of the Chalkdust team gathered to test out an intriguing new product: a mathematically-themed version of the classic “my-car-is-faster-than-yours” card game, trumps. If you’ve not played trumps before, the idea is simple. Each card in a set of trumps depicts a member of a certain group and statistics about that member. Players take it in turns to read out a statistic from the top card in their hand, and the one with the highest number wins all of the cards from that round. For example, a set might be all about wild animals, and each card will show a picture of the animal along with its weight, speed, life-span etc. Your aim is to collect all of your opponents cards by choosing which statistic you will do the best in.

So it’s a game involving sets, statistics and probability… seems only natural that mathematicians might want to get involved, right? Right! We recently got our hands on some maths trumps, a new twist on the game with six different sets of cards all themed around mathematics. Read on to hear what we thought about two of the sets, “2D shapes” and the mysteriously titled “Connections”.

Something for everyone (Sean)

Of the two sets that we tried out, I found the one about 2D shapes to be the most entertaining. While I could see the value of a game that helps children memorise facts and properties of shapes, I was initially sceptical about how much I would get out of it. Fortunately the game’s creators were one step ahead of me and had put a few new twists in to broaden the appeal. Firstly, and most importantly, the properties are not written on the cards, and must be worked out (against the clock) if you’re to win round against your opponents! The categories to choose from are number of sides, lines of symmetry, order of rotational symmetry, pairs of parallel sides, sum of interior angles, and size of exterior angles. These represent a nice balance of questions that are appropriate for a wide audience, and in a typical game you should find some things that you can answer immediately, and others that will leave you scratching your head for a while. Just what is a hendecagon again…? If like me you’re a bit rusty on how to calculate interior angles, the set also includes useful explanation cards that teach you how to compute these, as well as useful facts about the shapes.

One of the more interesting cards in the “2D shapes” set

The second twist, which I also really enjoyed, was the great variety of interesting shapes in the set. As well as the regular and irregular polygons that we all know and love, there are nephroids, cardioids, crests and astroids. Pushing children past the polygons that they see at school and giving the rest of us something more interesting to think about and discuss is a wonderful idea, and kept me entertained right through the game.

Not just a challenge for the kids (Eleanor)

A few cards from the ‘Connections’ pack.

The second of the sets we tried was called Connections. The idea here is that each card has statistics about a famous figure from history, such as month they were born in or the year they died. Now the interesting thing here is that you don’t compare these statistics to play trumps, instead you compared the result of adding, taking away, multiplying or dividing some combination of these statistics. Easy right? That’s what we thought, but it’s actually quite a challenge and one that we all soon found that our mental arithmetic skills weren’t quite up to! Thankfully no one needed to run and get a calculator to adjudicate as the solutions are all provided with the packs.

I particularly enjoyed the Connections pack due to the variety of different figures featured. Not only were there a variety from different fields such as Beethoven, Jane Austen, M.C. Escher and Marie Curie, but many mathematicians were featured! Among these there were Fermat, Gauss and Alan Turing. I particularly approved of the inclusion of female mathematicians such as Emmy Noether and Sophie Germain, figures who I know I wouldn’t have recognized while I was at school so I am always pleased to see such brilliant mathematicians being included.

Questions, questions… (Belgin)

You’ve answered the question on your card. You’ve got the highest number. Congratulations, you just won a card from each player! Now, you could simply pick up the cards you just earned, but…how about taking a gamble? In that case, pick an opponent, any opponent. Ask them to read their bonus question out loud. If you get it right, you can double your winnings! But beware…answer the question incorrectly, and you forfeit all the cards you earned earlier – they will be put aside, waiting for someone luckier to claim them in a later round.

If the normal questions weren’t hard enough, the bonus questions will surely be. All of us were struggling to figure out which two positive integers the square root of 1840 lies between! Some of the Connections questions were more related to the famous figure on the card rather than maths, but don’t expect those to be a walk in the park either – I have no idea what is the nickname of C S Lewis!

Each deck had less than forty cards, so some of the bonus questions were bound to make a comeback later in the game. But even when that happened, it gave us a good laugh! Granted, we only played each deck once. If you play enough times, the bonus questions will surely become more familiar, which might give an edge to a more experienced players, but I suspect it still won’t be straightforward!

As for the normal questions, when we played Connections and 2D shapes, we did all calculations in our heads. However, it turns out you’re allowed to do it on paper – you’re even encouraged to write down your working! I would recommend it, especially for Connections: the years of birth and death are on the order of thousands, making multiplication and division no easy feat. It left me wishing for paper on a few occasions! On several rounds I gave up on the question, sacrificing my card in the process.

It’s high time we have another game of Maths trumps, this time with a different deck. I’m keen to try out the one about 3D shapes, and I wonder what questions we can expect in the darts and snooker sets. Maybe I could even set up a tournament among the entire Chalkdust team…

Maths trumps was created by Paul Hunt, and is available online at Tarquin group. There are six sets available; the four not mentioned here are ‘Positive and negative’, ‘3D shapes’, ‘Snooker’ and ‘Darts’.

Belgin is mathematician-turned-software engineer, having got her PhD in population genetics. When not working, you can usually find Belgin either playing the piano or playing Math Blaster. She is pictured here standing next to her copy of Zeeman’s catastrophe machine.

Sean is a PhD student researching geophysical fluid dynamics at UCL. He studies coastal outflows, but so far has been unable to persuade the department to send him on a research trip to the beach.

Eleanor is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester. A mathematician by training, she works on developing mathematical models to improve our understanding of biological mechanisms in medicine, with particular interests in women’s health and autoimmune conditions. When not doing mathematics, she crochets, sews and reads everything and anything.

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