Review: Math Games with Bad Drawings

May 10, 2022

A few years back a book publisher approached us to ask us to write a book of games. We went back and forth over various ideas, and finally started toying with the idea of using illustrations throughout a book that explained math games and their connection to pedagogy and also to big ideas in mathematics. Neither of us could draw, unfortunately, but Katherine could fake a kind of stick figure drawing that had a certain charisma. She whomped up these pages about a game we were playing a lot in classrooms at the time; Rainbow Logic.

Our never-before-seen illustrations, pulled from the vault forgotten projects

The publisher, I’m sorry to say, passed on our pitch. Perhaps if Ben Orlin had been around earlier to demonstrate the commercial appeal of math with bad drawings, we would have had a better shot.

In the end, it’s just as well, because Orlin just published Math Games with Bad Drawings, and it’s so good, I’m not even jealous. Orlin did such a superlative job, I’m happy he took this one on and not me. It’s just stellar.

First off, the games are excellent – just phenomenal picks. He also tracks where they each came from (insofar as it’s possible to know), the variations, improvements, and so forth. The game we wrote about, Rainbow Logic, is in there, as a classroom adjustment to another, more complex game. He’s got a killer knack for coming up with great names for games (Arpeggios? [kisses fingers]), as well as tweaking the rules for games. I’ve always loved the idea behind the game Eleusis, for example, but never liked to play it. Orlin’s adjustment (called, Saesara, wonderfully) is the best version I’ve seen to date.

Second, Orlin is a pleasure to read. His writing is clear and goes down easy. At times, I found myself laughing out loud. There aren’t many people who can demonstrate the fun they’re trying to tell you about. Each game comes with tasting notes, for example, and the bibliography is, oddly, a FAQ. He’s a deeply competent, humorous writer, and it’s fun to read his work. The drawings are, in their own way, quite magnificent as well, making complex games clear in blow-by-blow illustrations.

Orlin’s pages on Lap, the game that gave rise to Rainbow Logic

Third, the connections to mathematics are wonderful, and only occasionally forced. The truth is, games have inspired and influenced a lot of mathematics out there, and Orlin makes these connections feel obvious.

Finally, there’s the overarching thesis of the book, which I can’t help but respond to favorably: we learn mathematics best by playing with it. In fact, we learn everything best by playing with it, and that we retain our ability to play into our old age is the actual secret to our intelligence.

From the first page of the introduction: “The secret to our brilliance is that we never stop learning, and the secret to our learning is that we never stop playing.”

This is so in line with what I know about learning that I wanted to hug the book when I read it.

I’m curious how the book will do. Is there a market for books of math games? Our publisher wouldn’t take the bet, but Orlin’s did, and produced a beautiful, full-color, comprehensive tome. I hope it’s read widely – it deserves critical and commercial success. And more, I hope that the deeper thesis of the book—that play is the secret to our success in learning, creativity, and intelligence—becomes more and more understood at all levels of our education system, and by the people who influence it.

In short, if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you’ll probably like Math Games with Bad Drawings too.


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Michael P Goldenberg
Michael P Goldenberg
2 years ago

Ben Orlin’s work is always thought-provoking as well as amusing and entertaining. I really enjoyed meeting him at the University of Michigan a few years ago and have been a fan of his online columns for years. I also find his “bad drawings” to be quite pleasing.